[lg policy] How the Washington Shakespeare Company came to offer Shakespeare in Klingon

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Aug 30 18:50:32 UTC 2010

 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

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

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

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

"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."

Creating Klingon

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.

"Every once in a while," Okrand says, recalling the movie offer of a
long ago, "you're presented with a decision that's really easy to

Hired as a consultant to the films, Okrand was asked to create Klingon
dialogue for "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock." (He was credited
as "creator, alien language.") He says the language he developed bit
by bit was influenced by sounds and structures of American Indian,
Chinese and Southeast Asian languages. He also took into account some
vocalizations that the late actor James Doohan -- the beloved Scotty
-- devised for the space characters in the first film installment,
1979's "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."

"Klingon is very monosyllabic," he says. "I made a big chart of all
the possible syllables I could think of. And every time I'd make up a
word, I'd cross one out." How the language landed on moviegoers' ears
was critical. "It had to be guttural," Okrand says. "It had to sound
weird, and nothing like English, and had to be something the actors
could learn really quickly."

On the set, Okrand was elocution monitor, making sure the actors hewed
to his dictates for Klingon speech. The movie's director, Leonard
Nimoy (a.k.a. Mr. Spock), was a stickler, too. After an actor put too
much lilt into a line, Okrand recalls, Nimoy shouted: "Cut! Cut!
You're Klingon, not French!"

It occurred to Okrand as his involvement with the movies grew -- and
the Klingon vocabulary expanded -- that perhaps he should formalize
the language in a book. The studio greenlighted the 1985 publication
of "The Klingon Dictionary," complete with rules of grammar and a
guide to pronunciation. (An "h" in Klingon, for instance, sounds like
the "ch" in "Bach.")

"You've got about 2,000 root words, a good amount of them involving
fighting and space flight," observes Schoen, who found in learning
Klingon a way to revisit the pleasures of experiencing the TV version
of "Star Trek" as a kid. "To take on the acquisition of a language
that has very little utility, almost as an homage to one's childhood,
is a challenge," he says.

'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 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.

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



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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