Play on! Tracy Young on translating ‘The Winter’s Tale’

If 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.

In seasonal fashion as winter arrives, this month’s Q&A is with Tracy Young, the playwright who translated The Winter’s Tale for the Play on! project. As she explains, she previously directed the play for Ten Thousand Things in Minneapolis, adding an additional perspective to the project.

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

Read previous Q&As in the series:

⇒ Reflections from Yvette Nolan about translating Henry IV, Part 1

⇒ 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

Scenes from The Winter's Tale. Owen Jones. 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Scenes from The Winter’s Tale. Owen Jones. 19th century. Folger Shakespeare Library.

What made you pick the Shakespeare play that you translated? What were your first impressions of The Winter’s Tale?

Even though I have deep love for many of Shakespeare’s plays, I knew right away my first choice for Play on! was The Winter’s Tale. As a child I was mesmerized by the story of The Snow Queen and the idea that a person can be overtaken by negative emotions that poison their whole world. In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes speaks metaphorically about a spider in a cup. He’s drunk the spider and now sees evil intent in everyone around him where before he saw love. It changes him in an instant, like a spell or when one is possessed by an evil spirit. I’m always astonished by the way Leontes is consumed with obsessive thinking, and we don’t even understand why. Like his young son, we also observe him with childlike confusion as his heart turns to stone, and his mind scrambles, and we’re terrified.

I also find the theme of renewal and the interrogation of forgiveness to be moving and compelling. By the end of the play, we have to make sense of a moment of renewal, rebirth, and return from the death of a queen who has been ‘on ice’ for 16 years. The play is a reminder that we have many paradoxes and contradictions within which we have to exist, and that life is a joyful problem. So many quantum leaps of madness at the beginning and then so many quantum leaps of forgiveness at the end, and still the humanity in the play rings true, which is the genius of Shakespeare.

What did you learn about The Winter’s Tale through the translation process? Do you see it differently now?

Before Play on!, I directed The Winter’s Tale for Ten Thousand Things, a company based in Minneapolis. That company presents classical plays to underserved audiences—people who are incarcerated, or homeless, or living in poverty, or domestic violence survivors—with the understanding that these audiences might not have encountered Shakespeare’s writing before. Because of the success of that company’s approach, I began to view the larger question of why Shakespeare’s writing sometimes feels opaque to modern audiences differently. When re-engaging with the play as a translator, those performances with Ten Thousand Things were a starting place for me. I felt pretty good in being able to leave stuff alone a lot of the time and trust the language, while also feeling pretty confident in the times where I sensed a passage would benefit from a little bit of help to clean off the lens for light to get in, as it were.

It was only as I started dealing with the play on a line-by-line basis as a translator that I really noticed the quirkiness of the emotional structure of the play, and how it is really jagged but truthful, even as it has all the earmarks of a “problem play.” And all of that continued to resonate for me at a deeper level as I continued, getting ever more granular in the process.

What is your favorite line (or set of lines) from The Winter’s Tale?

Paulina :        It is requir’d
You do awake your faith. Then all stand still:
Or those that think it is unlawful business
I am about, let them depart.

Leontes:               Proceed.
No foot shall stir.

Paulina:         Music, awake her; strike! (Music)
‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come!
I’ll fill your grave up: stir, nay, come away:
Bequeath to death your numbness; for from him
Dear life redeems you. You perceive she stirs:

Can you describe your process for translating the play?

Because I was familiar with the play, I had a strong foundation to start from. My dramaturg, Dr. Benjamin Pryor, provided me with a lot of related research and some insightful academic materials. After reading what I could and recovering some old notes, I just dove in. Shakespeare will work with an image and it will come back over and over. His meaning is conveyed through poetry and imagery that is cumulative, where sense is being built over the course of the play. Going line-by-line, you have to focus on that particular part, as well as the cumulative metaphoric whole, and keep all the plates spinning without compromising something essential to the meaning of a line in context.

What has been one of the most challenging aspects of translating The Winter’s Tale?

