The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) has announced plans to craft modern translations of William Shakespeare's catalog. Predictably, this has caused a some small wild fires on the internet, but I feel I must address this a little myself given that I, myself, am a Verse Dramatist and considered Shakespeare my homeboy.
So lets dive in. The OSF has plans to produce every single one of Shakespeare's plays in the cycle of 10 years. They started in 1935. The company has been performing the Bard for longer than most of us have been a live. There is a certain sort of respect and dedication required to continue that kind of tradition for 80 years. But I also think it's clear that they love Shakespeare, and I can't but think they are very qualified for the undertaking.
Language shift is a huge issue that most people don't even recognize. When we sit down and read Shakespeare, or go and see his work on stage, we hear it, quite literally, with a modern voice. The sound and pronunciation of the English language 400 years ago is significantly different, and we miss a ton of jokes and puns because the language they were written in doesn't exist anymore. Check out these guys for a taste of what it used to be. As the language continues to drift, what else will be lost?
The postulation is that it will lose the poetry, that translating it into modern english will diminish the work. My issue is that not everyone can take three day classes focused on the character of Shakespeare's words. Most people have a hard time getting to the theatre at all, and for a lot of laypeople, the Bard is already inaccessible. Indeed, it's more like watching opera for people; that Old Pronunciation English is becoming a foreign language. And while yes, you can still get the gist of Shakespeare with good actors emoting, do these laymen actually get it? How much is missed when you don't understand the language. I cannot but help to remember the scene in Star Trek 6 where the Klingon's start reciting Hamlet “in the original Klingon.” Who is to say were it goes from here?
I think what the OSF is proposing has the potential to be amazing. It could also fall flat on it's face. The issue to me is, do we want the Bard's words to be limited to those who have the time to study them? In a culture that has a hard time reading the comments to an online article, do you really expect non-fans to sit down with an annotated copy? Strangely enough, I suspect the critics would all laugh at a Twitter edition and call it genius.
But most important, let's face it, another translation of Shakespeare will never be the original. But at this point, it's unlikely that the originals will ever be the originals either. We can perform the words, but the character of the language of the day is already different. His work will still go up following his lines. The originals will still be for sale at every Barnes & Noble, and it will still be studied in schools. A new translation will not alter the existence or performance of the original. I say go for it.