Saturday, February 9, 2008

Translation, Teaching, Reading--passive and engaged

I've been struggling with the problem of how to relieve my students of the habit of passive reading. Keep in mind--I'm teaching college freshman, almost all of them business majors in one form or another. Few of them read for pleasure. They're extra-curricular scholastic experience did not include theater. When they read aloud, they do so self-consciously, without expression. In their mouths, Lear's "Come, let's away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i'the cage..." comes out no different than were they reading instructions from a computer manual. The words as they read them have no burrs, no points or hooks, no Velcroed edges to catch a thought, a heartbeat or a tear as they pass through. The problem is getting them to slow down, and most importantly, when they read on their own--getting them to recognize when they don't get it, to understand when lines pass through with no effect, as little more than white noise, that it isn't supposed to be that way. No matter how apparently successful the sessions of close reading in class, they invariably revert to form. What to do?

I've heard others tell me they had some success having students write paraphrases, an idea I don't find at all to my liking, but Friday morning I was in a quandary trying to come up with a plan for my afternoon class. We'd done some close reading with Lear, and as usual, it wasn't making any lasting impression. In desperation, I was almost ready to work up an exercise in paraphrase, and then I stopped... how does paraphrase differ from translation, I asked myself? What if I asked them, not to paraphrase, but to translate from Elizabethan to contemporary English? Unlike paraphrase, they would not be able to generalize. What was concrete in the original would have to be concrete in the translation. When Lear compares his situation to a man fleeing a bear and faced with a roaring sea, there would have to be a bear and a roaring sea in the translation.

You don't delete the bear by turning it into a symbol, or worse... a generalized explanation. They would not be able to say or write, as they are wont to do: "He seems, like, you know... there's two different kinds of danger?" This is not a translation of

...Thou'dst shun a bear,
But if thy flight lay toward the roaring sea
Thou'dst meet the bear i'th' mouth.

In a paraphrase, you need pay no attention to levels of diction. In paraphrase, the elevated speech of a nobleman and the crude patois of peasant can be rendered in the same style. Not so translation. In translation you would want to find a way to represent the difference. Not describe it--represent it, show it. To translate, you have to pay attention to detail, and hasn't that always been the most difficult idea to get across?

Testing this out, I sat down and began to translate from Act 3. Wow, I thought... this is not easy! But everything that made it difficult pointed precisely to what I hoped they might learn in the process, learn from the trying--that what they had thought of before as reading was but a pale semblance of what happens when you are engaged with the text. I imagined, filled with hope at the possibility--my students suddenly looking up--after struggling with a few lines, overwhelmed with the revelation that up to that point, they hadn't been reading at all! ... one does not teach freshman if one is not given to such fantasies. And who knows... this one just might work!


My intention when I started this post was to introduce a piece I stumbled on surfing for articles on translation: Eliot Weinberger's long and thoughtful essay in Issue One of Fascicle.


Here, from the final paragraphs and postscript. Worth printing out the whole and keeping on file.

... In July of 1991, the Italian translator of The Satanic Verses, Ettore Caprioli, was stabbed in his apartment in Milan, but survived. Days later, the Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, an Islamic scholar, was stabbed to death in his office at Tsukuba University in Tokyo.

As far as I know, Rushdie has never made any extended comment on Hitoshi Igarashi. It would take another kind of novelist– Dostoyevsky perhaps– to untangle the psychological, moral, and spiritual meanings and effects of the story of these two: the man who became the most famous writer in the world at the price of what seemed until recently to be life imprisonment, and the anonymous man who died for a faithful translation of an old mistranslation, paying for the writer's mistake.

Translation is the most anonymous of professions, yet people die for it. It is an obvious necessity that is considered a problem. (There are never conferences on the "pleasures of translation.") Yet it is a problem that only arises in the interstices when one is not casually referring to some translated bit of literature: the Bible, Homer, Kafka, Proust. . . Could it possibly be that translation essentially has no problems at all? That it only has successes and failures? There is no text that cannot be translated; there are only texts that have not yet found their translators. A translation is not inferior to the original; it is only inferior to other translations, written or not yet written. There is no definitive translation because a translation always appears in the context of its contemporary literature, and the realm of the possible in any contemporary literature is in constant flux– often, it should be emphasized, altered by the translations that have entered into it. Everything worth translating should be translated as many times as possible, even by the same translator, for you can never step into the same original twice. Poetry is that which is worth translating, and translation is what keeps literature alive. Translation is change and motion; literature dies when it stays the same, when it has no place to go.


  1. I experienced a similar Eureka moment when I read of you alighting on your new tactic of getting your students to "translate" Shakespeare. I think it is something I could use for my own readings whenever I stumble on a phrase that seems a bit hard to decipher or escapes me somehow. (Something which happens occasionally in, say, Paradise Lost.) Thank you very much.

    I hope the exercise goes over well in your class! I wish I had had you for my first year Shakespeare class. I came out of high school thinking that I was a fan and that four month class (three, really, as the fourth was for exams) nearly killed it.

  2. I was surprised at how difficult it was--to treat the text as would a translator working with a foreign language--and how helpful--illuminating meaning and identifying textual problems.

    The few exercises I've checked so far look pretty good. I'm encouraged.

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