Translating from Shakespeare to Modernism: An Experiment in How Form Affects Meaning

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Marianne Kaletzky, Comparative Literature

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2015

One of the core principles of literary analysis is that the form of literature — the language an author uses, the way he or she structures the text, and the stylistic conventions he or she employs — means as much as the content. For students in reading and composition (R&C) courses taught within literature departments, this principle is doubly important: not only does it allow them to approach literature as scholars in the field do, but it also enables them to write sophisticated essays based on critical thinking. High school literature classes, which focus on plot and characters, often teach students to treat texts in broad strokes, to generalize and speculate. Teaching students to analyze form also teaches them to focus in on particular evidence, to think about it carefully and critically, and to articulate their findings precisely. Unfortunately, students often struggle with formal analysis: not only do they find the process challenging, but they also have difficulty understanding its relevance. This was particularly true in my R&C course this spring. I introduced the principles of formal analysis in the first two weeks only to watch students struggle with it in the month that followed. They preferred to talk about texts and their meanings in broad terms: when I asked them to pay attention to the text’s language, they weren’t sure which formal features they should focus on, since they didn’t see how formal features might affect the text’s meaning in the first place. Moreover, they often asked whether their formal analysis was “good enough” or whether they were reading “closely enough”: they lacked the ability to evaluate their own formal analysis, since they saw it as an arbitrary requirement.

I wanted to help my students not only to become more attentive to formal features, but also to understand why those formal features matter: because the meaning of a text is shaped as much by its form as by its content. To cultivate this understanding, I decided to give my students an unconventional writing assignment: a translation from English to English, from one style to another. Specifically, I asked students to “translate” the content of the first scene of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which we had read earlier in the semester, into the style of Andrei Bely’s modernist novel Petersburg, which we were currently reading. I hoped that students would see that style wasn’t simply a superficial overlay. Even though the characters and events would remain the same, Bely’s style would emphasize different aspects of the story from Shakespeare’s, and as a result, the story might be understood in a new way. In other words, students would understand how form changes meaning by enacting the process themselves: changing the form and seeing how the meaning changed. Besides assigning the translation, I also asked students to fill out a chart describing four key elements of Bely’s style, giving examples from Petersburg, and then giving examples from their own text.

These charts served as my first method of assessment. Reading them, I saw that my students were more attentive to the subtleties of Bely’s style in the creative project than they had been in their literary analysis essays: they accurately and precisely described the ways that Bely used language and perspective, almost always with highly compelling examples. I was also able to assess the effectiveness of the assignment through in-class questions about the relationship between form and meaning, which I posed after students presented their translations. The most compelling evidence of the creative assignment’s success, however, was the students’ increased proficiency in formal analysis in other contexts. In the discussion comments and the academic essays that followed the activity, students demonstrated a closer attention to form, a greater ability to connect form to meaning, and a better understanding of the goals of close reading. As one of them told me in office hours, “The way we read just makes so much more sense now.”