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).