Sunday, April 12, 2009

Chaucer for Dummies - or how not to learn your own language

An interesting article from Chanhassen Monitor (Minnesota), about the need to read English literature in its original language, and not in modern translation:

"When I was in college, I once took a class on Chaucer. We studied “The Canterbury Tales.” I was a little nervous about the class because it was a graduate level course, and I was a junior at the time. Plus, reading 14th-century English is like reading a foreign language.
Wanting to do well in the class, I went to the library and got a book that had a modern translation of “The Canterbury Tales,” and started reading it before the class even got under way. I was quite proud of myself for being so industrious and motivated, and taking that extra step.

The first day of class was a lecture, and the instructor gave us some general background information about the author and the book, as well as about the time period and the setting. He also spoke about the language and the poetry of Chaucer’s writing.
“And by the way,” he said, “if I catch anyone reading a modern translation, I’ll throw you out of class.”


The reason he was so adamant about not reading a modern translation was that the language was a major component of what we were studying. He told us we’d understand it better if we read each tale out loud as we were studying it, and he even joked that the best way to get a feel for the language would be to go over to Ike’s – a bar just off campus – have a few beers, and then read the material in a loud and boisterous voice. At least, I think he was joking.
The point was that we weren’t just studying the words, their meaning, and the stories they told. We were studying the language, and so we had to immerse ourselves in it. And, as with studying an actual foreign language, the more we did, the easier it would be to understand and appreciate the material.


I made a reference to “Macbeth” in something I was writing recently, and I needed to refresh my memory on the details. I went to the library to get a copy of the play, and came across a volume called “No Fear Shakespeare.” It included the notation, “The play plus a translation anyone can understand.” In addition to “Macbeth,” there are No Fear Shakespeare copies of over a dozen other Shakespeare plays. In each book, the actual text appears on the left page, with a line-by-line modern translation on the right.
I checked the book out of the library, although I felt a little guilty about it and realized that my old Chaucer instructor was still with me. After I found the passage I was looking for, I skimmed through the rest of the book to sample some of the modern translations of Shakespeare’s famous lines. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Much is lost in translation. Not the meaning, but the mood – the richness of the words, and the atmosphere of the world in which the story is taking place. The drama, the depth, the foreboding. All this is lost when you replace the original words with a quick, concise, easy-to-swallow and easy-to-digest version.

I don’t think there’s any real solution to this dilemma, not in a world or at a time when the words we use to communicate with each other are being reduced even further to single letters and abbreviations.

It is interesting that this article comes at the same time as the reviews of Anne Carson's new translation of Aeschylus Agamemnon and how it compares to the previous one by Lattimore. Apparently, Lattimore was clunky. Carson is supposed to be "modern". An example:

Cassandra: The fact is we wrestled.
Chorus: Had sex?
Cassandra: I said yes but defaulted.

Lattimore’s : “Did you come to the getting of children then, as people do?”

And some more here:

Carson's: propped on the roof of Atreus,
chin on my paws like a dog.
I’ve peered at the congregation of the nightly stars.

Lattimore's: I lie awake
elbowed upon the Atreidae’s roof dogwise
to mark the grand processionals of all the stars of night.

Both are clunky. English is not Greek, it lacks the music. Try playing Mozart on a tuba and you'll get what I mean. But if I was to choose, I would stick to Lattimore, because Carson's makes me visualise Cassandra with a mobile, in a Hyundai, SMSing on the highway. Aeschylus for Dummies.

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