Translating Everyman, or: Wait, What’s The Original Written in, Latin?

As a production team, we had a great debate: is my work to be considered an adaptation, or a translation? Everyman, after all, is written in English and one, typically, does not translate a text into its own language. The English of Everyman, though, demanded revisiting as a modern stage would be inhospitable to the low-intensity sloppy semi-rhyming ramble to which the original text falls victim.

So, why not adapt? Adaptation requires imposition. It requires shifting and revision of character and story arc, or reexamining the essential form of the work and making a shadow play of it, a thing separated from the source by a chasm of light and darkness. My play m4m is a true adaptation—a tinkering with Measure for Measure that captures the original energy of the play and adapts it into a new form to convey the same sex-and-power-fueled tragedy. We were not interested in doing this with Everyman, as we agreed that the core of the work is valuable dramaturgically and aesthetically, and as such, should remain unchanged and unaltered. I am not a man of faith but a cultural record of the medieval man’s coping with the threat of death in a fideistic world is vital to our understanding of our pasts and therefore, ourselves.

We’re back to translation, then—but how to translate? The language is outdated and dull, so it needs to be torn down and rebuilt, but a subtle hand is required in the reconstruction to retain the structure, intent, and intrinsic energies of the original piece. The words are new, but the story must remain old.

God is big, the world is small—a piteous and saddening place sullied by mankind’s rebellion against his maker. So sayeth the medieval mindset that pushed Everyman into being, and how odd a work it is that almost finds joy in the sinfulness of the world so that salvation seems sweeter. The play revels in worldliness until the blood of penance is drawn, and in doing so, somehow, the work becomes darker. Light fades, strength fails, the dampness of the earth encroaches upward and draws us down. Death is not to be withstood but feared, and as we move closer to it, we find ourselves longing for a just and punishing God who will brutally beat the world back into harmony with his own desires. That God is good the work never questions; how terrible that goodness is—well, that’s another matter entirely.

Fear and angst are universal feelings but particular in expression, with language and experience forming each other in a shared striving toward meaning and truth. Everyman is a medieval text written in an early modern form of English and as such, an early modern English politic. Take, for example, the interaction between God and Death:


Go thou to Everyman,

And show him in my name

A pilgrimage he must on him take,

Which he in no wise may escape;

And that he bring with him a sure reckoning

Without delay or any tarrying.


Lord, I will in the world go run over all,

And cruelly outsearch both great and small;

Every man will I beset that liveth beastly

Out of God’s laws, and dreadeth not folly;

He that loveth riches I will strike with my dart,

His sight to blind, and from heaven to depart,

Except that alms be his good friend,

In hell for to dwell, world without end.

I delight in the risk of sounding anti-academic: dead language expresses dead thoughts, and if the work is to be vital, it needs to be revised. It is unfair to impose upon a 15th century text the concerns and fears of the 21st century; while they had our hearts, minds, guts, and groins, the language of expression—at least, artistic expression—was simpler for a simpler audience. We’re eternally evolving in thoughts and deeds, and as our fears have evolved, so must the language we use to convey them, which is what my translation strives toward:


Go to Everyman

and renew his fear of me

by placing him on an inescapable pilgrimage.

Bring him to his final reckoning, unhindered by his world.


My God: I will scour the world with cruel exactitude.

Great and small, every man that delights in living in beastly hovels beyond God’s law

without dread of folly, loving riches more than grace—

in their flesh will my sword sing its song of reckoning.

If he will not make his account clean,

he will be forsaken by heaven, live and die in hell, world without end.

We are no different from our medieval cousins and kindred in our lustful embrace of Death and the Deadly. The original text gives Death a measured and careful cadence that folds into the generally bland and inoffensive language-scape the entirety of the urtext employs. We, however, are on the other side of immeasurable cruelties, unconscionable devices of warfare, and death by phantom sexually transmitted viruses. Death has descended upon us like a shawl, has become comfortably omnipresent, and our new language must match. Death can no longer throw a dart—he must sink a sword singing reckoning into Everyman’s flesh. This, after all, actually pulls us closer to our medieval counterparts, for whom the threat of death by any number of easily preventable maladies was constant. Here is where we walk the line between translation and adaptation: death is constant, but the language used to engage with it over the past 500 years has changed quite a bit.

