Wednesday, September 23, 2015

In praise of footnotes; or, more grumping about No Fear Shakespeare

I posted a shortened version of this on LJ after my last-but-one venture into the wilds of No Fear Shakespeare, but it's still bothering me, so I thought I'd post it as a follow-on to yesterday.

So I was looking at the No Fear As You Like It, because I am a masochist, and I found this.

Real Shakespeare:

Touchstone: I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths.

Jaques: O knowledge ill-inhabited, worse than Jove in a thatched house!

Touchstone: When a man's verses cannot be understood, or a man's good wit seconded with the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.

No Fear Shakespeare

Touchstone: Well, I'm out here with you and your goats, in the same way that the witty poet Ovid was abandoned to the barbaric Goths.

Jaques: Oh, knowledge put to such bad use is worse than a god cooped up in a hut.

Touchstone: When a man's jokes fall that flat, it's as depressing as getting a large bill for a short stay in a little room.

Obviously, there is Very Much Wrong with the No Fear version, but what strikes me, especially, is how much "translating" the text into contemporary English fails to illuminate it. With the exception of the phrase "seconded with the forward child" and the single word "reckoning," there's nothing that's actually difficult about the language of this passage. What makes it difficult is content knowledge: in order to get it all, you have to know a little about Ovid's biography, and enough Latin to get the multilingual pun on "capricious," and enough about classical mythology to recognize the story of Jupiter, Philemon, and Baucis, and some stuff about Christopher Marlowe. You know, the kinds of things that are best explained in footnotes. And the No Fear version doesn't even attempt to convey any of this cultural knowledge; in fact, I'd go so far as to argue it actually conspires to hide this knowledge from students. The wordplay and allusions are either left unexplained, or completely erased, or watered down out of recognition ("Jove" becoming "a god"). Now, this isn't disastrous if your sole purpose is comprehensibility, because you don't NEED to know any of this stuff to understand the plot of As You Like It. It's lagniappe. Fluff. Part of the game of wit that Shakespeare's characters engage in, incessantly, while we busy modern people wish they would get back to the plot.

Except. Since this is a comedy, lagniappe and fluff and games and wit are sort of the entire point. And at least one of those allusions isn't a throwaway; if you do know about Jupiter and Philemon and Baucis, you're going to see little echoes all over this play, in old faithful Adam, and in the Duke's invitation to Orlando to share in their poor feast, and in the way a literal god shows up out of nowhere at the end (but maybe there have always been gods in the forest; we just didn't recognize them for what they were). It's a lovely little set of grace notes. And you can only learn to hear them if you spend some time learning early modern culture, not plots or lists of characters or Analysis of Major Themes. And the only way to learn that -- in the absence of time travel -- is by reading early modern texts. A lot. And paying attention to the footnotes.

It makes me sad that anyone would discourage students from trying.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

No Fear Literature grumpery

I was poking around on the SparkNotes site today, which is something one should never do, except, like most of us, I need to go on there sometimes to verify that one of my students has been plagiarizing from it.*

Like most Shakespeare profs, I was all-too-aware of the existence of No Fear Shakespeare, but it seems that the No Fear series is branching out. There is a now a whole line of "No Fear Literature," marketed with the tag line "Read great texts in all their brilliance -- and actually understand what they mean." (I find this kind of baffling, as a marketing slogan, since it seems to imply that their target audience is stupid; wouldn't "You know you've got better things to do than read a stuffy old novel in Victorian English, so here's a crib sheet" be a little more flattering? But whatever.)

Now, I abhor No Fear Shakespeare, but I understand why it exists. I haven't got the foggiest idea why No Fear Heart of Darkness exists. (Helpfully, No Fear Heart of Darkness informs us that "Marlow said suddenly" is Ye Olde Englishe for "Marlow said out of nowhere," and that "the worst that could be said of him" means "the worst thing you could say about him.") Seriously, this is a twentieth-century text. Since when does it require translation?

And then there's No Fear Beowulf. There are, of course, plenty of very good reasons to translate Beowulf into modern English; I have nothing to say against such a project. There are fewer good reasons to translate Beowulf FROM modern English into modern English, however, and the text that SparkNotes is labeling as the "original text" very clearly is nothing of the sort. It's a fairly stodgy and old-fashioned translation of Beowulf, one that I can't imagine gets assigned very often nowadays, but it is definitely translated already. The cynic in me suspects that SparkNotes probably picked this particular text in order to manufacture a need for their product; I mean, if they'd used Seamus Heaney's version, which I suspect is the one that usually does get assigned, even high school students would probably realize that it is, in fact, perfectly readable already.

But this is what frustrates me about SparkNotes, in general; their entire business model seems to revolve around cultivating a feeling of learned helplessness in students, rather than actually teaching them how to read and think for themselves. (As much as I dislike the chirrupy, faux-hip tone of, they are at least a little better at trying to show students HOW to get from the text to an interpretation.)

Aarghh. I have ranted long enough, I suspect, so I will leave you with a brief excerpt from A No Fear Tale of Two Cities. Because apparently, rhetoric and parallelism and cadence and grace in language are scary, and must be eliminated.

It was one of the best and worst times in history. It was a time of great intelligence and ignorance, belief and disbelief, good and evil, hope and hopelessness. We had everything to live for, and we had nothing to live for. Everyone was going straight to Heaven and straight to hell. Basically, it was just like the present, with experts of the time insisting on seeing its events only in terms of contrasting extremes.

I can't wait for No Fear 1984. My irony-meter will probably explode.

* As a side note, WHY do plagiarists always plagiarize from SparkNotes? Don't they realize that it's completely Google-able, and that it is the first place most of us are going to check?