Translate. Paraphrase.

When teaching Middle English, I ask students to do a certain amount of translation, in order to check their understanding and thus improve their comprehension. Similarly, when teaching poetry in Present-Day English, I assign paraphrases before analysis. I reason that before you can analyze a sonnet, you need to know whether its topic is love, lust, contemplation or nostalgia, and whether references to any one of these are direct or metaphorical.

I mean different things by paraphrase and translation, but I have trouble conveying these shades of meaning to students in Middle English classes. Even with examples.

Here’s what I would call a paraphrase of the opening lines of Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: “When rains come in April after a dry March, when the west wind has made the fields sprout, and the sun is halfway through Aries . . . ” If a student came up with that, I’d accept that Stu got the gist of those eight lines of poetry.

But it’s not a translation. I want more than a demonstration that Stu gets the gist; if we’re going to talk about Chaucer’s language, his skills as a poet, his word choices and the way the pieces fit together, I need to know that Stu can detangle the syntax and recognize not just some of the words, but all of them. I want something that reads more like this: “When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, and bathed every vein (of a plant) in liquid of such strength that it begets flowers” (we’ll stop at four lines, this time).

Now, I’m not claiming that this is a brilliant or unproblematic translation, but it shows greater awareness of syntax and of some of the vocabulary problems than would a paraphrase. With this, we can start to analyze: why pierce? What does that verb suggest about the rain? And why liquor? Is there a connection between shoures and liquor, or not, and either way, what is the significance?

Despite examples like these, both written and oral, in class and on assignment sheets, I seem to baffle a significant percentage of my students when I ask for translations. (Not all of them are clueless, I hasten to add, but enough that I am trying for greater clarity.) Some of them give a paraphrase instead; in this case, this may be the best they can do. Perhaps they do get the gist, but not the details. I also get minor rearrangement and respelling of Chaucer’s exact words: “When that April with his showers sweet [or sooty, sometimes] the drought of March hath pierced to the root and bathed every vein with such liquor of which virtue engendered is the flower . . . ” In a case like this, I can’t tell whether the student understands the lines and thinks inversion of noun and adjective, subject and verb (and other medievalisms) is All Poetic N Shit, or whether Stu recognizes the words but can’t put the sentence together; but I fear the latter.

Why does it matter? Because I want to head off problems while they’re still little problems. We work up: exercises in class, homework, quizzes, papers. If a student gets a poor grade on a translation quiz worth 5% or less of the final grade, there’s time to work on the rough spots. (Guess what: the ones who do the homework do better on the quizzes.) If a student is getting the gist, but skipping the homework and the quizzes, then has to do some analysis of, let us say, sexual imagery in the opening lines of the CT in a paper worth 20% of the final grade . . . oh, two of us will not be happy, Stu and me.

I value everybody’s happiness. So I’m trying to figure out if there’s a way, not to convey my expectations differently, but to use different techniques to test comprehension. Maybe this is a place where multiple-choice would actually be appropriate: rather than students doing their own translations, perhaps I should give them a series of translations, and ask them to pick the best. Or the worst. Or to work through each of them and explain what’s wrong with it. Or I could give the original, a translation, and a set of key words in the original, with MED definitions (edited for brevity and clarity), and ask them to use the definitions in critiquing the translation. Or give the original, the list of key words and definitions, and a paraphrase, and ask that students explain what the paraphrase fails to convey.

Extra credit to anyone who comments helpfully (points off if all you do is trash the whole idea of testing comprehension, or teaching ME in the original).

Academic honesty

It’s summer. Days are sunny, breezy, the scent of lilacs and irises fills the air, and I want to spend my time in the garden, or swimming, or sitting around drinking at noon and pretending that I’m in France or Italy.

But of course I’m an academic, and summer is when we get a lot of our research done. Why don’t I work on something that would take me to Italy or France? I enjoy my trips to England, but they’re not exactly filled with sunlit piazzas and wine from a vineyard within walking distance.

Anyway. Concentrate. The desk is spread with calendar, books, research journals present and past, print-outs of drafts, and the new to-do list. New not just in the age of the items on it, but also in its layout.

Three columns. One for the thing to be done, one for the immediate reward for doing it, one for the big-picture motivation.

Example: notes on 1000 lines of text. 10 minutes reading blogs. Have specific elements to look for in next encounter with manuscript.

Or: format footnotes in Article That Took Too Long. Half an hour’s walk. Submit draft to friend/editor to help her sell the collection to publishers.

Having the motivation down in front of me really helps my focus. The task may be dull, but this is how it helps me meet longer-term goals. It’s like ticking off progress on a map. I may have progressed only a few blocks in a journey of many miles, but I can see that the trip is underway.

The trick is to identify what really will get me moving. “Enjoy feeling of accomplishment” won’t do it. Sometimes the motivational column has a notation that doesn’t discredit me, like the examples above, or one which, though selfish, invokes scholarly interests: “get money from funding body so I can go to Famous Library.”

But in all honesty, the entry most likely to help me avoid the siren song of sunlight and irises is something like “avoid humiliating self in front of colleagues” or “prove to Sneering Doubter that this is viable research.”

Yes. Apparently I have not outgrown exchanges (at least internal ones) of “Am not/are so/your mama.” The urge to “show them” remains with me. If showing them means keeping seat of pants stuck to seat of chair, I can do that! You watch!

Or don’t. You and the grown-ups can go drink wine in Italy, and my childish hang-ups and I will stay here in time-out.

The olde daunce

Of remedies of love she knew perchaunce,
For she koude of that art the olde daunce. (I.475-6)

Ther wiste no wight that he was in dette,
So estatly was he of his governance . . . . (I. 280-1)

This is not another post about the Kalamazoo dance in the good old days. Rather, it’s about discreet conduct of the “olde daunce” at that and other conferences.

