By Peter Marks
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 antagonises the Federation heroes of “Star Trek.” We learned back in ‘91 in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” that the Klingons love 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, Va, outpost of offbeat treatments of classic plays, is going where no DC enterprise has ever quite gone before, offering up Shakespeare in Klingon.
At the company’s annual benefit September 25, 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 theatre — 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, Va-based National
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. “
No kidding. This is the group that three years ago staged “Macbeth” in a unique way. 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’” —“To be or not to be.”
Shakespeare is, of course, one of the most widely translated writers on the planet: The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington 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.
The Klingon Language Institute’s director, Lawrence Schoen, a science-fiction writer who works as chief compliance officer for a medical centre 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 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 savoured 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
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 Okrand developed in 1982 for “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” and published three years later in “The Klingon Dictionary.”
At gatherings of Klingon speakers today, 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 Washington 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 youth.”
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 Caesar,’ “ Henley says.