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Home :: Archive :: 1994 :: January ::
Re: Paraphrase
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0015.  Friday, 7 January 1994.
 
From:           James Schaefer <SCHAEFEJ@GUVAX.BITNET>
Date:           Friday, 07 Jan 1994 12:43:16 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 4.0961  Re: Paraphrase
Comment:        Re: SHK 4.0961  Re: Paraphrase
 
Dear Nate Johnson:
 
Your comments about paraphrase and translation (back before the holidays) are
well taken.  Let me see if I can make a coherent response.
 
Translation first, then back to paraphrase:
 
I supposed I could argue that the issue of translation was my own red herring,
but I believe the questions raised by translation are central to any discussion
of the interpretation of language in the drama, if only because our
English-speaking stages and classrooms are filled with works written in Greek,
French, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, Russian....
 
How do we teach these works?  Only as receptacles of ideas?  If we did, any old
translation or paraphrase or precis would do.  But if you are like me, you
expend some effort looking for "good" translations, ones that read as artfully
rich English _and_ that capture (as judged by the authority of your own
knowledge or the advice of others whose opinions you trust) as many of the
nuances of the other language as possible.  I'm currently reading Burton
Raffel's essay, "On Translating Horace," in his poetic translation of the *Ars
Poetica*. He describes his task as a dichotomous one.  The translator
 
     is not to create _de novo_, or _ex nihilo_:  he must first master
     the original, know it as nearly as possible as its original
     creator knew it, linguistically and culturally, inside and
     out....  If he is not certain of a passage, he must return to it,
     over and over, until be becomes certain, until all fuzziness
     disappears.
 
[Note how much this sounds like the Olivier quote I cited before: "I'd rather
have run the scene eight times than have wasted that time in chattering away
about abstractions.  An actor gets the right thing by doing it over and over."]
 
But once he has this in his bones, "[t]he translator must turn his back on the
original, then, in order to be ultimately loyal to it," in order to make it
like in another language for a specific time and place.
 
The translator reworking an original into a "parallel" text in another language
is therefore doing something quite different from the befuddled sophomore, put
on the spot in class, trying to explain what a difficult passage means.
 
Others can expand on this much better than I.  But I think I can justify
considering all the English language texts I deal with _as_ English texts,
_all_ of which are difficult to interpret.
 
So having these English texts to interpret, why not paraphrase?  I could give
an outrageous example I saved from the "Doonesbury" comic strip for May 16,
1979.  (Quoting it will take up less space than paraphrase:)
 
     - "See Rick, in its way, mellow-speak is a remarkably economical
     dialect.  What Dr. Asher has done is reduce language to only its
     most essential components.  Here, I'll show you.  Give me a line
     to translate."
 
     - "How about this... 'The moon like a flower in heaven's high
     bower, with silent delight sits and smiles on the night."
 
     - "William Blake, Right?  Okay, let's see... In mellow-speak,
     that would be...  'Oh, wow, look at the moon.'"
 
     - "Duane, we've got to talk"
 
I'm note sure most of us with initials after our names, let alone our
undergraduate students, are much above the "Oh, wow, look at the moon" stage on
a first reading -- and maybe that _is_ a valid synopsis for a first reading.
But if there we are to have a deeper intellectual and emotional understanding
of a work of literature (including the drama), we must quickly get to an
appreciation of exactly how that work works: both God and the Devil are in the
details of the language.
 
My bias toward an extreme position on this matter comes from having received
all my degrees in Theatre Arts, and from having had to resist every step of the
way the method (actually "The Method") by which actors and directors in the
U.S. are _*explicitly taught*_ (how much more boldly can I state it in email?)
that paraphrase is sufficient for performance, that "the lines" are simply what
you have to have memorized by run-through, and that "love of the language," if
it exists, simply means that an actor envys John Gielgud the sound of his
voice.  There are exceptions, notably Richard Hornby, whose books "Script Into
Performance" and "The End of Acting: A Radical View" address this problem
directly with both example (the former) and healthy polemic (the latter), but
for the most part, theatre people view the workings and details of language as
irrelevant.  (Ask me sometime about the reaction I got in 1981 when I proposed
to incorporate psycholinguistics into my dissertation research.)
 
As my colleague, Jon Enriquez, put it, "I want to die" may be a valid
paraphrase in September, but by December, "To be or not to be" should have a
more direct, and richer, meaning.
 
Yours ever in medias res,
 
Jim Schaefer
Graduate School
Georgetown University

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