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Op-ed: ‘Translating’ Shakespeare to modern English is not a literary travesty

First Published      Last Updated Feb 17 2016 01:16 pm

I'm a dramaturg, an African American dramaturg with an obsessive scholarly love for Shakespeare, who is honored to be a part of the Play on! project with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

When OSF announced its Play on! project modernizing the English in Shakespeare's plays, the theater world responded vibrantly (like we do), ranging from enthusiastic applause to vitriolic disdain. Since then, I have seen the best and worst of the Shakespeare-loving community — all inspired by this project.

I enjoy the discourse, and I even appreciate the concern expressed (although the outrage remains baffling). It's provided all 70 of us commissioned artists the chance to talk about our work and defend our artistic vision. Some objections to the project don't deserve the ink (pixels?) of a full rebuttal (yes, this "diverse" group of artists is, in fact, qualified to wrestle with Shakespeare's text), but some do.



One is that the project is already accomplishing one of its major goals. David Hitz, the project's funder, said, "No translation can replace the original, but it can broaden the audience and provide new understanding even for those of us who love the original language. I hope these translations will attract a new audience to Shakespeare and lead them back to his original words as well."

This has already begun at my institution. The University of Utah's Department of Theatre is taking on one of these projects. My colleague, Associate Professor Tim Slover, is writing the "translation" (placed in quotation marks as it is still an undefined work-in-progress) and I am dramaturging it. Although we're spearheading the first aspect of the project – creating the script – it's become a department- and College of Fine Arts-wide endeavor. We've connected to people and entities on campus that might not normally pay Shakespeare any mind to help us make this project successful. A village is coming together, and I bet the collaboration increases our audiences.

Don't get me wrong. A healthy and strong love of Shakespeare in its "original" form (the quotation marks are my commentary on the history of how Shakespeare's texts eventually got to us) already exists in this department and on our campus. Our students read, discuss and perform Shakespeare on a regular basis. However, just because we revere and teach Shakespeare doesn't mean we're not aware of the struggles our students have understanding the language contained therein.

But we're also realistic about what we're attempting to do. As an educator of students who want to make a life for themselves in the theater, I'm constantly encouraging them to embrace one of the tenets of the Play on! project, which is to ask questions such as "What if?" and to take risks. By bravely leading them, we exemplify how to question, how to examine and how to frame our own identities as artists.

They know that part of this project, as Lue Douthit, director of Literary Management and Dramaturgy at OSF, said, is to "put the same pressure and rigor of language as Shakespeare did on his, keeping in mind meter, rhythm, metaphor, image, rhyme, rhetoric and emotional content."

We're talking about how to accomplish this monumental task. We've had more conversations about the English Renaissance and Shakespeare in class, outside of class, in parking lots, etc., in the past few months than ever before during my tenure.

My students are elated, but none think we're creating something that could/would replace Shakespeare. I make my students read Shakespeare (in its "original" form) and always will. Undoubtedly, there is pedagogical use in having them wrestle with the original text – as there will be in examining the works that come out of Play on!

And, while the most visceral anger toward the project threatens to stifle some of the dialogue among our students about Shakespeare, the more rational dissent has actually inspired them to rise to the challenge of this work. It's also illuminating for them a problematic paradigm.

They're beginning to understand and articulate their own privilege as they embark on this journey. They see how without their access to the faculty at this institution there could be a real challenge in trying to grapple with Shakespeare's language.

So, in addition to being participatory in a progressive project, they get to create entry points for newcomers into the texts that they so deeply respect and love. All while finding themselves.

… And it's only week three. Play on!

Martine Kei Green-Rogers is a freelance dramaturg and assistant professor in the University of Utah Department of Theater.

 

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