Translate Shakespeare? The Horror, the Horror. (Or Maybe Not.)

The Wall Street Journal notes this morning that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has commissioned a translation into English of Shakespeare’s 39 plays.1

Wait. Into English? They are already in English, n’est–ce pas?

Si. Oui. Sort of, I guess, at least according to many readers and theatergoers.

My first reaction, on seeing this article, was revulsion. Shakespeare’s language is beautiful, glorious, and mostly clear. (As you probably know, all of my Legal Project Management books have a semi-relevant Shakespeare quote at the bottom of every right-hand page. And if you don’t know, click the right sidebar to order a few and see for yourself.)

But then… I’ve spent a lot of time with Willie the Shake (See below).

And sometimes, especially if I’m tired, I struggle with some of the passages when I see one of his plays.

But… past attempt to “translate” or update Shakespeare have produced downright ugly results. (“All murder is awful, but this one was even more awful.” Seriously.)

Then… I read further, about a teacher named Conrad Spoke, who has attempted to update only a few selected words – the “10% translation” – while keeping the style and rhythm, such as:

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.

Can you find the three changes? Okay, one is rather sour – “knocking-off” – but two flow perfectly (“authority,” “pure”). As Mr. Loaf said, two out of three ain’t bad.

So maybe…. I don’t know. But maybe.

As Brecht put it, “We can amend Shakespeare if we can amend Shakespeare.” In other words, the proof is in the pudding. (Modern translation: The test of a pudding is eating it.)

Footnote of sorts:

FolioI own a reproduction of the First Folio (the 1955 Yale edition, once rare but now available on Amazon for under $20, which is the biggest bargain out there – go get a copy! No, I’m serious. If nothing else, it’s a coffee-table book to blow away other coffee-table books).

I also have Variorum editions of many Variorum of his plays, ca.-1900 editions that resemble the Talmud, with a mix of the raw First Folio text plus line numbers, emendations suggested over the years to clarify that often-mistranscribed text, and commentary on what it all means. The Variorum editions are almost impossible to come by these days, though Powell’s in Portland may have some of them. In fact, I found the Yale Folio reproduction at Powell’s on a hiking trip through the northwest in 1977 or thereabouts.)

The pictures show the same passage from these two books, at least as best as I could capture them on my smartphone without flattening the pages or damaging the binding.

Oh, one more thing. The horror….


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  1. How many? There are a bunch that are semi- or mostly Shakespeare, such as The Two Noble Kinsmen. Thirty-nine is as good a number as any.