28 June 2010

Legislating "Educationally Sound" Choices?

The Pennsylvania legislature is considering a bill requiring faculty to order "the least expensive, educationally sound textbooks" for courses they are teaching.

Well, guess what? I already do that, and I'm pretty sure most of my colleagues do, too.

I went to college on a generous scholarship from the University of Pennsylvania, and I worked during the school year and in the summers to pay expenses, and I bought my books week by week rather than all at once at the beginning of the term because they were just so expensive. And then I worked my way through the Ph.D. program at NYU.

I remember coming home in grad school once and telling The Mate I needed to buy two books for a paper I was writing. He looked at me funny. "Why are you telling me this? Just buy the books." I told him the prices of the books, one around $85, the other around $130. "Oh." I did buy them.

Anyway, back to Pennsylvania and its pending legislation. The problem is in the phrase "educationally sound."

Let's consider Beowulf, which has been translated many, many times, and which I'll be teaching in a survey course next year. The cheapest option in an actual book is probably the Dover Books edition of R. K. Gordon's translation from 1923, which retails for $2.50 at Barnes & Noble.

Or I could send students on-line to download the translation by Francis Gummere (1910) for free! (Someone has to pay for all that paper, though, if I want them to have a copy in front of them for class discussion.)

But translation is a tricky thing, and a lot has been written about the difficulties. Go for "literal" accuracy, representing the text word for word just as in the original language? Aim to reproduce the feel of the original, maintaining poetic structures like alliteration and meter? Attempt to create a new classic in a new language, recognizing that it's always going to be an adaptation and never the original?

I'm assigning Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, which retails for $13.95.

Here's Gummere's opening sentence:
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
And Heaney's:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.
The Old English, in case you're wondering (you can find the rest here)
HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
The students in the survey course I'm teaching aren't English majors. I get just one semester to persuade them that it's worth their time to read, to read literature and not just Cosmo or Sports Illustrated. My choices about what texts to assign are based on what versions I think will engage them, interest them, keep them thinking beyond the end of the course.

I think I've made my case that Gummere's version is not just as "educationally sound" a choice as Heaney's. But I'm glad I don't teach in the Penn State system, because I'd hate to have to make that case for every text I was teaching.