The OF Blog: Should we "alter" literary works to make them "accessible"?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Should we "alter" literary works to make them "accessible"?

Language is life.  Our vocabulary shapes us and the world around us.  Just as older elementary/primary school students utilize the larger boxes of crayons (Sienna being a favorite color name, along with periwinkle) compared to a kindergartener, our vocabularies expand with age, desire, and practice.  Sure, we can get by with using only a few hundred words of English to make a point, but what if we want to make a nuanced point? 

Robert Ebert writes about a simplification of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.  Although some might think his point is blunted somewhat by the fact of the simplified version being marketed to English as a Second Language students, I cannot help but to sympathize with Ebert's point.  I taught social studies for two years in the early 2000s in Florida to ESL (or ESOL in Florida) students.  I can see the appeal of simplifying texts so the student can understand them better.  But should this apply to works of literary genius?

It is a difficult place literature teachers find themselves in when they have ESL students.  How does one teach the same rubrics, the same formulae to those whose command of English is weak compared to native speakers?  It is a shame that secondary level teaching of literature in general has been reduced to a few rote themes, as this strips the text of its aesthetic appeal.  Students don't read classics like The Great Gatsby as much as they are taught another's interpretation of it.  In such a climate, having a simplified text would make some sense; students do have to pass the test and who really expects them to appreciate how adroitly the words are constructed?

This is, as Ebert puts it, a travesty.  One of the joys I've had in learning how to read other languages is the puzzling out of syntax and semantic contexts.  I don't want to read Mio Cid in a simplified form; if I'm going to read it in Spanish, bring on the Old Castilian form!  Make me look up words or to do double-takes when a word had a much different meaning several hundred years ago than it does today.  But do not reduce it to a primary school level; that replaces the actual text with something that is not a translation (itself a carrying across from idiom to idiom in an attempt to preserve the complexities of the text as much as possible) but instead a reduction of a story to a synopsis that contains virtually none of the original text's beauty or importance.  Translations can be frustrating when the beauty of the prose or poetry is altered to fit the demands of another language, but at least there is some attempt to be faithful to the notions behind the text. 

Perhaps this view is a minority one, but when it comes to introducing people to a classic, isn't it better that they read a translation that approximates the complexity of the original than to read something in a second language that distorts the original text to the point where its attractions disappear under the reduced, simplified text?  Maybe I'm just a romantic, but I'd much rather read "assí es vuestra ventura,     grandes son vuestras ganançias" than "usted tiene gran suerte y ganancías."  One carries something beautiful about it, while the other stamps out all signs of beautiful prose in service of making an outline intelligible.  Sometimes, it's just better to sink or swim in a second language and learn more complex phrases than to read something that is much worse than a good translation.

Maybe you feel differently?  If so, please weigh in, as there certainly is room for other interpretations here.


WordTipping said...

I have always rejected the idea of simplifying a text. Why even teach it at that point?

I was a Classical Studies major and I know first hand that reading translated, aka simplified, text really destroys the heart of any text.

Even from a purely educational point of view, teaching simplified text robs a teacher of teaching moments. Teaching something like the Great Gatsby is as much a cultural lesson as a reading lesson. The idiosyncrasies of the text are crucial to retain and are such a great spring board for discussion and greater understanding of not just the native language but cultural history.

ESL is an incredible challenge, but taking these shortcuts in my non-professional opinion only leads to long term issues.

Jen said...

Since my idea of teaching to ESL is based on, well, my own imagination, this might be off.

Unless the ESL students should be on the same curriculum as the native students, I think they should read literature they can understand. You might enjoy figuring out what things mean, but I doubt the average student would. So, why teach The Great Gatsby if no one will understand it properly? Just choose another book. If the students *should* know enough English to understand the novel, well then it's their own problem that they're not up to standards... if there are "simplified" versions (or translations) available in bookstores they can get those.

This all depends on what ESL actually means, though. High school students around here (the ones in "special" English classes/schools, i.e. more hours of English per week) read classic literature in the original version after 8-9 years of learning English.

(And for the record, I haven't read The Great Gatsby in any language, so I don't know how difficult it is.)

Super Happy Jen said...

It all stems from laziness. Not wanting to teach two or three different books at once depending on someone's reading level. Not wanting to create new rubrics and exam questions. Not wanting to take a chance on a book that may never have been studied before. There are brilliant YA novels whose language is simple to understand by design.

On another note, why are we still doing studies on works from the 1920s when authors of today are struggling to make ends meet? Because we can't be bothered deciding for ourselves which works are worthy? Laziness. Laziness. Laziness.

Super Happy Jen said...

BTW: They don't even have to read the book. There's a video game version!

I'm told it's surprisingly true to the novel. :)

David Soares said...

I think it's a sign of the times, a consequence of the rapacity with wich we absorb information: pruning literary works that way seems to me like just one more nail in the coffin of knowledge, since absorbing information and absorbing knowledge are two different things.

I am a writer and I like excentric, uncustomary (and just plain weird) words. I truly believe that being a writer is all about that: being in love with extraordinary language.

That's why I love authors like Alexander Theroux, John Barth, Lawrence Stern (and others) so much. In Portugal we had a great and unique writer of words that was Aquilino Ribeiro - even his children's book ("The Novel of the Fox") is full of offbeat and odd words.
But today we (writers) hear: don't use adjectivation, don't use the exclamation point, don't use adverbs, don't use this and that... So what can we use in order to make a literary text don't look like something you could read in "Newsday" ou "Metro"?...

