The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 21.0356 Wednesday, 1 September 2010
From: Hardy M. Cook <
Date: Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Subject: Shakespeare in Klingon
The following appeared in the Sunday, Washington Post:
How the Washington Shakespeare Company came to offer Shakespeare in Klingon
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010; E01
Don't you love that remarkable moment when roSenQatlh and ghIlDenSten exit the
stage and Khamlet is left alone to deliver the immortal words: "baQa', Qovpatlh,
toy'wl"a' qal je jIH"?
No? Well, it always kills on Kronos. That's the home planet of the Klingons, the
hostile race that antagonizes the Federation heroes of "Star Trek." We learned
back in '91 in "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" that the Klingons love
them some Shakespeare. Or as he's known to his ridged-foreheaded devotees in the
space-alien community: Wil'yam Shex'pir.
The line above might be more familiar to earthlings as "O, what a rogue and
peasant slave am I!" But now, we Terrans have an opportunity to savor Shex'pir
as the Klingons do. The Washington Shakespeare Company, that Arlington outpost
of offbeat treatments of classic plays, is going where no D.C. enterprise has
ever quite gone before, offering up a whole evening of Shakespeare -- in
At the company's annual benefit Sept. 25 in Rosslyn, selections from "Hamlet"
and "Much Ado About Nothing" will be performed in the language that was invented
for the Klingon characters of the "Star Trek" films. Actors will be speaking the
verse in two languages, English and Klingon, and the lines in each will
correspond to the Bard's signature meter: iambic pentameter. The translations
are courtesy of the Klingon Language Institute, a Pennsylvania group that
published "The Klingon Hamlet" several years ago, in addition to composing the
Klingon version of "Much Ado About Nothing."
Of course, when considering this curious approach to Shakespeare -- eccentric
even by the idiosyncratic standards of contemporary niche theater -- the
question inevitably arises: Why? As it turns out, the troupe has an answer so
logical it might satisfy Mr. Spock. The chairman of Washington Shakespeare's
board just happens to be the man who invented Klingonspeak for the films: Marc
Okrand, a longtime linguist at the Vienna-based National Captioning Institute.
Then, too, Shakespeare sci-fi style appeals to the whimsical impulses of the
company's longtime artistic director, Christopher Henley. "It kind of fits into
our company identity, of trying to breathe some fresh air into the classics, of
doing something really, really different with them," he says. "It seems a way to
say that we're not as reverent as other companies in town."
No kidding. This is the group that three years ago staged a really, really
different version of "Macbeth" -- in the nude. On this occasion, its actors will
simply be cloaking the famous lines in words from the Klingon dictionary that
Okrand published 25 years ago. Lines like "taH pagh taHbe.' " Which perhaps you
know as: "To be or not to be."
One of a large list
Shakespeare is, of course, one of the most widely translated writers on the
planet: The Folger Shakespeare Library has in its stacks the Bard's work in more
than 45 languages, according to Georgianna Ziegler, the Folger's head of
"Hamlet" may be the play most frequently adapted in other tongues. "We have an
Afrikaans 'Hamlet' from 1945," Ziegler says, as she begins the alphabetical
roster. "We've got 'Hamlet' in Albanian, Arabic, Belorussian, Bengali . . . " It
turns out Hamlet speaks Icelandic, Latvian, Maltese, Old Turkish, Persian, Tamil
and Welsh, too. And that's not to mention the "Hamlets" in even more esoteric
idioms, like Esperanto.
The Klingon Language Institute's director, Lawrence M. Schoen, a science-fiction
writer who works as chief compliance officer for a medical center in the
Philadelphia area, had applied once upon a time to the Folger for a fellowship
to aid in the effort to translate Shakespeare into Klingon. Although he was
turned down, the group, whose members are a small global band of Klingon
speakers, independently had set about the task. The effort was inspired by a
line from "Star Trek VI," in which a Klingon chancellor played by the classical
English actor David Warner declares, "You have not experienced Shakespeare until
you have read him in the original Klingon."
"What worked about that line for me was that nobody blinks," Schoen says. "Which
can only be interpreted to mean that everybody agreed with what he said. That's
how it hit me."
To this former professor and advocate of the made-up language, an intellectual
challenge was issued. Thoughts quickly turned to the question of which of the
plays might be best savored in Klingon. "It's not that the Klingons are warlike;
they're passionate," Schoen says. "There are no half measures with anything that
has to do with the Klingons. From that point of view, it made sense to start
with the best Shakespearean play we've got."
The institute's "restored Klingon version" of the play was put together in the
mid-1990s by a linguist from Australia, Nick Nicholas, and an American, Andrew
Strader. They worked from a vocabulary and syntax that, in a sense, go back to
1982, when Okrand serendipitously found himself in a room at Paramount Pictures,
making up alien gibberish to match the movement of the Vulcan characters' mouths
in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan."
A native of Southern California who came to Washington for a post-doctoral
linguistics fellowship at the Smithsonian and later got a job at the National
Captioning Institute, Okrand had gone to Hollywood that year as a liaison for
the first closed-captioned telecast of the Oscars. While there, he went to a
lunch with a pal at Paramount, the studio that owned the "Star Trek" franchise,
who mentioned that the producers were looking for someone to concoct a few alien
phrases. Before he knew it, this student of dead Native American languages was
taking a meeting.
[ . . . ]
'Hamlet' to Klingons
At gatherings of Klingon speakers, some participants "take the vow" for the
duration of the conference, promising not to speak in anything except Klingon --
a feat even Okrand can't accomplish. "Sometimes it's like, 'What have I done?' "
he says, sitting in a coffee bar near his Adams Morgan home. "Of course, it's a
good feeling. I've created a game and they're having a really good time."
In Klingon warrior culture, "Hamlet" qualifies as both subversive and
cautionary. Schoen explains that after Hamlet discovers that Claudius murdered
his father, the only proper Klingon reflex would be instantaneous revenge: "If
Hamlet is a good Klingon, he immediately confronts him and kills him. Instead he
whines, he vacillates, he sacrifices his Klingon heritage. From that point of
view, 'Hamlet' is seditious, because it sends the wrong message to the Klingon
Ah, but what message do the people of Earth receive? Henley says he's still in
the process of casting the benefit, called "By Any Other Name: An Evening of
Shakespeare in Klingon." The scenes performed in the alien tongue will be kept
short and tight: "Even the most diehard Klingon fan would find it hard to follow
seven or 10 minutes in Klingon," Henley says, adding that by alternating scenes
in English and Klingon, "what we'll try to underline is the different kinds of
cultural impulses. The Klingon version will be much more violent."
As a final grace note, George Takei, who played Mr. Sulu on the TV series and in
the movies, is scheduled to make a guest appearance. But it'll be King's English
only for him. "He's going to do a monologue he really loves from 'Julius
By Any Other Name: An Evening of Shakespeare in Klingon
Sept. 25 at Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington. Tickets, $150 for the
Klingon event and four flex passes to Washington Shakespeare Company's 2010-
11season; $250, for the package and a VIP reception after the performance. Call
800-494-8497 or visit www.washingtonshakespeare.org.
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
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