Shakespeare’s Plays to be Translated into Modern English

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Bad news for Shakespeare purists, good news for struggling English students: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival recently announced a project called “Play On!” which will task 36 playwrights with translating the plays attributed to the Bard into “contemporary modern English.”

The OSF says that the diverse group of playwrights, which they say will be least 50 percent women and at least 50 percent people of color, were asked 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.” The theatre arts organization explains that the goal of “Play On!” isn't to improve or replace the original texts, but to have “39 unique side-by-side companion translations of Shakespeare’s plays that are both performable and extremely useful reference texts for both classrooms and productions.”

“There are differences between the early modern English of Shakespeare and contemporary English," Lue Morgan Douthit, the organization's director of literary development and dramaturgy, said in a press release. "What if we looked at these plays at the language level through the lens of dramatists? What would we learn about how they work? Would that help us understand them in a different way?"

In a FAQ on the OSF website, the organization addresses concerns about the project, how the writers will approach the translation of the more famous quotes, and how far they will take the modernization of Shakespeare’s texts. “The writers are empowered to leave any text alone if they want to, and we expect they often will ... it will be interesting to see what each playwright does with Shakespeare’s best-known passages; we will engage in deep dialogue with them about all their choices, while of course leaving the final artistic decisions to them.”

There are already some pretty inventive and geeky versions of Shakespeare's work floating around the Internet, but the OSF makes the distinction between translation and adaptation, noting that “everything to do with setting, time period, references etc. will remain unchanged. As such, pop-culture references and contemporary slang will not be appropriate, and the politics of the original plays will not be cut or 'fixed' in any way.”

Reactions to the translation news have been mixed. John H. McWhorter, a linguistics, American Studies, philosophy, and music professor at Columbia University, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal that argues in favor of making Shakespeare more "comprehensible":

"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 ... we can piece these meanings together, of course, by reading the play and consulting stacks of footnotes. But Shakespeare didn’t intend for us to do that. He wrote plays for performance. We’re supposed to be able to hear and understand what’s spoken on the stage, in real time."

Author Lev Raphael disagrees. He writes at the Huffington Post that it is "the job of the director and the actors to make the play comprehensible to the audience ... why should some well-meaning pedant be making decisions about what people do or don't understand, rewriting great poetry and spoon-feeding them Shakespeare Lite?"

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section, preferably in iambic pentameter.