2.11.2010

What Modern English Is

Mary Webster has spent years translating The Federalist Papers into "Modern English." Certainly a smart-aleck might ask her, "...into Modern English from what?"

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.
Or this:
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.

10 comments:

Ed said...

Point of privilege: Shakespeare is considered "Early Modern English," not "Modern English." Also, there ARE translations of Shakespeare into modern vernacular called the "No Fear Shakespeare" series. Finally, the "orthodox" reputation that Shakespeare studies can be associated with is a relic from the Victorian era; we're the most open-minded people on the block these days. :)

Casey said...

Oh I only meant lower-case "o," but now I see how poor a choice of words that was... I should've said "it's common wisdom" that Shakespeare is in Modern English. And I only say that because I've heard about four different high school teachers say it, and one or two college professors.

If it is in "Early Modern," why do we expect 15-year olds to be able to read Romeo & Juliet in a language that is not their own?

Cool that there are translations... most importantly, Ed: how much of Shakespeare is lost when he's translated?

2b or not 2b, thatz sup.

Casey said...

So yeah: I concur with that open-minded point. It was Shakespeare's open mind that drove me away from him and toward those dark American fatalists with strict Puritan consciences that I'm always talking about.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I would note (and perhaps I read your post too fast), that the Mary Webster translation is really more about syntax than vocaubulary--uncoiling those long sentences packed with non-essential clauses and prepositional phrases. Your students seemed to imitate that syntax (which, in terms of modern prose, you'll really only find in those academic-theoretical articles you find so distasteful).

Casey said...

You caught me, Santos.... for some reason I'll defend Hamilton's style as necessary even as I tease Derrida for being unnecessarily, uh, syntactical. Maybe I just don't understand Derrida? Like a sophomore.

Ed said...

We teach teenagers all sorts of things that they are unfamiliar with, so in that regard, teaching them Shakespeare is unproblematic. When they 'get' it, they gain confidence and wisdom, so that's good too. They don't ALL get it, but then again, not all students get Math (also an unfamiliar language), so what can you do?

The 'No Fear Shakespeare' series is REALLY interesting. I think it's kind of an exciting series, actually. What is lost might be balanced by what is gained: you lose the music of the meter, the massive vocabulary, surgically precise word/phrasing choices, and perhaps character nuance. The big gain is of course vernacular familiarity, but there's also the built-in insight of the adapter. I don't see the 'No Fear' series as 'Shakespeare-lite' but I do think that a lot of students might go in thinking that the 'No Fear' series can REPLACE Shakespeare, which it can't. It doesn't even try to do that. It's a pretty brilliant adaptation though and might encourage the uninitiated to keep reading.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Ed, the question seems to come down to whether we teach Shakespeare as a linguistic-aesthetic exercise [which could be valuable on many levels] or as an ethical-moral-ideological-cultural-political one [and I think those varied terms suggest the numerous, complicated perspectives we run into once we acknowledge that any curricular reading list must reflect ethical-moral-ideological-cultural-political choice]. This later sense broaches one of my favorite questions (and one I think I know the answer to): are students taught or fashioned?

One answer assumes that individuals are beings who can be given experiences. The other assumes that giving experiences generates beings.

Casey said...

And riffing on Wrangler: is it effectively possible to make that aesthetic/ethical distinction? Or is the language itself part of the meaning? What happened to "the medium is the message," Santos?

And, all jesting center-stage: Wrangler, if you know the answer to your question about whether students are taught or fashioned, who "fashioned" you the answer?

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I don't think the aesthetic/ethical distinction is possible, but you don't have to flip through too many textbooks or anthologies to see that the distinction does exist within our discipline. Canon wars blah blah blah Harold Bloom blah blah blah Marshall McLuhan blah blah blah Steven Greenblat blah blah blah.

As to the later, I don't think I could definitively say--but all the theory I find compelling, and all the experiences I reflect upon convince me (persuade me, even) that humans are a product of particular environments.

Casey said...

Puberty seems to occur regardless of cultural situation or other particular environmental factors; why not certain universal occurring mental features?