Play on! Q&A: Aditi Kapil on translating ‘Measure for Measure’

In choosing which Shakespeare play to translate for the Play on! project, playwright Aditi Brennan Kapil let herself be influenced by dramaturg Liz Engelman, who was attracted to the themes of Measure for Measure and their resonance in today’s world.

Continuing our series of Q&As with Play on! playwrights, Kapil shares about her process for translating Shakespeare’s language, with help from Engelman and dramaturg Andrew Ian Carlson, and what she learned about Measure for Measure along the way.

A reading of this new Measure for Measure was part of the Play On Shakespeare Festival in New York, which will draw to a close at the end of June after presenting 39 readings from the Play on! Shakespeare translation project in partnership with Classic Stage Company and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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

⇒ Read previous Q&As in the series

At the June 2019 reading of the Measure for Measure translation
At the reading of the final translation of Measure for Measure at Classic Stage Company in New York City for the Play on! festival. Photo courtesy of Aditi Brennan Kapil.

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

I think the Measure for Measure I had in my mind’s eye before I re-read it was colored by a lot of old-fashioned, melodramatic notions of villains and virgins and good and bad and a leading lady abused. Meeting the play with no preconceptions, through the language, with no intent to interpret or adapt, only understand, was revelatory. There’s incredibly complex discourse on religion and morality, on the role of government in legislating morality, profound wisdom about human nature, characters behaving badly out of fear, out of entitlement, and ignorance. It’s a truthful examination of how hard it is to be human, to do right by each other. On the obligations of leadership, the dangers of a leader who believes their own moral superiority and legislates accordingly. It’s incredibly resonant today.

Can you describe your process for translating the play?

We gathered a group of actors we know and love, and read the original, discussing and analyzing as we went. It took two gatherings to reach the end of the play, one in Minneapolis hosted by the Guthrie Theatre, one in Austin hosted by Austin Shakes and UT Austin. Once we felt that we fully understood the story, the rhythms, and the characters, I’d translate scenes and send them to dramaturgs Liz Engelman and Andrew Ian Carlson for notes. Draft 1 was pretty literal, our rule was minimal intervention, and we were quite proud of how understandable it was, how fast it read, and the balance of poetry and pace. Then we gathered in Minneapolis to hear the draft with a lot of the same company.

What we discovered upon reading Draft 1 was that certain passages, though clear enough on the page, were still opaque when heard out loud, and needed more radical intervention. But more significantly, we realized that though we now understood all the words in the comedic scenes, that didn’t make them any funnier, jokes just don’t carry over time the way that poetry does. We decided that it was our job to translate the experience of the play, not just the words. Shakespeare was a brilliant comedian, and we were doing him no favors not honoring the funny. For Draft 2, I translated comic scenes to capture their spirit, while updating their content to make a contemporary audience laugh. But the most radical intervention was in Pompey’s speech in Act IV, Sc 3, where he breaks the fourth wall to poke fun at the audience and brings the themes of the play to their doorstep. This speech is often cut, but in our translation it’s one of my favorite moments, because we have Pompey address a contemporary audience and take them to task for their hypocrisy and foibles using today’s news for fodder, just as Shakespeare used the news of his day.

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?

The opening speech of the play was a challenge because the Duke is an ornate speaker, it took two drafts and some rearranging of his thought process to really get it clear, while retaining the iambic pentameter.

Here’s the original speech:

Of government the properties to unfold
Would seem in me t’affect speech and discourse,
Since I am put to know that your own science
Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice
My strength can give you. Then no more remains
But that, to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,
And let them work. The nature of our people,
Our city’s institutions, and the terms
For common justice, y’ are as pregnant in
As art and practice hath enriched any
That we remember. There is our commission,
From which we would not have you warp.

And here’s the translation:

To preach on governance and rules of law
Is wasted speech, since we both full well know
That your own knowledge and experience
Surpasses mine, and that any advice
I offer is excess. What then remains
Is that I bless your office with my seal,
And let you do your work. Our citizens,
Our institutions, and our sacred laws,
Our city’s justice system, in these realms
You are as wise as are the greatest men
Our nation has produced. Now your commission,
From which I do implore you not to stray. 

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

I think it made me bolder. It’s all just story, it’s all just spinning a yarn and taking your audience on a ride. He did that fearlessly.