But I've been saying for years that Shakespeare is badly in need of translation, despite the orthodox linguistic categorization of Shakespeare's work as "Modern English" (ridiculous from a lay perspective, that is). I have a copy of my great great grandpa's Complete Shakespeare--he signed it Olaf Anidersen. Legend has it that it was his only book. He asked the people at Ellis Island circa 1906 how to learn the language: buy a complete Shakespeare, they told him.
Anyway, I teach The Federalist Papers every semester in a gen.-ed. literature class to mostly sophomores. I get the impression that very few of them can understand it. Are they getting dumber, or is it possible that Mary Webster's project will make the issues buried beneath the aging prose more accessible to contemporary readers? What would be lost?
Here's a bit of prose, a single sentence, from Federalist No. 1, by Alexander Hamilton:
Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every state to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument and consequence of the offices they hold under the state establishments--and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies, than from its union under one government.
Tomorrow, I'm going to have my sophomores translate that into "Modern English." I'll post a few of their efforts here as an update.
But first, here's Mary Webster's translated version of the sentence quoted above:
Many politicians will oppose the new Constitution. Some politicians are afraid that the Constitution will decrease the power and benefits of their current State offices. Others think that they can have more power if the country is in turmoil or is broken up into several small countries.
Any thoughts? My initial reaction is to seriously question Webster's translation from Hamilton's "a certain class of men" to "politicians." I don't think Hamilton was thinking so narrowly: certainly a businessman/slaveowner from South Carolina may have had reason to oppose the Constitution for financial reasons.
UPDATE: Interesting results. I gave students definitions to the more obscure vocabulary. At first, they came up with stuff like this:
Amongst the dreaded task the new Constitution will have to face which may divide certain people in every state to resist all changes which may expose the act of power, profit, and distinction of the offices they hold under the state establishments--and the misguided ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to esteem themselves by the confusion of their country, or will flatter themselves with ample sucess of dignity or from the seperation of the empire into several partial alliances, than from its union under one government.
But after I made them read that kind of translation aloud, they realized they hadn't done anything but substitute words for words. So then I said, "Look, pretend you've gotta go back to the dorm and tell your roommate about this idea; what will you say?"
Then I got:
The Constitution will divide the people, in every state, into people who either support it because they want more success, or disaprove it because they are afraid of change.
Some people want seperation of the constitution while other do not.
But then I had to try to convince them that too much was lost in that kind of translation. Fun effort at teaching, but I'm discouraged at how impossible it is to get 20-year olds to discuss the ideas that are presented in The Federalist Papers. Hamilton was only 32 when he wrote the damn things.