Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On translating Shakespeare and keeping theaters alive

[ from "Totally Awesome Super Sweet Stuff / Fighting the forces of lame" presents the William Shakespeare Celebriduck ]

Two articles in the January issue of American Theatre magazine -- an issue devoted to vocal training for actors — caught Bobo's eye in particular:

pp. 94-99, John McWhorter's "The Real Shakespearean Tragedy," arguing that all that 400-year-old language needs to be updated in ways that today's theatergoers will find understandable
pp. 104-07, Eliza Bent's "Save Our Ship," on what marketing strategies should be followed by theaters that are in danger of dying a slow (or sudden) financial death (which I'll examine in my next post).

First, the Shakespeare. Using numerous examples, McWhorter points out that even people who are trained in Shakespeare don't understand Shakespeare anymore.
Beowulf, written 1,200 years ago, may be in English, but nobody denies that it needs translating (as in Seamus Heaney's great example), or else nobody but grad students would read it ever again. McWhorter's basic argument is that Shakespeare has reached the same point.
"Shakespeare is not a drag because we are lazy, because we are poorly educated, or because he wrote in poetic language," he says. "Shakespeare is a drag because he wrote in a language which, as a natural consequence of the mighty eternal process of language change, 500 years later we effectively no longer speak."
(The "500 years" is a bizarre mistake -- 400 is much closer to the truth. But that's a minor point.)

All this hit Bobo with resonance because he just had the pleasure of adapting The Comedy of Errors for Bill Marlowe's upcoming production in March.
Actually -- to back up a bit — I started modernizing the Errors script a couple of years ago for Michael Weaver and Actors Rep; Michael wanted to do a relatively simple, straightforward and funny Shakespeare in some upcoming, never-to-happen season (so that explains the choice of Errors) AND he wanted to reduce the cast down to just eight, or preferably six or seven, actors. I had the idea that the same actor could play both master-twins AND another actor could play both servant-twins (thus reducing cast size AND increasing the audience's confusion -- I wanted to put viewers in the same position as the onstage characters -- that is, of not being at all sure which twin was going to come through that doorway next.)
Alas, ARt went kaput and so did my Errors dream, until I noticed that Marlowe was going to direct it.
So Bobo set to work with several goals. First, I tried to persuade Bill about my twins idea, but at a community college, cast size is not a problem, so that went by the wayside.
More important, I set about
1. Cutting out the boring parts. I cut the script by about 21 percent. There are a lot of four-century-old jokes that just ain't funny anymore.
2. Modernizing the language: "reft" became "robbed"; "carcanet" became "necklace new"; "carriage" became "manners"; "situate" became "living"; "Diet his" became "Tend to his"; terms of insult got changed from "huh?" to slightly off-color disparagements; most of the "thee's" and "thou's" got thrown out, and so on.
3. Changing place names and character names. One of the main characters in the original is named Antipholus of Ephesus. Sounds like a disease. (Plus, Ephesus isn't remembered much at all today, outside the Pauline epistles, as a place of sorcery and magic.) In our production, he has become Sir Nicholas of ... a place you'll recognize. (Indeed, the place names have all been changed to Inland Northwest locales.)
Most of this needed to be done within the constraints of the 10-syllables-to-the-line requirements of iambic pentameter.

The point being: McWhorter's right. Perhaps especially in the comedies, we have to get rid of the "WTF?" moments and all the head-scratchers (and worse, all the words that we THINK we know the meaning of, except that Will used them in a completely different way). Comedy isn't funny until it's clear. We need to make The Comedy of Errors, written about 420 years ago, clear. It's come time to admit it: Shakespeare may be in English, but he still needs to be translated for us.

[ from Getty _Images_and_London's The Independent ]

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At January 13, 2010 10:43 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

I began my translating Shakespeare plays into modern English about 10 years ago after reading an earlier version of John McWhorter's article.

You can see excerpts of my verse translations of five Shakespeare plays at

Kent Richmond

At January 14, 2010 1:33 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

What a fascinating approach to the Bard, Bobo. Can't wait to see the results. Best wishes!

At January 16, 2010 7:26 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Beautiful. We wouldn't insist on performing Moliere only in French, whether or not our audience understood it. I think it's important to update and translate Elizabethan English as well. If the story and the concepts carry over and are still relevant, it just proves the genius of the original versions.


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