Play on! Yvette Nolan on translating ‘Henry IV, Part 1’

Playwright Yvette Nolan translated Henry IV, Part 1If you’ve been following the Shakespeare & Beyond blog, you’ll know that the Folger has been doing a monthly 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 post breaks out of the typical Q&A format as Yvette Nolan shares reflections from her work translating Henry IV, Part 1, just after hearing it read aloud for the first time in April.

⇒ 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 Lillian Groag about translating Troilus and Cressida

⇒ Q&A with Ellen McLaughlin about translating Pericles

⇒ 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


I am on the plane on my way back to Saskatoon from New York, where I just had four days in the room with actors and my translation of Henry IV, Part 1. What a joy it has been to hear the play, to really hear the play.

This is my third draft. The assignment required two drafts, but I cannot seem to stop. I love being inside the language. I have been studying public policy this year, and often, falling into the play, working on fixing the meter, matching the rhythms, has been like medicine for me, a stress-busting exercise.

A series of accidents and circumstances led to my arriving in the room with a third draft instead of the required second, and I am so grateful. It meant that I could really hear the play, because I was so much closer to what I intended, and because I was far less apprehensive. I talked the first day about how a playwright often has a hard time hearing the first read of a new play because of nerves.

The clarity of the translation and the actors’ voices on it illuminated some things for me: Hal is really a jerk, Falstaff is really agitating from the word “go” to be not cast off, and Vernon is really hot for Hal. Also, after four days of working through the translation line by line, we read the whole thing and it clocked in at 2 hours 20 minutes, with the interval. Yes, it is no Hamlet, but still, this was also without cuts – because that is one of the Play on! rules – and still it clipped along, clear and lean and muscular. I wondered about how the archaic English in the original slowed us down because we were working so hard to be clear, working so hard to bring the audience along with us, working so hard to simultaneously translate and deliver the text.

I love the Henriad, and of all the plays, I love Henry IV Part 1 the most. Or I did. When I chose the play (after a few of my other choices were gone; “hesitation is fatal,” the late, great Bernard Hopkins used to tell me), I believed that of the four plays of the cycle, this one was the most hopeful, because it was about the potential of the young prince, because Falstaff was still jolly and funny, because it was about stepping into one’s role as a leader, about honour.  Now, I am not so sure about any of those things. My own translation has coloured the whole thing a little darker.

Still, I am not sorry. I did not want a comedy, and I did not have the stomach to tackle such problematic texts as Shrew or Winter’s Tale. And as an Indigenous writer, I did not want any of the plays that were frequently done with Indigenous participation, a kind of inclusion dependent on us being spiritual or supernatural or warriors (a reviewer once said of my all-Indigenous adaptation of Julius Caesar that there were many plays he could imagine in an Indigenous context, “from …Dream to Coriolanus, but Julius Caesar isn’t one of them”).

Sometimes the translation is one word, and sometimes the one word makes the moment both clearer and funnier. Each time we heard Poins’ line to Falstaff “You will, chops?” which had become “You will, chubbs?” we all cracked up.

There’s a lot of lists in Henry 4.1., and often they are the gnarly bits, the places where the archaic references slow down the actor and throw out the audience. They are also fun to play with, to dig into, to attempt to make new images that will keep the audience with you. Here is a bit of Gadshill’s defense of his vocation:

I am joined with no foot-land rakers, no long-staff sixpenny strikers, none of these mad mustachio purple-hued malt-worms, but with nobility and tranquillity, burgomasters and great oneyers, such as can hold in, such as will strike sooner than speak, and speak sooner than drink, and drink sooner than pray.

I am joined with no shifty grifters, no common pilferers, none of these boastful, beer-fuelled braggarts, but with nobility and tranquility, magistrates and great courtiers, such as can keep their counsel, such as will strike sooner than speak, and speak sooner than drink, and drink sooner than pray.

I was honoured and scared to be invited into Play on! As a playwright, I am hyperaware of the damning judgement, “Well, it ain’t Shakespeare.” What right have I to even attempt to translate him? I had such a hard time even beginning. And yet, once I began, once I allowed myself to worm into the tight knots of language and pick them open, carefully, respectfully, it was like throwing open windows to a warm and healing breeze. I would stay here forever, in conversation with him.

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