Monday, January 18, 2016

Shakespeare Experts Assess Translations

This is a blog by Mark O'Connor about translating Shakespeare's plays into contemporary English verse. 

This blog includes samples of my own translations, which are in verse and are intended for stage use.  It does not deal with non-literary translations like the No Fear Shakespeare series, which offer prose cribs for students. 

Samples of these translations, plus answers to obvious questions like "Why translate?", will be found in the earlier postings in this blog.

I aim to provide theatre-ready versions of Shakespeare plays, with the verse-rhythms and subtleties of the original text preserved,  faithfully and minimally translated into intelligible modern international English. 

Most of the world gets its Shakespeare plays in translation, and still finds them  wonderful. Yet there has been a taboo on performing him in contemporary English.  The idea of not modernising the plot or the characters, but simply translating Shakespeare into contemporary international English, much as one might translate him into German or Urduis still thought quite radical. I know of only one other translator who has been doing so.

But this will change. In October 2015 the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced that it is commissioning 36 translators--yes 36-- to translate all Shakespeare's plays into modern English. Over the next few years these translations should begin to appear. 

Because making—or seeking to stage—such translations breaks a considerable taboo, I decided to seek academic endorsement. I recently submitted my translations of three plays, plus detailed scholarly notes, for a (very mature-age) PhD. I had great supervisors in Professors Dennis Haskell and Bob White at UWA; and there was backing for the idea from John Bell of Bell Shakespeare Company, the late Professor Ralph Elliott, Paul Prescott at Warwick, and others. But there was still some nervousness from my supervisors as to how the PhD examiners would react.

In fact they were enthused, and went much beyond the usual gruff evaluations. One wrote:

a remarkable and brilliant achievement, and on so many levels . . . innovative, original, ground-breaking and bold. It requires of its exponent verbal and linguistic dexterity of a high order, a finely attuned ear, and a dogged scholarly inquisitiveness. All of these this translator possesses in abundance. . . . Shakespeare scholars may not be O’Connor’s ideal readers or target audience, but I confess to galloping through this invigorating version of Henry IV Part 1 in one go, and with enormous pleasure. . . . The translation of Troilus and Cressida is also the jewel in the crown for the translator. I found little to argue about and much to admire in this skillful and deft rendering of Shakespeare’s most linguistically dense and demanding play. . . . [The translations’] theatrical and educational value far exceeds anything else currently out there.

If that piques your curiosity you can find samples of the translations here <> , and an explanation of why they were made in this article in the LA Times.

The translations also come with remarkable endorsements from the handful of Shakespeare experts who have as yet seen them. Philippa Kelly, Resident Dramaturg at the California Shakespeare Theater,  wrote of one:

This is a really brilliant translation of Troilus and Cressida, by a poet who understands that it is Shakespeare’s language, not his plots, that make him "real." Utterly in tune with Shakespeare's metaphor, which goes to the human heart, O'Connor displays a delicacy and ingenious deftness that renders a Shakespeare text a translation without any feeling that the play has indeed been 'translated.' O'Connor's adjustments are nuanced, precise and inconspicuous, releasing Shakespeare's playtext into the modern world.

The great thing about O'Connor's translations is that they are ready for immediate use, without need for further workshopping or adjustment. The dramaturgy/stageability of Shakespeare’s original play is preserved: plot, characters, dramatic ambiguities, subtexts. When a translator can also supply something so close to the original Shakespearian eloquence and musicality of the verse, the result resolves a director’s perennial dilemma: how to win critical plaudits while also making Shakespeare intelligible to a far wider audience. I see O'Connor's translations as theatrical gold.

I have so far translated just 3 plays: Troilus and Cressida, Twelfth Night, and Henry IV Part 1

Samples of the translations are available online here

Or I can be contacted by email: 


Here are some further comments from  Shakespearian experts:

John Bell, director and founder of Bell Shakespeare Company:
(in an open letter to Mark O'Connor) I am very excited with the progress you have made in your work of translating Shakespeare into modern English.  This is work which will prove to be of great significance in preserving our Shakespearian heritage.

Professor Ron Bedford, commenting as a PhD examiner on the submission of the three plays for a PhD in Shakespearian studies:

 . . . The strongest argument for the enterprise, and the real thrust of the project, lies in the performance (and reading) potential of these versions, and the resurrection of Shakespeare among the uninitiated or intimidated.  . . . [The translations ] are clearly the work of a talented poet and verbal craftsman, requiring—and receiving—the closest possible attention to cadence, context, linguistic register, meaning, emotional pressure, and tone.   . . .   Both the ‘low life’ and the political scenes [in Henry IV Part 1]  shed their obscurities but not their vigour, and the antiphon between them shines through.  . . .  It is clearly a labour of love, indeed of passion, dedicated always to the enrichment of our understanding of Shakespeare as a dramatic artist.

Dr. Frank Hentschker, Program Director, Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
Your translation reads as truly modern, no-nonsense and seems to dust off the tired, centuries-old words.

 Emeritus Professor Ralph Elliott:
A brilliantly accurate and vivid translation of one of my favourite Shakespeare plays (Troilus and Cressida). You have brought the play to life in the English of today!

Ken Healey, Script Director of NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art),  wrote:

It will be seen that these excerpts are translation, rather than adaptation. The translator is not pretending that this is a play written in the C21st, nor does he presume to suppress "dated" features of the play. It is only the language that is updated: the play's complex balance of ideas is left as far as possible unchanged--though much less obscured. The mix of blank verse, rhymed couplets, and informal half-rhymed verse, is just as in the original. Yet mere clarification changes the experience for the audience; and perhaps re-creates the effects Shakespeare originally intended. 

 . . . The appearance of such a skilled translator represents an important opportunity for theatre companies interested in Shakespeare. The potential increase in audience, if critics consider the translations of  comparable literary/dramatic merit to the originals, is enormous. 

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