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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is launching a three-year project to commission 36 pairs of playwrights and dramaturges to translate the works of Shakespeare into English. Yes, English. John McWhorter in the Wall Street Journal expresses support for this plan, saying, “Much of Shakespeare goes over our heads because, even though we recognize the words, their meaning often has changed significantly over the past four centuries.” Even well read people, McWhorter suggests, require professional assistance to “get” Shakespeare.

Reaction among Shakespeareans has been largely negative. Actors and directors resist the idea that the greatest English author needs to be translated into English. Ralph Alan Cohen, co-founder of the American Shakespeare Center, wrote a balanced response, applauding the project’s scope while pointing out the disservice it does to Shakespeare:

We go to Shakespeare better equipped with the language that Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights left us than his own audiences, audiences who went to the theatre to hear that language invented for the first time. The theatre is where people – literate and illiterate – went to learn new words by having them performed by actors who can show you their meanings. In short they went in search of new words and of old words being stretched to new limits.

The Bard’s enduring appeal is the “great feast of language” he serves up for us. Yes, Shakespeare writes timeless characters and remixes rip-roaring plots, but all of his characters and plots are made of words. We push back against translation not because the text is sacrosanct, but because the text is successful.

I saw this joy of “getting” Shakespeare first-hand this summer, when I worked at the American Shakespeare Center’s camp for high-school age actors. With a bit of glossing and gumption, the young actors acquired understanding of the text of the play we performed, Julius Caesar. And thanks to their fine work in rehearsal and onstage, the audience got it, too. We might not encounter the words “base” and “bondman” much these days, but when the kid playing Brutus spat those words from his podium, it was clear he was baiting the mob with a picture of how bad things would be under Caesar’s tyranny. Sure, Antony could have said, “the good is often buried with their bones,” but when the young woman playing Antony bestrode Caesar’s corpse to protect it from the riled-up mob, Shakespeare gave her a line that could really be growled, “The evil that men do lives after them,/ The good is oft interred with their bones.” No one was confused.

Young people deserve the chance to grapple with the real text of Shakespeare, not to be fed a watered-down version with archaism and other “difficult bits” judiciously swapped for simpler fare. When actors and directors do their jobs, there’s no need for a translator’s intervention. Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. To prove his point, McWhorter offers up a speech from Macbeth that has been“translated” by one Conrad Spoke. He is confident the tweaked take is superior—at least for reaching us modern masses.

Here’s Shakespeare:

Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off.

Here’s Spoke:

Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne authority so meek, hath been
So pure in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his knocking-off.

Is this what this vaunted translation consists of? Tamping down any halfway intriguing word choice with the most boring near-synonym? Several of these substitutions obfuscate the meaning they try to elucidate: “clear” doesn’t mean “pure” at all here, but rather “obvious” or “unambiguous.” Shakespeare chose his word with far more care than Spoke. Additionally, as actor/director Sara Holdren pointed out in an open letter to the OSF on Facebook, “knocking-off” is an abysmal paraphrase for Macbeth’s delicate “taking-off.” Shakespeare’s Thane of Cawdor is so unmanned by the idea of murdering his king that he cannot speak or even think of the crime in plain terms. Holdren writes, “In his unstable state, Macbeth has to soothe himself by finding a gentler, less guilt-inducing way to talk about death. And yet, McWhorter/Spoke would have him talk like a hardened Hollywood gangster.” The translation erases the characterization embedded in the Bard’s diction. A knock-off, indeed.

The OSF has assembled talented teams for its translation project, but what a bore this job will be for them! Paging through Shakespeare with a thesaurus, flagging any word that would give an audience a moment’s pause, any phrase that adds texture to a speech rather than leaving it smooth and forgettable. How much more interesting would it be to see these gifted artists create true adaptations or new plays inspired by Shakespeare—or something totally out-there, like the immersive Macbeth riff Sleep No More.

My advice for the OSF echoes a classic American adage: K.I.S.S. Keep It Shakespeare, Stupid. OSF’s translation efforts further the misperception that Shakespeare is work. Shakespeare is not work, Shakespeare is play: the kind of play that challenges and stretches our imaginations. Shakespeare’s language lives after him, through every actor, director, and reader that gives it new life and breath—there’s no reason his words should be interred with his bones.

Alexi Sargeant is a junior fellow at First Things.

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