When people find out that I’m working on a medieval play, almost always the first question is, “Are you doing it in modern or Middle English?” These days the answer is almost always modern, because despite enjoying it myself, I’ve come to recognise that Middle English is really challenging for audiences, and, unfortunately, often cuts them off from really getting to grips with the play they’re seeing. The next question tends, from academics, to be “Which edition did you use?”, and from non-academics, “How did you translate it?”
Despite how different it looks on the page, Middle English is not actually that difficult to get your head or tongue around. In fact, sounding words out aloud, the way kids learn to read, is a good way to make sense of it on occasion; the spellings will be peculiar, but once you hear it spoken, you’ll usually know what it means. So I’m never entirely sure that it’s really a “translation” proper. But, if you’ve been curious, here is how it happens.
First I go through the script and change any archaic letters into their modern equivalent. (For example: something that looks rather like the modern lower-case “y” is actually a “th”- it’s where we get “ye olde” from; it would have been pronounced as “the”.) Then I change all the really obvious words into modern spelling, which will usually be about three quarters of the text. Next come the words that are definitely in Middle English but whose meanings I have come to know over the years of working with it. I usually spend the better part of a day with a thesaurus, trying to find the closest word in meaning and colour, that also keeps any rhyme schemes and meters that might be present. About half the time, I can find a good translation that keeps the poetry and alliteration intact. When I can’t, I have to make some executive decisions. Will the audience make sense of an unfamiliar word from the context? How important is that particular word, or is the primary meaning conveyed elsewhere in the line? In some instances, I’ll leave the Middle English word in, feeling pretty sure that it won’t be detrimental to conveying the story or characters. In others, I’ll have to make the decision to disturb the carefully wrought meter or alliteration for the sake of clarity.
The biggest challenge is tracking down the words that I don’t know. Middle English can be difficult to look up (absent having a university library’s resources at your fingertips, and I usually work at home) because the spellings are so capricious; in some cases the word’s definition might actually be speculative and uncertain, and in others there might have been a clerical error which muddles the picture. There’ll usually be one or two that completely stymie me, which warrants a call to medievalist friends to pick their brains. In the end, it’s pretty rare not to track down some idea of what a word should mean. With that done, I repeat the process of trying to decide if I can keep the ancient word, or wrestling through trying to find an appropriate substitute if I can’t.
Invariably, there will be a bit of Latin. This is one area where I suffer as a medievalist: my Latin is virtually non-existent. That’s more time with dictionaries, Latin translation webpages, and usually some phone calls to colleagues who don’t mind helping me with tricky bits. (The up side to this is that I’ve picked up a bit more of the language than I would probably know otherwise.)
Only when I’ve got it pretty much solidified will I pull the editions off the shelf. My purpose in doing so is simply self-editing: I want to check that I haven’t misunderstood anything, that their glosses on words match my translations. I always look at as many as I have or can get my hands on, because sometimes they don’t agree on specific words, and sometimes one will have a more precise meaning that I need to contemplate. A lot of editions will also have commentary on parts of the play, which might clue me in about why a particular scene is written in a specific way.
It’s only after the script has been brought into the twentieth century that I start contemplating any necessary changes or cuts. I know that to some people this is anathema, and it may seem to go against my earlier assertion to trust the text with which I’m working. That trust doesn’t mean a play is perfect, though, or that as it has come down to us it is perfect for what we’re doing. It does mean, however, that I can tell you exactly why I’m changing things, and how I’ve done it; I don’t just go in and start chopping. Our rearrangement of the Vices in our current production of Mankind is a good example of this: it may be unorthodox, but I think that it helps make the play a little bit neater for this production. (If “re-creation” or “authenticity” were our intent, I would not have made that sort of change.)
Translating is a rather tedious and fiddly process, but it has the definite benefit that, while I may not have it memorised, I do know the script really well by the time we get into rehearsals, not just conceptually, but in a structural sense, how it is put together as well as what it is saying. And it’s easier to sort out any confusion the actors have with what is still a pre-modern verse piece. In the end, we have a script I’m happy with, which stays fairly close to the original.