Tuesday, May 26, 2009

No Fear: michael5000


I was recently discussing the various editions of Shakespeare plays with a friend, as one does, and learned about an exciting new product from the folks at Barnes & Noble called "No Fear Shakespeare." The No Fear Shakespeare series, as its website chirpily informs us, features the plays of our language's most important wordsmith converted "into modern English—the kind of English people actually speak today." So, they allow you to get right to Shakespeare's revolutionary plots, without all of the wordplay and poetry getting in the way!

To get a feel for this, I picked a few lines at random from No Fear: Hamlet. I think you'll agree that the No Fear writers have conveyed the flavor, the spirit, the essence of Shakespeare almost perfectly.
HORATIO: I don't know exactly how to explain this, but I have a general feeling this means bad news for our country.
... 
CLAUDIUS: Although I still have fresh memories of my brother the elder Hamlet's death, and though it was proper to mourn him throughout our kingdom, life still goes on—I think it's wise to mourn him while also thinking about my own well being. Therefore, I've married my former sister-in-law, the queen, with mixed feelings of happiness and sadness.
...

CLAUDIUS: Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I've wanted to see you for a long time now, but I sent for you so hastily because I need your help right away.
Having read these gems, naturally I was eager to read Ophelia's flower speech as I'd never read it before!
OPHELIA (to GERTRUDE): Here are fennel and columbines for you—they symbolize adultery. (to CLAUDIUS) And here's rue for you—it symbolizes repentance. We can call it the merciful Sunday flower. You should wear it for a different reason. And here's a daisy, for unhappy love. I'd give you some violets, flowers of faithfulness, but they all dried up when my father died. They say he looked good when he died. (sings) For good sweet Robin is all my joy.
And how about Hamlet's most famous soliloquy -- but finally in the kind of English people actually speak today!
HAMLET: The question is: is it better to be alive or dead? Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all?
Dying, sleeping—that's all dying is—a sleep that ends all the heartache and shocks that life on earth gives us—that's an achievement to wish for. To die, to sleep—to sleep, maybe to dream.
Ah, but there's the catch: in death's sleep who knows what kind of dreams might come, after we've put the noise and commotion of life behind us. That's certainly something to worry about.
Really, this is all almost too good to be true. Think of an impassioned actor uttering the line "To sleep! Maybe to dream!" and you notice right away just how darn fussy and complicated Shakespeare had to make everything. I mean, "perchance"? Nobody talks like that. So, inspired by the pure clarity of that last line -- and you have to admit that, for sheer dramatic impact, it doesn't get much clearer than "that's certainly something to worry about" -- I tried some of my own.

Caesar’s Last Words, from The Assassination of Julius Caesar and the War That Happened Afterward:
"Even you, Brutus?!?"
or, perhaps:
"Dude! Lame!"
Introduction to Henry V: England at War
Oh, if I only had an inspiration that was, you know, fiery!
The climax of Humpbacked Villain: the Richard III Story
I'll trade you my kingdom for a horse! Really!
Ferdinand gets some bad news in Survivor: Tempest
Your dad has drowned and he's on the ocean floor, about 36 feet down. The creatures and chemicals in the ocean water have done a number on his body, and there's not much left that's recognizable.
Personally, I see no reason to stop with Shakespeare, and look forward to having some of those other hard old books rendered into modern English—the kind of English people actually speak today. Just think how many people have been frustrated by James Joyces' Ulysses, for instance, which is SO TOTALLY not written in the kind of English people actually speak today! Just think how empowered and literary they are going to feel when they reach those famous final lines of No Fear: Ulysses --
And then Molly thought for awhile about the first time she had sex, until she drifted off to sleep.

22 comments:

PB said...

The New Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 1:
"So when are we three witches going to meet again? When it's thundering and lightning out, or when it's raining?"
"When the commotion is finished, and the battle has been lost by one side and won by the other."
"That's going to be before sunset."
"So where should we meet?"
"On an extensive tract of uncultivated open land covered with herbage and low shrubs."*
"So there we'll meet up with Macbeth."
"Cool, peace out."
"Peace."
"TTYL!"

