14 February 2008

Teaching and translations

I once had a student who translated Chaucer's famous line (thanks to Dr. Virago, we all know it), ""Te-he,' she seyde, and clapte the wyndow to," as,

"'Teach,' she said, 'and close the window, too.'"

Insert joke here about closing the barn window after the horse is stolen.

I expect upper-division English majors to read Chaucer (and many other Middle English texts) in Middle English. I would not expect this of lower-division students in a gen ed course, but it seems to me that if you're a major, you should read Chaucer, not someone else's version of Chaucer. A few years ago, the Chaucer Review published an essay analyzing summaries of the Wife of Bath's prologue (Crags' Notes, Regal Notes, FireStarter notes), and the ways minor misstatements added up to serious distortion; I think the same thing goes for translation. Most of Chaucer's writings are poetry, so the words matter even more than in prose, and you should read for more than just plot. Told by someone else, the Miller's Tale would be just a fart joke.

Some students take to ME quite easily; others take awhile; some never really catch on. My experience suggests that it helps a lot to have (a) a large vocabulary in Present-Day English, so that you recognize archaic and dialect words more easily, and (b) a flexible approach to spelling. Further, being able/willing to sound words out helps; I suspect the student who gave the translation cited above had learned to read by recognizing the shapes of words ("whilom" came out as "William," and a host of similar errors).

I encourage students to use a translation, preferably the Harvard Chaucer Page's interlinear translation, for the General Prologue, and start weaning themselves off translations while reading the Knight's Tale. This used to be self-enforcing, when the HCP gave only the GP . . . the GP and a little more . . . but now the HCP has the whole CT, and various other reputable online sites have most of the Chaucer corpus available in translation.

So, are we to give up and assume that Chaucer, like Beowulf, will now be read only in translation at the undergraduate level? Last time I taught Chaucer, I kept to what has become my usual sequence of texts, and continued to encourage students to do their own translations and check them against the HCP, to wean themselves from the interlinear translation, to bring their assigned books to class and quote and discuss ME in their papers. But I noticed a lot of printouts being used, and there was a notable drop in participation the first day (mid-semester) we discussed Sir Orfeo, which I assigned from the TEAMS site. (Students didn't seem to get as far as acquiring the Tolkien translation, so maybe if I didn't mention the online translations of Chaucer, they wouldn't find them? I doubt it, though.) I think that when faced with ME sans interlinear translation, a lot of them boggled.

Two solutions immediately spring to mind. One, give in to the use of translations and cover a lot more ground than I currently do. (I used to cover more, but back in the day, students seemed to read better . . . please join me in a chorus of my-how-the-world-has-changed-for-the-worse-since-I-was-young.) Two, go the other direction entirely, and do fewer texts but in much more depth, so that students will become intimately familiar with the ME, and thus, I hope, will stop feeling intimidated by it and develop a real appreciation for the language and its strange shades of meaning that no longer exist.

My preference is for the second; and that leads to the problem of which texts to choose. If you were going to spend a whole semester on 2-3 Chaucerian texts (with some supporting critical and source material), which would you choose, and why?


sapience said...

Troilus and Criseyde. This is the text I first encountered in ME as an undergrad, and it worked beautifully. It's more straight forward than some of the CT, but its still a very rich text.

Dr. Virago said...

I second Sapience on T&C, but not because it's more straightforward (unless that means plot-driven, then I agree) but because it's complex and full of both "sentence and solas." I *love* to make students aware early on how the narrator and the narrative manipulate them against their better judgment. They *know* Criseyde is going to forsake Troilus, but they hope against hope she won't; they sympathize with Criseyde at first, and then find themselves sympathizing with Troilus and feeling betrayed themselves. And then we get to talk about how narrative works on readers. And also, I spend books 1-3 talking about love, with a little Fortune and mutability thrown in to prime them, and in book 3 start getting them to see the subtext of violence related to love, and remind them that the Trojan war is going on the background. By book 4-5 I start sequeing to suffering, death, loss and mourning and what literature has to do with all of that.

And I bet you could spend a whole day on Troilus' ascent into the 8th sphere and the narrator's "come to Jesus" moment. Both of those things drive my students crazy and so they want to talk about them. A lot. (Of course, they also want to talk about the fact that Criseyde has a unibrow, and they have that tendency as all reader do to start questions with "Why didn't Criseyde...?")

It's a big book full of richness and gravitas.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Hm. I like your reasoning, Dr. Virago. And I like the Troilus. But there's so much philosophy in it, which I don't deal well with. I'm thinking about the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, the Nun's Priest's Tale, and maybe the Book of Duchess. The first two allow for a focus on daily life and on rhetoric; BD doesn't fit as well. Of course, what I really am looking for is where to start with this approach, because if it works, I could do different works as often as I wanted.

meg said...

I want to speak up for *BotD*. It has never failed to lure students into the Wide World of Chaucer, and all those references to writing help them see that they can use their usual interpretive skills on medieval literature. We always leave that section of the syllabus wishing we had more time to spend with it.

Re enforcing the Middle English, I have them turn in translations every day for the first three weeks, and we talk about translation and its difficulties. Actually, that *CR* article sounds like something students might enjoy -- I'll look for it.

I also assign "GC Hath a Blog." Ain't no translations of that out there! Some of them start posting to the class blog in Middle English after that.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Meg--thanks for the thumbs up on BD. THe CR article is by Yvonne Yaw, "Students' Study Guides and the WoB," 35 (2001): 318-32. Actually it deals with only 2 sets of notes; I misremembered another.

highlyeccentric said...

As a student, i'd much rather a class arranged according to your second option: few texts in detail. It might depend on the structure of the course and so forth, though.

I took a (mostly) middle enlish literature course last year, where we were given translations of the one or two Anglo-Saxon and Latin texts, a parrallel edition of Piers Ploughman, glossed Chaucer, and assorted other stuff (pearl being the only one i read properly) in the raw. Even with the glossed chaucer, the speed at which the class moved was too much for me to take in anything other than the Book of the Duchess. Being an Anglo-Saxonist AND a french major and having a respectable modern english vocabulary, i ought to find middle english easy, but I struggle with it like my year eight class struggled the first time we were given shakespeare: I *know* i should be able to read it without much trouble, it looks vagely familiar, i can read it aloud and it sounds pretty, but i can only get the vaguest sense of what's going on in it.
Hopefully this year's honours seminar exclusely on Sir Gawain will remedy that deficiency of mine :)

I'd echo the thumbs-up for BoD, too. It doesn't DROWN you in philosophy like the House of Fame and so forth, but when you start digging in it it's absolutely fascinating. The language is a bit easier- i think- and the plot is simple. Goes along way toward making newbies feel like 'hey, i CAN do this middle english thing'.

Best of luck!