Heartbreak and loneliness are no different:


Whither away, Fellowship? Will you forsake me?


Yea, by my fay, to God I betake thee.


Farewell, good Fellowship; for this my heart is sore;

Adieu for ever, I shall see thee no more.


In faith, Everyman, farewell now at the end;

For you I will remember that parting is mourning.

Our approach to abandonment and desperation in modern theatre is far more active and confrontational now, with language demanding immediate change or response. The core of the original must remain—Fellowship must abandon Everyman, with perhaps a twinge of sadness, but the language has to become softer to drive the point home:


You have forsaken me.



Go to our Lord.


Goodbye, then, and know you’ve wounded me to my core.

We will not see each other again, you know this?


So be it, Everyman—farewell, then.

Rest knowing that when I think on you years hence—

I will remember that our parting was sad without the benefit of being sweet.

Know you will be mourned, at least.

Mourned at least, indeed—the most we can hope for, perhaps. The subtle shifts in syntax give actors actionable dialogue instead of melodramatic ruminations, but elsewhere, the opposite has a stronger effect. The simple and ordinary sometimes needs to be made more eccentric:


I know your sorrow well, Everyman;

Because with Knowledge ye come to me,

I will you comfort as well as I can,

And a precious jewel I will give thee,

Called penance, wise voider of adversity;

Therewith shall your body chastised be,

With abstinence and perseverance in God’s service:

Here shall you receive that scourge of me,

Which is penance strong, that ye must endure,

To remember thy Saviour was scourged for thee

With sharp scourges, and suffered it patiently;

So must thou, or thou scape that that painful pilgrimage…

This won’t do! Someone’s being scourged onstage, the language must bleed:


Your sorrow has the ring of sad authenticity, Everyman, and well I know it.

You come with Knowledge and the good intent she inspires, so here is a gift:

Penance, a precious jewel and little comfort, the painful obliteration of adversity.

Chastise your body and when it is pure, abstain: and so, persevere for your Lord.

The whip is sharp and strong, and you will scream under the arcing crack of its hymnal moan.

You will see blood rise in spurts as you let the tendrils cut deep into your flesh,

but then when you gasp you draw in God. Breathe easier with each lash,

for your body approaches pain as a sacrament.

Remember that we scourged our Savior, who suffered it for us.

And now, you: be Christ-like, and fully so—heaven detests a false wretch; prove yourself.

The original text delights in having Everyman flayed onstage in an attempt to bring him closer to his God, and lucky for us that the intervening centuries have given our culture new words and syntax to make lusty that interaction. The joy of penance approaches sexual ecstasy, and both ebb as quickly as they arose, leaving behind the faint glow of having undergone a great experience, and a great change. Such complexity was unknown on the medieval stage, whose primary concern was reinforcing the status quo through simple didactic rhetoric. Everyman is unique in the medieval cannon for allowing a character an arc: Everyman starts sinful and ends saved, but only for having changed thoroughly over the course of the play, and fittingly, I wanted to give the work sexual charge to fold into the status quo of the modern era. Theatre is the language of power in conversation with itself.

Indeed, we know what the play is and we know what modern theatre is, making translation not so much the search-and-replace function of linguistic substitution but rather, the conversion of source material into a new but familiar form. English isn’t English when we look back at it and it speaks the depths of our hearts in a foreign vernacular. It requires updating to convey its meaning, keep it vital, and satisfy the modern ear.

Everyman must die, but the text need not.

My translation, as well as the quotes in this article, used the edition of the original text available through the University of Fordham’s Internet History Sourcebook.