The most challenging aspect, and one of the best reasons to take up translation to begin with, was to liberate the comedy in the play. When comedy references a thing, we have to immediately recognize what it is. That’s different from poetry, which is more durable over time and across cultures. So I felt excited and challenged to attempt to translate each joke and reference and comedic riff to make it feel contemporary, while also trying not to stray from the cultural references within the play, or the comedic rhythms of each character. This was especially true with Autolycus, who is the most comedically clever character in the play. I couldn’t just rewrite his jokes. It had to be the same jokes as much as possible. But I used modern syntax and rhythm to give the jokes a contemporary feel so that we could comprehend them and enjoy them. That was its own fun challenge.

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?

Act 1, scene 2, is a section that is noticeably different, at least by the standards I set for myself. This is when we first see Leontes start to lose his grip:

Leontes: Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I
Play too, but so disgraced a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave. Contempt and clamor
Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play—There have been,
Or I am much deceived, cuckolds ere now;
And many a man there is, even at this present,
Now while I speak this, holds his wife by th’ arm,
That little thinks she has been sluiced in ‘s absence,
And his pond fished by his next neighbor, by
Sir Smile, his neighbor. Nay, there’s comfort in ‘t
Whiles other men have gates and those gates opened,
As mine, against their will. Should all despair
That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind
Would hang themselves. Physic for ‘t there’s none.
It is a bawdy planet, that will strike
Where ’tis predominant; and ’tis powerful, think it,
From east, west, north, and south. Be it concluded,
No barricado for a belly. Know ‘t,
It will let in and out the enemy
With bag and baggage. Many thousand on ‘s
Have the disease and feel ‘t not—How now, boy?

Mamillius: I am like you, they say.

Leontes:                     Why, that’s some comfort.—

Here is how I translated it:

Leontes: Go play, boy, play. Your mother plays, and I
Play too; but so disgraced a part, the audience
Will hiss me to my grave. Coarse ridicule
Will be my eulogy. Go play, boy, play.
There have lived many cuckolds before now,
And many a man there is – even at this moment,
Now, while I speak this – holds his wife by the arm,
And never thinks she has been sluiced in his absence,
And his pond fished by his next neighbor, by
Sir Smile, his neighbor. Hey, there’s comfort in it:
That other men have gates, and those gates opened,
Like mine, against their will. Should all despair
That have unfaithful wives, a tenth of mankind
Would hang themselves. No remedy, no, none.
It is a filthy planet, that wields power;
When it spins fast, it pulls its prey, believe me,
From east, west, north and south; it is concluded:
No barricading your bride’s birth hole, brethren.
It will let in and out the enemy,
With club and dagger; many thousands of us
Have the disease, and feel it not. How now, boy?

Mamillius: I am like you, they say.

Leontes:                     Well, that’s some comfort.

This was a deep dive into Shakespeare’s text. How do you think it’s affected you as a playwright?

The beauty of the whole Play on! project, and the reason I continue to be such a fan of the enterprise, is because it comes from the sincerest place in terms of the value it sees in the writings of Shakespeare. Play on! wants to carry forward the gifts of Shakespeare’s plays to future audiences and to keep the flame alive.

To take The Winter’s Tale and do a word-by-word examination of it is an opportunity for a master class with a master playwright. Time seems to move faster nowadays, and it’s challenging to carve out time to linger over a piece of art in the way that Shakespeare’s work demands. In translating this play, I hope to help people recognize what’s valuable about spending that time and energy with Shakespeare. His work always gives back at least as much as you put into understanding it. There’s nothing wrong with the hot-take ethos of the present day, but Shakespeare works at a different tempo that asks us to slow down and take the time to listen and to look deeply. This project has helped me reconnect with that whole aspect of life and art.

How did you feel about Play on! at the start, and now?

I have never questioned the validity of the project, and I would even go so far as to say the necessity of the project. Accessibility is a primary concern for theater makers today. How we tell our stories, who tells them, and who we tell them for. These are questions that must not be ignored. Play on! asks, “do these plays still have something to offer?” For me the answer is resoundingly yes. And creating new ways for potential theater goers to connect with the plays and develop a passion for them is an extremely worthy endeavor. Shakespeare’s original texts are never going to go away and will never stop being produced. Play on! can only add to the conversation.