Songs for the Struggling Artist

You want me to translate this Shakespeare post?
October 8, 2015, 1:16 am
Filed under: art, education, Shakespeare, theatre, writing | Tags: , , , , ,

A few people have asked me what I think about the latest Shakespeare controversy – the one about Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) commissioning a bunch of playwrights to “translate” Shakespeare’s work. I’d like the record to show that I said: “Whatever.”

OSF can do what they want, spend their money how they want. Shakespeare can take it. He’s been rewritten, translated, turned upside down and inside out and he’s just fine. I may have spent a career in Shakespeare but I’m not too precious about it. “Translate” it if you feel like you have to (this is actually called paraphrasing, by the way, but call it what you want.) I think it’s kind of dumb and a waste of resources myself, but Whatever.

I don’t envy the writers’ task, given the constraints. Adaptation? Sure, that’s super fun. (I cannot wait to read Jeanette Winterson’s take on The Winter’s Tale that just came out.) “Translation”? Ye gad. No thanks. If there’s one thing spending a lifetime dealing with Shakespeare has taught me it’s that the deeper you go with the words, even a single line – the more you feel like the way Shakespeare wrote it is actually the most elegant, most compact, most muscle-y way to express that thing. And when you have two ways he wrote it, due to multiple editions (quartos, folios – varying editors’ opinions) you really run out of options for other ways to say the thing(s) he said. The act of translating almost always leads back to the original texts. I’ve paraphrased enough of it to know that nothing I can say will ever meet it. And if I had to say it in iambic pentameter, as well? Oh lord. Forget it.

A lot of supporters for the OSF project are celebrating the idea of accessibility; They say this will bring the plays to people for whom the language is an obstacle. I find this confusing as we’ve had side by side paraphrased editions for decades. (No Fear Shakespeare being the one I run into the most.) If you want “Peace. Peace. Peace.” paraphrased to “Quiet. Quiet. Quiet.” you can find that. I just think it’s silly.

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 1.11.23 AMAnd I generally find “translated” text more difficult to understand. These translations may sound like more familiar language sometimes but the meaning is often convoluted – and they have to make lines with multiple meanings just mean one. These editions shut as many doors (if not more) as they might conceivably open. I think any translation will. It seems to me that this new project is just a way to get some more No Fear Shakespeare editions, without the No Fear stigma. Which again, Whatever. You do you, OSF.

I don’t think this project is really for the people who want more access to the work. I think it’s for the people who fund it and administer it. For years I’ve worked on Shakespeare with all sorts of people, including newly arrived immigrant teens. These are the people who might be said to have the most obstacles to the text in that they barely speak English and have often been labeled as urban underprivileged at-risk youth. But my students understand the value of Shakespeare’s language. They understand that they are learning something other people think they cannot learn. They know they’re getting challenging, meaty words to say and they know they might not encounter them in their daily life. And that’s partly why we do it. Because it’s fun and juicy and your mouth feels good with that rhythm and sound in it. But while the students are happily engaging with the challenge of rigorous language, their administrators and funders and grant organizations are scurrying around in the background worrying that it’s too hard for them. They’re worrying about the same students who, after working with two translations of a speech in their native (Spanish) language, insisted that we return to Shakespeare’s text. In my experience, it’s marketing departments and school administrations that want “accessible translations”.

Those of us who work in Shakespeare education and performance help increase access to the words every day. Part of the joy of the words is in the Not understanding. There is magic in mystery. And understanding can be a lifelong journey. For example: I studied Hamlet in college. I have performed it in several iterations. I have directed bits of it. I have taught it a multitude of times. I have a writing practice wherein I look at a sentence of Hamlet every day. I am constantly discovering things I missed in my previous encounters with the play. It keeps giving back to me.

Are there words that are obscure now? Absolutely. Is it necessary to understand every one of them to experience the play? Absolutely not. One of the real pleasures of teaching Shakespeare is getting to say to students: “This is a word that no one is entirely sure of the meaning of. Experts in the field have spent lifetimes debating it and there is no right answer. That makes your idea as good as an expert’s.” That’s access.

But listen. I’m not outraged. I’m not worried. Shakespeare is not under threat. And I doubt the No Fear Shakespeare editions have anything to worry about either. The people who choose the No Fear editions will likely continue to use them – and ultimately it all leads us back to the guy who wrote it all in the first place. He’s sort of impossible to knock off the throne. I know there are those who would very much like to see him unseated. And, you know, Whatever to that too. I love a lot of the words that guy wrote. You don’t have to. And you can love some words and not others. My least favorite play could be your favorite. It probably is.

I know there are barriers to engagement with the work. That’s true of anything that has depth. Complex stuff requires time and attention. Beethoven. Picasso. Martha Graham. All of it. On the WTF podcast, I’ve listened to the host, Marc Maron, talk over the years about how he just didn’t like or “get” Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Consultant in me was always tempted to try and explain – or defend – or something. But mostly I just thought, “Wow. It’s too bad he’s never seen a really good production.” Then, Sir Ian McKellan was a guest on the show and they talked about Shakespeare. McKellan suggested that Maron had just never had someone say it to him before. So he gave him a personal speech. And lo and behold, Maron was amazed and astounded and it moved him. He felt every word. At the end of the podcast, he vowed to get into Shakespeare big time. So did many of his listeners.

For me, we don’t need “translation” for more understanding of Shakespeare. We need more stellar performers and productions. We need education and exploration. We need time and skill and attention. But I get that those things don’t make the news. NEW things make the News. These “translations” are new. And it is kind of interesting to watch the internet go crazy over the work of a writer who’s been dead for so long. As someone who works in Shakespeare, I’m glad to know so many people still care so much.

So, if a “translation” is something you feel like you need for yourself, I’m glad OSF is giving you what you want. Do I think you would have a better time with Shakespeare’s actual words? I absolutely do. I have a lot of colleagues who can help facilitate that engagement and enjoyment should you find yourself in the soup of it. We work hard to help everyone find a way in to a play. Using the words. Because the words are the center of the experience, not the problem.

But I suspect these OSF translations are not for you. These translations are for those other people. And by other people, I mean the people the funders want to be seen funding. Those (probably young or poor) people who need help with the hard words. Deep down, projects like this feel paternalistic to me. They seem to be asking: How can we help those people get exposure to these plays? Which assumes there’s something in these plays besides the words. And there isn’t. Shakespeare’s work is made up of words. Some you know. Some you don’t. Some nobody knows. The words are the good stuff. Everyone (no matter who they are) gets a chance to enjoy the good stuff. Or hate the good stuff. Or be bored by the good stuff. “Translate” the good stuff and it’s just not so good. Actual translation, like, into other languages is a very rich territory, of course. Actual translation is a conversation between languages and cultures. Paraphrasing? Well, you do it as an exercise – and then inevitably end up back to the good stuff.

But – “translate” if you must, OSF! Knock yourself out, you gorgeous playwrights! I’m glad someone’s paying so many of my writing brethren and sistren to do writing things. I hope you don’t bang your heads too hard against your desks as you struggle with finding new text. I’ll be over here chewing on some good Shakespeare words that I am hella not going to translate for anyone.


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