Tuesday, August 26, 2008

So my son came home from school with his first ninth-grade English assignment: to begin reading the Odyssey. And then he showed me the copy he was given. It's a 1940s prose translation by E. V. Rieu, published as a "Penguin Classic."

When my husband (who is not a poet and does not read much poetry) sat down to compare the prose Odyssey with the recent much-lauded Robert Fagles's verse translation, he discovered that the narratives match extremely well and that the Fagles translation IS A MUCH MORE EXCITING READ.

So if the prose translation is (1) more boring than the verse translation and (2) far less beautiful and compelling than poetry, why are high schools continuing to teach Homer as prose? Because they don't want to buy new books--or can't afford to do so? Or do teachers assume that budding students of English literature don't need to know that the Odyssey is actually a poem?

I find this situation very disturbing. Is my son's high school unusual, or are other schools also teaching epic poetry as prose?


Mr. Hill said...

I honestly don't know what translation the freshmen teachers use at my school, but I know that until this year we had a couple of classes that taught Shakespeare using modern translations and no reference to the original texts at all.

I think what's behind this tendency is an attitude in English departments that their job is to build "cultural literacy," which often ends up meaning simply that they want the kids to know the story behind a few works that they'll be expected to have read when they get to college. Story is emphasized over language, that is.

At least, that's I see in my school in some of the core classes.

Dawn Potter said...

I think one problem with this cultural literacy approach, though, is that the plots of Shakespeare and Homer and lots of other great works aren't in themselves all that interesting . . . and kids know that. They've been raised on hair-raising film and TV plots, compared to which Odysseus' lollygagging among the islands is an exercise in tedium. Language is what lifts the plot into another plane. When I was teaching Romeo and Juliet to second graders, they absolutely adored saying the words; they loved the way a speech fell from their lips like rubies. They might only be able to deal with one tiny speech at a time, but they wanted--they needed--the real thing.

But I'm preaching to the choir here, Mr. Hill. . . .

Laura said...

At our high school, most ninth grade students read a prose version of the Odyssey.

What intrigues me is this belief that many teachers hold that a prose version of a verse original is somehow more accessible than the verse. In my experience, though, (and I am thinking of an old prose version of Beowulf that I taught for a while because it was cheaply available as a Dover Thrift edition), the prose is more obscure and incomprehensible than the verse.

I think the issue is deeper than money or the desire to do lip service to cultural literacy. It is my sense that among teachers there is often the belief that students are less able to read the original because it must be too hard or too antiquated. I have seen teachers abandon Hawthorne for that reason or decide not to use Dickens because they see those texts as beyond the reach of modern teen.

It makes me wonder--if we don't ask students to read challenging texts, will they ever develop the ability and the desire to do so? Do we make these choices of editions because they are easier for the students or because they are easier for us?