*Thanks to the American Heritage Dictionary.

These are fun. Though I must admit, I don't think anyone could top Mr. P.G. Wodeshous's renditions of Shakespeare and others in the wonderful mouth of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster.

Elaine said...

And the best part-- the No Fear "translation" actually misses the point and makes no sense in several instances.

I liked the Penguin Shakespeare books (in the 60's) with the word-meanings on the facing page. Starting with 8th grade, we read 3-4 plays a year in English classes... I wonder if those are still in use?

jovaliquilts said...

I hope they do this with the sonnets, too. Here's a start:
Damn, woman, you're hot!
Better than some f-ing summer's day.

Actually, that pretty much sums it up -- they could just stop there.

Elizabeth said...

I weep, perchance to scream. While the excerpted examples made me laugh, I find I'm very sad about the prospect of people using these editions. Cliff's Notes are one thing, but at least they don't destroy the original.

I suppose the Twitter version is next.

Rebel said...

I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand yes, this translation completely misses the point of the original poetry. Gotcha.

BUT if it introduces people who wouldn't otherwise read Shakespeare - isn't that a good thing? For example, I gave a graded reader copy of Romeo and Juliet to two of my students. They were completely unfamiliar with the story. So for the purpose of becoming familiar with some of the cultural references... it's not such a bad idea.

And I disagree that it destroys the text. The text (actually, multiple versions of the texts) still exist.

Ultimately though, I think Shakespeare's PLAYS are meant to be seen and heard, not just read on paper.

Elaine said...

Rebel, you do make a point. It can be valuable to have multiple "versions" out there...but one worries that it is just part of the "dumbing down" process that is proving costly in terms of a society/culture of people who know how to think.

And the original is too rich to miss!
Example in similar vein:
I found the Oxford New English Bible useful-- but it will never have the power and beauty of the KJ version I grew up hearing. Even when understanding is dim, the towering language has impact.

Michael5000 said...

On behalf of Boo, who is having trouble logging in:

Romeo : I can see Juliet through that window. She's hot. Like sun hot.

Melissa said...

Ick. Just ick. If they're going to rewrite it in modern English, couldn't they at least have made it sound good?

Eversaved said...

You know, I have to say that I don't see much of a difference between these jewels and other translations (cough cough readers of Don Quixote en ingles instead of medieval Spanish or Great Russian Novels). Or am I being simple-minded here?

Of course in any translation you lose the beauty of the original, but it takes extensive training to read the original in some cases. And I think that that's training that some people will skip because they are lazy and others because they just simply don't have access to it.

And with that I end my non-judgmental thought-sharing.

Rebel said...

Elaine, I agree with the problem of dumbing down the culture, and would never suggest using No Fear Shakespeare in an actual English class (for fluent English speakers).

But... the KJV is *NOT* the original version of the Bible. Jesus did not speak old English.

King James and his crew took possibly latin translations of originally greek or aramaic or who knows what other language texts and put it into the 'everyday language' of the people.

Having studied religion/major religious texts in college (and as a certified Bible-thumper), I can tell you that some of the newer versions have done a much better job of researching the original texts and retranslating directly, in order to get closer to the original intent and meaning of the writers.

If you're looking for old English poetry - KJV is your book. But if you want a more accurate translation of the Bible... look elsewhere.

I agree with Eversaved - any time you read a 'translation' you miss something. But isn't it better than nothing? Or rather, is reading No Fear Shakespeare better than watching "America's got Talent" or better "Trading Spouses"?

Elaine said...

Um, Rebel, gently wish to suggest that a straw man argument rises here. I NEVER claimed KJ as "original"--I mean, duh-- and in fact I attended religiously affiliated colleges with required Biblical history and so forth. Therefore I don't take a back seat in terms of understanding the original languages and probably intent. In other words, I am unfairly treated with arguments that have nothing to do with my actual statements.
I'm old, not ignorant.
And I stand by what I *actually* said.
Just for the record.
e

Rebel said...

