How the Washington Shakespeare Company came to offer Shakespeare in Klingon

(Jesse Lefkowitz - For The Washington Post)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2010

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 Klingon.

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.

* * * YouTube: Marc Okrand explains his invention of the Klingon language * * *

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 reference.

"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."

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