Play on! Q&A: Ellen McLaughlin on translating ‘Pericles’

Ellen McLaughlin translated PericlesOver 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.

This month’s Q&A is with Ellen McLaughlin, the playwright who translated Pericles for the Play on! project. Her translation was then transformed into a script used by the Orlando Shakespeare Theater in its 2016 production The Adventures of Pericles.

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

Read previous Q&As in the series:

⇒ Q&A with Migdalia Cruz about translating Macbeth

⇒ Q&A with Kenneth Cavander about translating Timon of Athens

⇒ Q&A with Caridad Svich about translating Henry VIII

⇒ Q&A with Elise Thoron and Julie Felise Dubiner about translating The Merchant of Venice

What were your first impressions of the Shakespeare play you translated?

The play that Lue chose for me, Pericles, turns out to have been a strangely apt one for me. I’ve spent much of my writing life working in response to classical Greek plays, and this play takes place in the dying Hellenistic world and is presided over by Greek gods. I’ve adapted nearly a dozen Greek plays now, each one quite differently, but always with the desire to encounter those great works and explore them from the inside instead of merely admiring them from the distance of the present. When I begin work on one of those plays, I feel a palpable sense of transgression. There is the real feeling that anything I do will taint the glorious original. As if I could. In the case of the Greek plays, however, I’m already protected because I’m working from English translations, so the contact is adulterated. I am holding the source with gloves, as it were. With Shakespeare, it sizzles in my hands; the power is palpable.

Photo by Tony Firriolo features the cast of The Adventures of Pericles, directed by Jim Helsinger. Orlando Shakespeare Theater, 2016.

Can you describe your process for translating Pericles?

The term “translation,” which has raised several eyebrows, not to say fists, just means that the PlayOn writers are tasked with trying to find some personal and stylistic equivalent to Shakespeare’s rigor of language and his metaphorical density. The plays generated are thought of as translations rather than adaptations because the writers aren’t taking liberties. This isn’t about creating another West Side Story. As I understood the project, we render every line of Shakespeare’s text, matching his scansion fairly closely, and when he rhymes, we rhyme. The attitude is “First, do no harm.” Much of the language is crystal clear and can be left as it is exactly. If we do touch the language, we seek only to illuminate, untangle syntax that trips modern listeners up, and find images that we can understand quickly but that have some of the same heightened scale and ambition. We are trying to honor the power of the language by clearing the static from the lines. But it’s still got to be poetry. We can’t flatten it out. In other words, if the play is difficult, it will still be difficult, but not because the language is impossible for us to grasp.

What I got to do was what my husband Rinde Eckert does every night when he plays the Goldberg Variations on the piano. He says he does it not just because the music is so sublime, but because playing it allows him to put his hands in the same position that Bach put his hands in. It’s one thing to study Shakespeare’s plays as a scholar and someone who appreciates the work; it’s an entirely different thing to have the chance to look at what he was doing, while working the same coal-face within the mine.

Can you give us an example of a speech that you’ve translated in a way that makes it noticeably different from Shakespeare’s original language?

After the harrowing shipwreck, and his wife Thaisa’s apparent death while giving birth to Marina, Pericles is urged by the superstitious sailors to get his wife’s corpse off the ship as a way of appeasing the raging storm. He packs the body into a watertight casket and casts it out onto the water after a wrenching speech to the woman he has lost.

Shakespeare’s text is:

A terrible childbed hast thou had, my dear;
No light, no fire: th’unfriendly elements
Forgot thee utterly; nor have I time
To give thee hallow’d to thy grave, but straight
Must cast thee, scarcely coffin’d, in the ooze;
Where, for a monument upon thy bones,
And e’er-remaining lamps, the belching whale
And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse,
Lying with simple shells.

Which I’ve translated as:

A terrible childbed you have had, my dear,
No light, no fire. The harsh elements
Forgot you completely, nor have I time
To give you proper funeral rites, but now
Must cast you, barely coffined, to the sea,
Where all that marks your grave will have to be
The cold eternal stars. The spouting whale
And aching water must hang over your corpse,
Where you lie with simple shells.

There is a bluntness and oddness, at least to my ear, in the verbs “belching” and “humming,” which I felt could be conveyed to us by the more familiar notion of a “spouting” whale and “aching” water, which I think captures something of the feel of void and cold that Shakespeare’s image creates for me. I also liked the idea of giving the sea a verb, so that the water was doing something, and thought that perhaps what the vastness of the ocean hanging over her coffin at the bottom of the sea might be doing could be characterized as “aching.” And finally the image of her lying “with simple shells” had to be left as it was, since it is what the passage so carefully, and heartbreakingly, builds toward.

What did you learn about Pericles through the translation process? Do you see it differently now?

Pericles is produced far less frequently than other plays in the canon and considered something of a problem play. That’s not surprising, since most of the first three acts of the five-act play are generally accepted to have been written by another, considerably less masterful writer. So initially I felt distinctly less intimidated by it than I might have been if I’d been given the commission of taking on one of the more revered texts in the canon. But once I got inside it, I was humbled and moved by it, even beyond what I had anticipated. Once I came to it, the power of the final recognition scenes hit me the hardest, particularly the scene that Shakespeare seems to have built the play to hold: the recognition scene between Marina and Pericles when Pericles encounters the strange and unflappable girl neither knows is his own daughter. This is Shakespeare at his most sublime, and it was a lovely challenge to meet him in the beauty of his language and try to do right by him.

Marina and Pericles
Photo by Tony Firriolo features Gracie Winchester and John P. Keller. The Adventures of Pericles, 2016, Orlando Shakespeare Theater.

Here is a passage from the original:

I am great with woe, and shall deliver weeping.
My dearest wife was like this maid, and such a one
My daughter might have been. My queen’s square brows,
Her stature to an inch, as wand-like straight,
As silver-voiced, her eyes as jewel-like
And cased as richly, in pace another Juno;
Who starves the ears she feeds and makes them hungry
The more she gives them speech…

Which I rendered this way:

I am a man of sorrows and may weep.
My dearest wife was like this clear-eyed maid,
My daughter might have been just like her too.
My queen’s square brows. Her stature to an inch.
Standing straight as a wand, as silver-voiced,
Her eyes set just as my queen’s were, like jewels.
Her gait as graceful as another Juno
Who starves the ears she feeds. The more she speaks
The more they hunger for her voice…

Of course, it turns out that she looks like his wife because she is his wife’s daughter. The truth is just as strange as it appears. She is mortal, not a goddess; she is not dead, she is returned to him. It is when reality, implausible as it seems to be, matches your wildest dreams that wonder walks into the room. Pericles’ whole life leads up to this moment of piercing joy, and it is the end point of all his trials. It seemed to me that if the only thing the Play on! project had given me was the chance to live inside that scene for a while, it would have been worth it for me. It was time spent in the thrall of a beautiful truth, and I’m grateful for it.

The ultimate human desire, nearly always unfulfilled, is that all that we have lost will be restored and all our dead will be returned to us. We cherish the hope too that all our suffering, which is our condition, only perfects our characters and that in the end we will be led to where all those we have ever loved wait for us. To see such a miracle, even when it is frankly presented as a fable, stirs us because it is a recognizable myth at the core of our consciousness. The sense it makes has nothing to do with naturalism or life as it is lived in the everyday, and everything to do with truth as we feel it at our essence. What resonates in Pericles is the profound longing that fuels dreams. And art.

Pericles reunion scene
Photo by Tony Firriolo features Dameka Hayes, Gracie Winchester, and John P. Keller. The Adventures of Pericles, 2016, Orlando Shakespeare Theater.