Sorry I came on a bit too strong. It wasn't meant to be personal. The discussion about Shakespeare/No Fear was about originals vs. translations and that's where I was going with that.

gl. said...

working with the OPSFest, I've learned two very valuable things about Shakespeare's plays:

1. if it's not First Folio, everything else is has been edited in ways Shakespeare did not intend.

2. Shakespeare intended his plays to be performed: a lot of the textual oddities are instructions for actors, if you know how to read them.

Michael5000 said...

@PB: Awesome.

@Reb: "If it introduces people who wouldn't otherwise read Shakespeare, isn't that a good thing?" I guess I'd say that it's a fairly meaningless thing. There are so very many other things they could be reading! The only point -- or at least, easily the most important point -- of reading Shakespeare is working through the language. The Shakespeare plots, although often quite well balanced and paced, are nothing special. His characters are necessarily fairly static relative to what you would find in a good novel, since as you say the plays are meant to be performed, not read through. The language is the thing, so reading Shakespeare without the language is something like drinking non-alcoholic beer.

Secondarily, as an introduction to Shakespeare, the text of No Fear: Hamlet is crap. With this kind of introduction, nobody's going to call Will for a second date. I suppose a well-crafted paraphrasing of Shakespeare is theoretically possible, but this sure ain't it. In my humble opinion.

@Melissa: Yeah, that's what I'm saying.

@Ms. Saved: I can see that translation and paraphrasing are in the same extended family of human endeavor -- transformation of text -- but I'm puzzled as to how they would be the same thing.

To read any text in a language other than English, you need to have the extensive training of having learned how to read that language. To read Shakespeare as a native English speaker, you need the extensive training of, traditionally, having graduated from junior high school. Obviously, the better read you are, the more you are going to get out of a Shakespeare plays -- they are not easy texts -- but anyone of normal abilities can hack their way through a play with a modicum of guidance.

It takes some work, of course. Which is the only reason why a product like this has reason to exist: to allow students to avoid the work of engaging with a difficult text; or, more depressingly in my book, to allow teachers to avoid the work of guiding students through a difficult text.

@Reb/Elaine: The KJV/Modern Translation discussion came up in my real-life conversation, too. As the two of you combatitively agree, it is (being a translation into English from this and that) a separate sorta issue. And Elaine, give Rebel this much slack: YOU didn't say that the KJV was the "original," but it often gets treated as if it was.

My own crankish take on the KJV is that it is historically important, an artistic and scholarly achievement for its time, and still obviously very resonant for many people. I think its continued use today, however, makes a very strong psychological connection between archaic speach and religiousity that does a minor disservice to language and a more serious disservice to religion.

@gl.: Quite true! And yet, although my friends in the Shakespeare industry will rip me a new one for saying this -- much as I respect the ongoing effort in the scholarship of the Shakespearian canon -- we really have a fairly decent set of consensus texts at this point. It seems to me that whether what we have is what Shakespeare would have intended us to have is a big moot at this point.

Elaine said...

There are Bible re-writes out there (_The Living Bible_ is one) that are on the same level as _No Fear Shakespeare_...."modern" language and occasional outright distortion.
I think it is interesting that I could walk from my History of the NT class to my World Lit class and find large sections of The Bible (the KJV) included in the class textbook (clearly not for religious reasons--simply because the writing was beautiful.)

What would we say about the movies made of various plays? (I myself never checked to be sure they were completely faithful, but some of them are lush and delightful stagings.) Kenneth Branagh's (Sp?) "Henry V" thrilled our daughter so much that she then checked out and read the play--definitely more effective than a watery modernization in terms of energizing newly-introduced readers. Now, M5000, does _No Fear_ fearlessly translate some of the naughtier (hilarious) suggestive lines from, say "Taming of the Shrew?" or is NFS Bowdlerized?

DrSchnell said...

