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Sound and fury comes to naught

What’s in a name? Much, if you are a devotee of Shakespeare — and much more, if you should endeavor to translate the Bard’s words to be better understood by modern audiences.

That was the challenge taken on by the Play On Shakespeare project: to commission 36 playwrights to translate all 39 of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but without losing the time period, the cadence and the heightened language. The idea began at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which secured a grant to translate five plays. Then a much larger grant made it possible to expand the work to all 39 plays in the canon.

The undertaking was seen as heresy by some. Alter the Bard’s words? “Translate” his timeless work? Nothing good could come of this.

A petition was started at MoveOn.org — not because that liberal political activist group supported the sentiments of the petitioners, but because the organization provides an open forum to post petitions online.

The petition has attracted only 156 signatures in three years, although it was still attracting signers as recently as last month.

“ ‘Simplifying’ Shakespeare?” reads one comment from June of this year. “That’s like making an abridged version of Beethoven’s Ninth, or a twenty-minute condensed cut of Citizen Kane ... ”

Well, not exactly. The idea is not to condense or shorten the plays — the Reduced Shakespeare Company has cornered the market on that, anyway — but to carefully update the language to make it more easily understandable to speakers of modern English.

The first rule for translators, in fact, is to “do no harm” — don’t fix what doesn’t need fixing. They were also instructed to keep the time period, and forbidden to edit the plays or inject personal politics or regionalisms. The language “still has to have rhyme, meter, rhetoric, image, metaphor, character, action and theme,” in the words of Lue Douthit, former director of literary development and dramaturgy for OSF who now leads the project full-time.

Not your cup of tea? Fine. Don’t go to see a production of any of these translated plays. But don’t demand that the project be stopped.

Differences of opinion about Shakespeare are nothing new. After all, scholars are still bitterly divided over who actually wrote the plays in the first place. And OSF gets criticized every time it mounts a production set in some time or culture different from the original.

All’s well, we say. If Play On brings a new audience to these venerable works, that’s a good thing. And if you prefer your Shakespeare in its original Elizabethan language, to thine own self be true.