Director Defends Plan to "Translate" William Shakespeare's Plays into Modern English

News   Director Defends Plan to "Translate" William Shakespeare's Plays into Modern English Bill Rauch, the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, took to the pages of American Theatre magazine to explain and defend his plans to have contemporary playwrights "translate" all 39 of William Shakespeare's plays into modern English.

The massive project aims to make Shakespeare's works more understandable for modern audiences, with all 39 plays ready for performance in three years. Reaction has been swift and widespread. A guest columnist for The New York Times called the project a likely "waste of money and talent."

Claiming that his theatre's commitment to traditional Shakespeare has included producing the "Shakespeare canon in its entirety four times," Rauch writes, "I am not surprised that the project has generated both excitement and concern.... The concerns seem to be twofold; the first is that we somehow intend these new translations to replace the original texts, and the second is that we are 'dumbing down' the language."

Rauch denied there is any attempt to replace the originals, saying, "The Play on! translations are not being commissioned because we despair that people will never understand the original language; the more than 300 Shakespeare plays we have staged since 1935, the three dynamic Shakespeare productions we are performing right now and the five scheduled for 2016 strongly testify to the contrary. Instead, the translation project is about creating a new body of work.... One or more of these translations may be produced at OSF in the years ahead, but they will be produced in addition to, not instead of, the entire original canon."

As for the concern about "dumbing down" the plays, he said, "We are not trying to 'dumb down' but rather 'specify up.' There are shocking and glorious layers embedded in some of the language that are only accessible to most people by footnotes (at best), including references to events that were completely local and contemporary to the playwright’s first audiences. Part of the promise of this exercise is to excavate some of the specificity and detail that may be lost to contemporary audiences. The clarity we aspire to get from the translations will make us better appreciate the vibrancy of the original."

Comparing his project to widely popular updating of Shakespeare, he wrote, "West Side Story didn’t replace Romeo and Juliet. Happily, it expanded the theatrical canon and it gave us a new lens by which we can appreciate Shakespeare’s masterpiece. The past 400-plus years have proved that the man from Stratford is pretty darned tough and durable." Read Rausch's entire column here.

These 36 playwrights were chosen to update Shakespeare's plays.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a not-for-profit professional theatre founded in 1935. The Festival's mission statement follows: "Inspired by Shakespeare's work and the cultural richness of the United States, we reveal our collective humanity through illuminating interpretations of new and classic plays, deepened by the kaleidoscope of rotating repertory."

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