From my long-distant Sunday-school goin' days, I always kinda liked the "Cotton Patch Gospel" - bible re-written in Southern vernacular. see http://rockhay.tripod.com/cottonpatch/

. The beginning of Jesus the Leader was like this: While his mama, Mary, was engaged to Joseph, but before they had relations, she was made pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Since Joseph, her fiance´, was a considerate man and didn't want to make a public scandal, he decided to quietly break up with her. As he was wondering about the whole situation, a messenger from the Lord came to him in a dream and said, "Joe Davidson, don't be ashamed to marry Mary, because the Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. Now she'll give birth to a boy, who you'll name Jesus,1 because he will deliver his nation from their errors."

Elaine said...

Despite being born in Georgia, I have never heard of this Cotton Patch Gospel, but I enjoyed the snippet (which was faithful, and at least pleasantly readable vs overly colloquial.) I will try out your link!

Eversaved said...

Isn't it a translation from Elizabethan English to LOL English? Paraphrasing would be saying, "And then Hamlet told Ophelia that she was a whore and to get lost, so sad." This seems more like a translation to me.

Anyway, two summers ago I taught a reading and composition class to a bunch of incoming university students that had a statistically high chance of not making it past the first year. A lot of them were reservation kids; the rest were from mainstream public schools. They were good kids, and smart. They were all native English speakers, but they def. never had the training to read Shakespeare. I mean they could read, but they couldn't READ. We didn't try our hand at Shakespeare a) because of time constraints and b) because I figured Shakespeare was about the most irrelevant text I could find for them, but I think they would have understood about as much as if it were in foreign language.

I'm not really defending the text. The reason these translations or paraphrases or whatever are hilarious is because, without the richness of the language, Shakespeare isn't that great. My point was that we do this all the time without really thinking about it. Those of us who are well-educated and are native English speakers have the luxury of enjoying Shakespeare. I guess I'm a little skeptical of translations altogether.

It really hit home when I was at church in Spain, reading a passage in Spanish. In English it goes, "Seek first righteousness..." In Spanish it says, "Seek first justice..." Well, WTF!? Those are two different things in my mind. It was sort of a transformative experience for me. But also it's just what translation does.

Sorry for posting a book on your wall :-/

Elaine said...

Well, when I was young I winced away from anything too, too challenging for my "special" students. Then: back in the classroom as a Fifty-something and superannuated mom, I acted on the idea that you can pretty much find a toehold on ANY subject and teach it at any level. (This is not meant to criticize your decision-- you had good reasons to limit the scope of your class.) But after you have had to explain the national news coverage of the AIDS epidemic to your 11 and 8 yr olds... you can't dodge the hard stuff, and you have to find a way.

In any case, I taught topics like "states of matter" to kids with serious handicapping conditions (including mental/emotional) and most of them caught on. Sometimes, a chance to even slightly understand your world is a valid pursuit.
For a totally disabled (but only mildly retarded) young adult, filling one's time can be a suitable goal. So we learned "Go Fish."
The sad part about these snapshots is: first, I had to teach the assisting staff the concepts/ games/etc. But it enriched us all.

So, perhaps the gift of age is that you will go ahead and attempt the "makes-no-sense" goal (like Shakespeare for ill-equipped students)...because my experience is that kids/students/people will always surprise and amaze you by their ability to grasp and apply ideas. Knowledge IS power, in more ways than one.

Oops, another book.

Chance said...

The whole world is like a stage in the theater, and every person in the world is like an actor in a play on that stage. Except it isn't, really. See, it's a metaphor.

...A metaphor. It's, uh, sort of imagery with words?

Oh, hell.

Serendipity said...

How do people feel about manga Shakespeare?

http://www.amazon.com/Shakespeares-Romeo-Juliet-William-Shakespeare/dp/0470097582/ref=pd_sim_b_4/191-7213866-0712037

Elaine said...

Boooiiiing! Hey, the pictures weren't even in color! Phooey. Real comics are in color, right?

On the whole, Cliff Notes would be cheaper and more comprehensible....