Thursday, December 11, 2014

Swimming In the Deep End

The deep end of the pool has many advantages.  You can usually dive in without breaking your neck.  You can float more easily.  You can do twists and turns and more easily let your imagination take you into the realms of Atlantis or whatever other fantasy you wish to play out.

It is the end of the semester for my A.P. Latin students, and while I am sure the activity we have pursued for the past three days has been useful in preparing for their final, it has, more importantly, given them a chance to swim in the deep end.  We have been exploring various translations of Vergil's epic poem, the Aeneid.  They range from the 17th century version of Dryden to the 2009 rendering by Sarah Ruden, the first complete translation made by a woman.  Some translations are prose, others are poetry.

On the first day of this exercise, the class picked a passage they had read from Book I, another from Book II, and a third from Book IV.  They chose translations from one of our shelves, or in the case of one young lady, on her Nook, and their task was to analyze each of the three passages for grammatical changes.  Was a word plural in the original, but singular in the translation?  They then shared their findings, and we discussed why a translator may have made those changes.

The second day saw them doing the same thing, but with the focus on content.  Had the translator added, subtracted, or changed anything of significance apart from the grammar?  This led to a discussion of what changes were legitimate and what effect they had on understanding the Aeneid.

Today was our final round of this work.  The students worked in small groups, and each group chose its own passage, one we had read in Latin but that had not been discussed the other two days.  The students then read the translations of their passages and shared the translations with each other so that each member of each group could read all the translations within the group.  Their task this time was more personal.  They simply had to pick the translation they liked best.

As their time of reading and reflection drew to a close, I put three questions on the board.  "Why do you prefer one translation and not another?"  "What criteria are you using to choose?"  "What are you looking for?"

I did not give these questions until the end because I wanted them to be free to engage with the texts however they chose and then to reflect on the process.  Not surprisingly, their answers were intriguing.

We began with the last question, and most said they were looking for a translation that was readable and understandable, one without archaic English.  As Matthias put it in his own inimitable way, "I want a median between the vulgate and what is dripping with exaggeration."  Another student said, "Yeah, what he said, only in normal language."

When we moved to discussing how they made their choice of favorite once they had read several different translations, the emphasis still seemed to be on readability, but Ayrrana said something different.  She said that she focused on word choice and whether or not a translator used a word that was too big or too small for the passage.  If the translator used "run" where "dashed" would have seemed better to her, she rejected the translation as being too small.

I will keep a secret the translations the students preferred and those they did not, although I will say that one made it on both lists!  What was important was how these young scholars grappled with the subtleties and art of professional translations.  They had a sufficient grasp of the original to be able to offer meaningful critiques.  This exploration opened them up to a wider range of work and also allowed them to put themselves into it, especially on the last day.

One student reads two handed!

Question:  What does swimming in the deep end look like in your subject?

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