Now, if you’re not interested in discretion—if you prefer to advertise that you are hooking up with Hot Grad Student, Randy Rising Star, or Sexy Senior Prof—then you may skip this post. But if you and Randy have reason to conceal your liaison, then here are some suggestions, offered more in the spirit of Miss Manners than that of Ms. Mentor. As I so often tell my students when explaining some shocking aspect of medieval mores, “I merely report; I do not condone.”

There is, of course, a difference between the on-going conference relationship and the more spontaneous conference fling. Those engaging in a longer-term affair can make plans in advance, and stay at the same hotel, perhaps even in communicating rooms (not the same room: think of the receipts). Staying at a hotel unrelated to the conference, while inconvenient in driving time, means you will be surrounded by people who have no connection to Prof. Nosy Parker or Dr. Grundy, and who have little interest in whether you and Randy are shacking up.

But what if you have not been able to lay your plans in advance?

If you intend to put the moves on someone, you might still want to book a hotel some distance from the conference. On the other hand, that means you may have to drive your guest somewhere in the middle of the night or very early in the morning. This is both inconvenient and a chance to be observed. Or you may be overcome by unexpected passion while staying in a conference hotel or in the Valley dorms. What then?

For one thing, the person of lesser stature should always be the visitor. If a graduate student or junior professor is seen knocking at the door of a more senior person, this may be to return a forgotten program or jacket (remember to carry a program or jacket prominently, as a prop). But a senior professor lingering longingly outside the dorm room of a grad student is more likely to give rise to salacious assumptions.

On the other hand, while it’s true that hotels are considerably more comfortable, staying in the dorms has certain advantages. People come and go at all hours, stay up late talking to old friends, hold parties in their rooms: although the coming and going means that your guest is more likely to be observed, the noise of all these activities will tend to cover up any noise from your room, and your guest may be assumed to have been catching up with an old friend.

Actually hosting a party in your hotel or dorm room on one night will encourage your neighbors to attribute odd noises on the next to another party rather than to, ah, dauncing. Further, having good wine or liquor in your room provides a good excuse to invite someone up, though for pick-up lines I refer you to Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous set, on which I cannot improve.

I hope I do not need to remind you to refrain from public displays of affection, particularly in hallways, stairwells, and elevators. Similarly, clean up your room before anyone else sees the empty condom wrappers or worse. Travel separately. The knock at the door is more explicable than two people entering together.

Try to avoid disheveled early-morning appearances. The guest should either depart in the small hours, when dishevelment may be due to an after-hours party, or else be clean and professionally attired, as if for an early breakfast meeting. Here, of course, the hotel has a considerable advantage, unless you are lucky enough to score an end-of-corridor private-bath dorm room. There is nothing like running into a suite-mate in the bathroom to ruin all attempts at discretion. Requesting to share a dorm suite with a discreet friend will help conceal your affaire from others, but may mean that the friend will tease you or expect details.

Pick your partner carefully. All your discretion will go for naught if your paramour boasts of conquest. Avoid those who are, “som men seyn, . . .of tonge large” (T&C V.804).

And if you behave yourselves estatly and observe those who do not, you will garner much useful material for creative writing. Or gossip, as you prefer.

How many??

Of course I bought books at Kalamazoo. After all, the book exhibits are an important part of the conference.

And the 50% off at Powell’s on Sunday morning was . . . inspiring. I think that’s the word. Or maybe it’s “impoverishing.” Something starting with I.

Now that I’ve home and have stacked them all in a single place, I am surprised to find that my purchases amount to a whole shelf’s worth. How did that happen? It was only four bags’ worth. Where am I going to put all these? And when am I going to read them?

Kalamazoo thoughts

You know you’re a grown-up, academically speaking, when you’re giving a talk and feel relieved when you see your dissertation committee in the audience: whatever they think of your shortcomings, you’ve already been through it with them. Those who were Dissertation Dragons make a pleasant distraction from the scattering of Grand Old Scholars who have also turned up.

Many Grand Old Scholars, of course, are quite kind.

It is possible to amuse your audience by admitting you have stolen images from other people’s blogs. It is also possible to make your co-presenters feel smug about having low-tech handouts that do not require frantic calls to the IT people for help.

Organizing a series of sessions will sometimes feel like more trouble than it is worth, and yet the results can be good enough to make it all seem worthwhile. Such feelings are dangerous, as is doing a good job with the organization. As Lois McMaster Bujold observes, the reward for a job well done is usually another job.

By Saturday night, Thursday may have disappeared completely from memory, even without the aid of alcoholic memory-destroyers.

Kalamazoo, for me, is usually simultaneously exhausting and inspiring. I want to go off and write several papers at once, but arrive home too tired to do much for a couple of days. I think it would be great to have it (or some medieval conference) arranged differently: it should last a week, with one session of papers per day, then time free to write, and social activities in which to talk over ideas and plot new sessions for next year. Or maybe even for the same year, with people writing their papers one afternoon and giving them the next morning (oh, wait, isn’t that what happens already?).


Oh . . . the paper . . . well, it’s written, but I’m working on the slides.

No, I meant that I spent yesterday evening in the company of Leonard Cohen and a couple thousand other fans. It was good. Only, I do wonder about all the extra musicians and backup singers. He’s been going that way on albums for awhile, but I think he’s a brilliant songwriter whose songs sound great with just an acoustic guitar and the man himself. Maybe a bass and harmonica if you insist. Still, that’s his vision, and there’s something to be said for experiencing the artist’s own idea of what should happen.

Still . . . makes me think editors do very important work. Or maybe it’s the medievalist in me that thinks less is more.