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Shakespeare & Beyond

Play on! Q&A: Kenneth Cavander on translating 'Timon of Athens'

Timon of Athens
Timon of Athens

Kenneth CavanderOver the next few months, the Folger is doing a series of Q&As with some of the playwrights and dramaturgs involved with Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play on! project to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English.

For those interested in hearing what these translations sound like, Classic Stage Company in New York has just announced that it will present 39 readings from the Play on! project in summer 2019, in partnership with OSF.

Our first Q&A on this blog is with Kenneth Cavander, who translated Timon of Athens (as the pilot play for Play on!) and The Tempest. His translations were staged at Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2014 and 2017 respectively.

Read an introduction to the Play on! project by Lue Douthit, the project director at OSF.

Why did you say “yes” to the project?

Kenneth Cavander: A lot of reasons, too many to go into here, but one above all. Having been raised in England, nurtured on Shakespeare’s plays, worked at the Stratford-upon-Avon theatre dedicated to his memory, I had to confess that when I sat in the audience of a production, no matter how distinguished the company, the director, the concept – I still didn’t understand a good part of what was going on.

Let’s talk about Timon of Athens since it was the pilot play. Where did you see yourself in the writing process in relation to the original text?

As the latest writer on a script that already included at least three others – William Shakespeare, working from a story that had been dramatized before; his collaborator, Thomas Middleton, sixteen years his junior, an up-and-coming dramatist with a reputation for street-smart comedies; and the author of the previous version of the work they had adapted, whose identity has been lost. The two collaborators could not have been more different. Their Playbill bios today would look something like this – William Shakespeare (Hamlet, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Thomas Middleton (The Honest Whore, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Anything for a Quiet Life).


What a ghastly idea. Destroying The Wonderful Mr. Will? As bad as Bowdlerization!
Stop it at once.

Rachel Bowen — April 25, 2018

But surely one of the main points about this is that a lot of the plays were collaborations, or the stories have been reworked by ‘Will’ or whoever else. No one is destroying the ‘originals’! I think it is a really good idea – perhaps you need to read the article properly.

Denise Humphries — April 26, 2018

I have mixed feelings about such “translations” of Shakespeare. On the one hand, it’s understandable that theater companies wish to make Shakespeare more accessible–but is a translation still Shakespeare? Personally, I don’t think so. The OSF project aside, I believe directors are editing out more and more of the difficult words and phrases from Shakespeare productions. I would like to know in advance just how much the text has been altered before deciding whether to purchase a ticket. Here’s another way to make Shakespeare more accessible without “translating” plays: the theater company could post a “Words and Phrases” guide online for the play (it could even be done as an entertaining 5-10 minute video) for folks to review before coming to the theater.

Richard Agemo — May 3, 2018