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Should Shakespeare be Translated?

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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), an 80-year-old annual theatrical event, announced recently that it would be hiring playwrights to translate classic works into modern English. This caused an uproar from artists, art enthusiasts, and fans of the Bard, saying that the act is sacrilegious.

Bill Rauch, artistic director of the OSF, released an article with American Theatre revealing why they made the decision to do so. In the article, he debunks the accusation that they are “dumbing down” Shakespeare’s works and cited successful modern interpretations.

“The . . . translations are not being commissioned because we despair that people will never understand the original language . . . Instead, the translation project is about creating a new body of work . . . One or more of these translations may be produced at OSF in the years ahead, but they will be produced in addition to, not instead of, the entire original canon,” said Rauch in the article.

Rauch also insisted that the OSF is committed to “broadening its cultural reach,” which is reflected in their mission statement. Along with their director of literary development and dramaturgy, Lou Douthit, Rauch maintains that this is a bold experiment rather than a statement of rebellion.

Rauch also says that instead of “dumbing down” the language, the translation will be “specifying up” the language. The exercise will help uncover specifics and details that may be lost to contemporary audiences.

At the end of the article, Rauch cites that West Side Story was a modern telling of Romeo and Juliet, which did not replace the latter; albeit it expanded historical canon and gave audiences a new perspective from which to enjoy Shakespeare’s masterpiece.

Columbia University professor James Shapiro is a prominent Shakespearean scholar who criticizes the new project. He said in an article in New Republic, “By changing the language in this modernizing way . . . it just doesn’t pack the punch and the excitement and the intoxicating quality of [the original] language.”

Another Columbia University professor John H. McWhorter defended the OSF project and the idea of modernizing Shakespeare. According to him, if Shakespeare would still be alive, he would be depressed to see audiences pretending to watch and understand his plays as a kind of duty. McWhorter insisted that audiences are missing a lot of Shakespeare. He cited an example from King Lear.

“They’re the words that we know, but so often we don’t know what he means. In King Lear, Edmund describes himself as ‘generous.’ You think, OK, he’s talking about giving away things. No. ‘Generous’ meant ‘noble’ then. Now, that’s not a matter of poetry. It’s utterly opaque. That needs to be changed to ‘noble.’”

McWhorter is a linguistics professor, and he insists that a good translation will not “dumb down” Shakespeare’s language. He admits, however, that the translation may cause loss of rhythm and structural details.

Other scholars, such as English professor Sheila Cavanagh from Emory University, are also on board with the project, saying that this is a “revisionary experimentation.”

 

Sources:

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/123256/does-translating-shakespeare-modern-english-diminish-him

http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-10-16/should-we-translate-shakespeare-modern-english

http://www.americantheatre.org/2015/10/14/bill-rauch-why-were-translating-shakespeare/

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