Friday, October 22, 2010

Lost in Translation

My AP seniors are just finishing Hamlet. We took the Act V quiz last class. We started the play with a wild rush, though, so the latter half of the play makes more sense to the kids than the former half. Our schedule calls for a timed writing next time we meet, which lasts 45 minutes, then a class discussion on the timed writing for the remaining 45 minutes. I think I'm going to switch that up. Timed writing, yes. The only way to improve writing is to write.

But methinks we will, instead, spend only 10-15 minutes discussing the writing and instead, review the Acts I-V quizzes and discuss the content, the technique, the intrigue. I teach English in English, but the Elizabethan English is still foreign to the kids and I want them to truly obtain an appreciation for Shakespeare's talent and skill rather than just have this be another play they slog through.

The American Shakespeare Center recently posted a blog that reflected on the translation that occurs with any piece not in your native tongue. The entry was very applicable to me, since I am not only trying to ensure my seniors appreciate Shakespeare, but am also rather frustrated with my freshmen's translation of The Odyssey. The 20 minute conversation I had with them regarding the different versions of The Odyssey was difficult to explain - I have one version of prose on our Blackboard site. The library has 2 additional adaptations. The freshmen textbook has an horrific translation and abridgement that isn't even worth opening to - a veritable desecration of the poem. We, as an English department, have 2 versions, one prose, one poem. Unfortunately, the version we have the most copies of, and the most recently purchased (which means it will be a while before we replace them) is translated in an almost sing-song manner - I feel downright Suessian at times when we're reading it out loud.

Even if you don't want to read the entire entry from The American Shakespeare Center, the latter half is where the true meat of the assertion is - I am thankful that I am a native English speaker, though not Elizabethan. That is something I relearn every time I teach Shakespeare and that is merely because I have to attempt to view his plays through the eyes of my students. Every time a work is translated, unless you know the native tongue, you will lose some of the beauty and sometimes, some of the content.

Translating art is difficult - and teaching how to translate it is an even slicker slope. But it is a skill that is necessary, as our society moves towards ever increasing distance between human contact. Shakespeare is the epitome of the human experience - every emotion is written in a way that everyone can understand. Even us pathetic groundlings who merely grasp the most base ideas of his plays. I am not worthy of him but I will do my best to represent him to my students. As for Homer, well... I think he must be groaning in his grave as we read the poem. But then again, I've never read the original in Greek, so I have no way, myself, of knowing how much I lose when I read it, regardless of how talented my professor was in college. I do know I add some life to the translation that is otherwise lost. Let's hope I can act enough as his interpreter to his satisfaction, Sisyphean task as it may be.

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