We truly need to let books be books again (and unashamedly).


Larry said...

Some excellent responses, worthy of more commentary than the pitifully short one I'm about to give (I do hate quarterly education audits, especially when it involves assessment testing, which I coordinate at my job):

I agree with the opinion that taking "shortcuts" toward understanding a literary work is a travesty. I am considering going back to grad school to earn an Ed.S. in ESL instruction and I certainly wouldn't want to have a work reduced to the point of removing those elements that make it a delight. Cliff's Notes are one thing, but reducing a fiction to it is a very different matter.

Unfortunately, so many public school curricula emphasize all students "being exposed" to certain core books like The Great Gatsby. For me, it was part of my Honors English summer reading my senior year of high school in 1991-1992. But it wasn't required in the regular classes, so it is strange requiring that sort of technical brilliance to be processed by those who have not learned how to read literature by standards others than information-processing/sorting.

As for why 1920s books and not more recent, there's a cultural value that's at play here (maybe I should save this for a post late next week, when I plan on taking a mini-vacation after the audits/summer tests are complete). The cachet that some classics have acquired over the years just hasn't been achieved by more recent works and that plays a major role in story selection.


I agree wholeheartedly with what you say. I "hear" a melody in well-crafted prose (and obviously in poetry) and I tend to react negatively when novels remind me of periodicals in their narrative approaches. But what's frightening is that a sizable minority of Americans (and I believe it's similar in most countries) cannot read adequately enough to understand all that is said in newspaper writing. When this is the case, it is no wonder that they cannot understand the terrible beauties that are born in the best literature being produced.

David Soares said...

Startlingly, that's also true here, but I think it could possibly be blamed in the way the media, in general, became less about information and more about persuasion.
The power to persuade was always the power of the slogan, of the small word, and sometimes that's what I see in most media: a reduction to a more simplified form of news (buzzwords, mainly).
But it's a business, so I guess a certain degree of marketing will always be involved - in a way or another - in order to attain better ratings.
We need more "slow news" (like in "slow food").


Hal Duncan said...

Travesty is the word. It may not be Bowdlerising, but it's butchery and bastardisation.

A complex articulation means a complex import, constantly generated in the reader's noggin in the process of reading, constantly revised, by the impact of word after word, clause after clause, as procedural as code being run on a computer. If I use the word "pintle" rather than "penis" at some particular point in the narrative, you can bet there's a fucking reason for it, and all import after that is changed if you substitute the more familiar term for the more obscure. If the grammar is complex, that means it's executing a complex maneouvre I deem necessary at that point. Again, if that isn't done, if you execute some simplistic maneouvre instead, all import after that is altered. If you, the reader, have not been taken from State A1 to State A2 as you were meant to be, what follows isn't going to take you to State A3 and so on; you're going from State A1 to State B2 to C3 and so on. You're ending up at a wholly different place. That is not my book you're teaching.

A translation is a whole nother thing, an attempt to implement the same algorithm in another language. A good one is dedicated in doing so as fully as possible despite the key differences in the way those languages work which mean you can never really do that perfectly. It's always going to be making those maneouvres differently, landing a bit off here and there -- A3.1 rather than A3 -- but it's going to be correcting for that, compensating. At the end of the day, if it doesn't quite succeed, it may be damn close, and it's at least presenting itself as a necessarily flawed (re)rendering of the original.

This... this is a stick figure drawing of The Raft of the Medusa, presented as if it was a "faithful enough" (re)rendering of the original to use while teaching Géricault in a History of Art class.

Dave Cesarano said...

"One of the joys I've had in learning how to read other languages is the puzzling out of syntax and semantic contexts."

This says it all. One of the joys of learning to read Greek is the ability to read The Iliad in Homeric Greek. When we learn a language in university, we don't read simplified versions at the 600-level.

Granted, Shakespeare may be too difficult for a non-native speaker. But Shakespeare is as distant from modern English as Homeric Greek is from Biblical Koine, and I can read both (with help from lexicons and grammar books). Anyway, that's a bit off-topic.

Nevertheless, I've worked in ESL, and one of the devastating problems I've witnessed, both in the US and abroad, is the assumption that the text is "too hard" and "beyond the capacity" of the students. If that logic were used on me, than I never would have attempted to even touch something like Thucydides or Plato (who are EXTREMELY difficult).

Triumph and conquest of difficult obstacles reap the greatest rewards. I'd honestly say that "accessible" versions of classic literature are for the weak-willed or lazy, or teachers who are "too busy" (i.e. also lazy) to help students overcome the challenges.

Daniel Ausema said...

I have to say that lumping in the modernized version of El Cid with a gutted version of Great Gatsby is a rather ridiculous pairing. A much closer analogy (at least to the metric version I read in college) would be to a modern English translation of Canterbury Tales. Can an argument be made for preferring to read Chaucer in Middle English instead of Modern? Absolutely. Just as the argument can be made for every translated work. A graduate student specifically studying the literature ought to read the original. Undergrads learning the language for a wide variety of reasons? A rich familiarity with the cultural heritage is more important than an in-depth look at the early language. I happened to find reading some early Spanish works fascinating...but it feels like you're denigrating the translated version of El Cid. Which is intellectually silly.

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