A (moderately geeky) annotated bibliography on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Shakespearean “Translation” Project

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1889, by John Singer Sargent. (I can't help but wonder what Ellen Terry would think of "updating" Shakespeare. Don't think she would approve...)

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth in 1889, by John Singer Sargent. (I can’t help but wonder what Ellen Terry would think of “updating” Shakespeare. Don’t think she would approve…) Image is in the Public Domain.

Here’s a geeky confession: I love a good, sturdy annotated bibliography.

So, while following the news about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “translation” project (which commissioned 36 playwrights to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English by December 2018), I’ve been collecting what I think are some of the best web pieces on OSF’s decision.  In general, the responses have been wide-ranging, from celebratory to downright degrading.

The major rift is concentrated around the sacrosanctity of Shakespeare’s language.  Are we treating Shakespearean language too much like holy writ, to the extent that we’ve lost touch with the pragmatic concerns it raises (i.e., understandability)?  If so, what’s the harm in carefully updating some of the text for modern audiences?  Do we do away with all allusions and punchlines that fall deaf on twenty-first-century ears?  Is it even fun to see a Shakespeare production when you don’t understand half of what’s being said?

Here’s the best of what I’ve found so far, including OSF’s own statements about the project:

List of Playwrights and Dramaturgs for Play on! (via Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

Despite the criticisms OSF has faced for this project, this webpage (which features images of the playwrights and dramaturgs assigned to each play) confirms OSF’s commitment to featuring female and minority voices in the theatre world.  Seeing the range of artists commissioned to create this new body of work could very well restore your faith in American professional theatre’s priorities.

Frequently Asked Questions for Play on! (via Oregon Shakespeare Festival)

What’s great about this FAQ page is that it does an excellent job of laying out the real limitations OSF wants its playwrights to observe.  For one thing, OSF states that these plays will not be extracted from their historical setting, which means we won’t be hearing any references to Facebook in the new translations.  This page also points out that the playwrights are welcome to leave the text alone if they so desire, and it stresses that the primary goal is to wipe out archaisms in the language.

“Op-ed: ‘Translating’ Shakespeare to modern English is not a literary travesty,” by Martine Kei Green-Rogers” (via The Salt Lake Tribune)

Green-Rogers makes the point that this project is an educational opportunity, and she builds her case for Play on! on the grounds that she and her playwright (Green-Rogers is the dramaturg assigned to the play) are involving their whole academic department in the project.  As a collaborative effort, Play on! is somewhat redeemed by the process work involved in a high quality modern translation of a Shakespeare play.

“Op-ed: Why We’re Translating Shakespeare,” by Bill Rauch, the Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (via American Theatre). 

In this piece, the Artistic Director of OSF defends his company’s decision to translate Shakespeare.  In response to critics who claim that this project is attempting to “replace” Shakespeare’s plays, Rauch emphasizes that these new translations could never replace the Bard’s originals.  He reaffirms OSF’s commitment to performing Shakespeare’s plays, and he states that Play on! is primarily interested in creating a “new body of work” that can act as an aid to academics and theatre practitioners.  He does, however, note that one or more of the new translations will likely be produced at OSF in the future.

“A Facelift for Shakespeare,” by John H. McWhorter (via The Wall Street Journal)

This op-ed by the linguist John McWhorter offers several examples of words that have a different meaning now than they did in Shakespeare’s age, and his examples aim to demonstrate just how frequently these words turn up.  Evidently, the actor-author Ben Crystal has argued that only 10% of Shakespeare’s words are relatively unintelligible to most audiences, but McWhorter notes that “every tenth word” is actually quite a lot.

“Shakespeare in Modern English?” by James Shapiro (via The New York Times) 

In this op-ed, Shapiro, a professor of English at Columbia University, reminds us that the language is meant to be the special effect, and it likely does not need as much doctoring as we think.  Shapiro shifts the blame away from the text and onto directors and actors who often don’t understand the text well enough themselves.  He also makes a good point that, when one watches a Shakespeare play, you really don’t need to catch every single word in order to be deeply affected by a performance.


It seems like the most daring aspect of Play on! is not necessarily the desire to “translate” Shakespeare.  This has been done before, perhaps most popularly in the last 15 years by Spark Notes’ No Fear Shakespeare editions, a series now owned by Barnes and Noble.  No Fear, much like the OSF’s proposed project, puts the original text side-by-side with a tight modern translation.  The translation itself is pretty clearly “plain English,” but I’d argue that it’s moderately careful only to adjust language/allusion that truly is indecipherable for a modern audience.  For the most part, imagery and general wording are kept intact, although the verse is always lost.  As far as I can tell, OSF wants its playwrights to try to keep the verse present in the translations, and this directive is one of the biggest differences between OSF’s project and previous companion editions.

Ultimately, the presence of recent predecessors like No Fear Shakespeare means that that OSF’s desire to create companion resources is not a new idea, even though Bill Rauch, the Artistic Director of OSF, states specifically that this is “not No Fear Shakespeare.”  Instead, the new idea seems to be (eventually) to perform the modern translations.  And this is where things get heated.  After all, if Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be performed, whereas the No Fear editions are merely reading guides, what percentage of “updating/translating” makes the play still belong to Shakespeare?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in all my post-fall-semester free time, and I’m finding that the issue provokes two very different responses in me.   On the one hand, I’m wondering how a contemporary playwright like Sarah Ruhl or Anne Washburn would feel about having their plays “updated” and “translated” in 400 years, especially since these two playwrights are so intentional about word choice and how the language is arranged on the page.  Even with several centuries gone, it still strikes me as an intrusion on the work itself.  Yes, OSF has stated repeatedly that these new versions are not meant to replace Shakespeare’s originals; and yet the desire to “translate” them in the first place suggests that the works are not sustainable in their present state, that they’re only valuable as artifacts.

It’s sad for an artist when their art becomes artifact, even (I imagine) if they’re long dead.

My other response—a positive one—is probably grounded in my identity as a teacher.  Just imagine how incredible this project could be as an assignment in a Shakespeare course.  For the sake of manageability, you (the teacher) would only assign a scene for students to “translate,” but you would give them the same instructions that OSF has given to their playwrights: only change what must be changed for the sake of understandability, and do everything you can to maintain the verse when it’s present in the original.  With these kinds of instructions, I have a feeling the finished product would reveal to students just how much they already understand in Shakespeare’s language.

And this is what you want as a literature teacher (and probably what OSF wants, too): to point people back to their own rich capabilities as theatre-goers and English speakers, and to tear down the mental barriers that make us feel small when faced with the Bard.

So often with Shakespeare, we underestimate ourselves by default.  Perhaps one of OSF’s (quite noble) underlining goals is to build us back up again, despite however we may feel about “translating” Shakespeare.