Category Archives: translation

Beowulf after the movie.

So, this week I taught Beowulf for the first time since the movie came out, and so I had an opportunity to think through and then talk to my class (about half of whom had seen the film) about what I thought were the problems with the movie, or rather, What They Got Wrong ™.

Leaving aside completely the arguments about the quality of the facial animation, and the technical merit (or otherwise) of the film’s special effects, the woodenness of the acting, the oddness of the accents, or whether the penis-covering scene is funnier than the penis-covering scene in The Simpson’s Movie, I really just went to the heart of the narrative adaptation. And there I do have a couple of insurmountable objections.

Before your squeaks of protest get too loud, let position myself. Yes, I am generally a Gaiman fan, although not because of Sandman. The first Gaiman book I read was Stardust, and I read that because it was recommended by Diana Wynne Jones. (I think this came up in the context of both of them having written books which were in some way inspired by Donne’s “Go and Catch a Falling Star,” but it might have been because someone pointed out that Gaiman has a cameo appearance in Deep Secret.) I love Stardust, both in book and movie versions, and I was delighted to find that Gaiman is an author who can really read aloud, too. I follow his blog a bit, I’ve read and enjoyed American Gods, Anansi Boys and Neverwhere. Generally pro-Gaiman, okay? Got it?

I’m also not having a stereotypical kneejerk English Professor The Only Way to Read Beowulf is in the original Anglo-Saxon moment, either. (Although, having said that, Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon as presented by the eccentric Benjamin Bagby is pretty awesome.) I don’t have conniptions about the “hibernicisms” in Heaneywulf; I teach the poem in translation, and I do what I can to help students see what it means by relating the arc of Beowulf’s battles with increasingly impossible monsters to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I’m not offended that the movie strayed from the original text, and I do understand the idea behind the adaptation. I’ve read a couple of the reviews that Gaiman says capture his idea about what they were trying to do (I’ve read some of the other kind of reviews, too). I actually think the idea that Gaiman and Avary had of turning the poem into the “public” version of the story and having their version tell the “real” story is an interesting one. It certainly provides a better answer to the question “Why did Beowulf bring back Grendel’s head after he killed Grendel’s mother in their underwater home?” than anyone else has come up with.

So, what’s my problem? It’s that Gaiman and Avary present sex and kingship as the things that Grendel’s mother uses to tempt Beowulf. Beowulf, in the original poem, is not that kind of guy. He’s not perfect, and he has a fatal character flaw – he has buttons to push, all right, but sex just isn’t one of his buttons. In the poem, after he has killed the Grendels, Beowulf is rewarded by both Hrothgar (the king he has rescued by slaying the monsters) and Hygelac (his own king). The kings give Beowulf all of the traditional rewards suitable to a hero – money, treasure, weapons, land – except for one. Neither of them offer him the hand of a princess in marriage, and Beowulf passes up not one, but two obvious opportunities to ask for a wife. There are women in the poem who make eyes at him, but Beowulf doesn’t see it, and his failure as a king to produce an heir seems tied to his inability to see himself as anything but a single hero. In fact, he’s so disinterested in the women who are in the background in the mead hall sometimes students ask if it’s possible to read him as gay, but he seems oblivious to the boys making eyes at him, too. (Wiglaf, in the movie, might be one of them.)

Kingship is thrust upon Beowulf; the explanation of how he becomes king is brief, and then, suddenly, in one line, it’s 50 years later, and there is no mention of a wife, or heirs. The poem is silent on the topic, but it’s easy to read an implied criticism of Beowulf as king in this silence; he should have a dozen grandsons eager to go and fight the dragon, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t express regret over this mishap of fate; instead, he charges out – sword in one hand, cane in the other – to fight the dragon himself, as if he is still the young tough he was at the beginning of the poem. In essence, Beowulf’s death at the end of the poem comes about because he never was able to exchange his identity as a hero in order to be a king.

Fundamentally, then, it makes no sense for Beowulf to give in to the temptation to have sex with any woman, no matter how much her bosoms are defying gravity, in order to be rewarded with a kingdom. He doesn’t want a kingdom, and he doesn’t want to have sex with her either. He should have had no trouble in resisting temptation. That’s where I have a problem with the adaptation – Gaiman and Avary went for the most obvious Hollywood cliché – and the really irritating thing about it is, Beowulf really does have a flaw that could have been exploited, and it might have made the movie more interesting.

What is Beowulf’s Achilles heel? It’s his desire to be famous for his deeds. The poem ends with a description of the hero, and the final word of his epitaph sums him up perfectly. He is lofgeornost: the most eager for glory.

You can’t tell me that’s an alien concept in the movie industry.

Teaching Chaucer to Dumbasses

So. This semester I have 2 sections of the same course, which is a Brit Lit Survey from Beowulf to Milton. I may have mentioned before that I like this class; it’s my area, and I get to teach lots of cool stuff I like. I think I teach it well, and students tend to enjoy it, if the comments on my evaluations are to be believed. (I got my favourite comment ever on an evaluation for this class, actually; it said: “this course was not nearly as boring as I was expecting it to be.” Backhanded, yes, but something about it really pleased me.)

Taking all that into account, believe me when I tell you that I am teaching one decent group, and the other is a rancid pile of dumbasses.

I started having my suspicions earlier in the semester – it was becoming clear that the Good Class read and the Bad Class didn’t. The Good Class hands its work in, the Bad class asks repeatedly “is there something due?” The Good Class are thinking about their essay topics; the Bad Class are still coming up to me and saying “I think there was a handout about an essay or something last week?” The Good Class come to class; the Bad Class email me weak excuses. You get the idea.

Today we were reading some of the portraits in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. These are usually fun, and I take them slowly because this is most students’ first experience of reading Chaucer. Usually they get the general gist of it, and we use class time to go over some of the more interesting nuances of the descriptions. There are some good jokes, and so it is a class that gets some laughs.

Today, I had to spend 10 minutes explaining a couple of lines of portrait of the Prioress to the Bad Class. By the end, I felt like someone explaining a knock knock joke to a slow-witted foreigner: “Well, the idea is that I pretend I am knocking on your door.” “What door?” “There is no door, but we are pretending there is one.” “Why?” “So I can knock on it.” Et cetera.

Here are the lines in question:

Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely,
And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.

So, the deal is, Chaucer is talking about this nun, who seems to be from a nice family, and she has some social pretensions. He makes a little joke about her French being very Englishy. Here’s a rough transcript of me trying to get this across to the Bad Class.

Me: So, he says she sings through her nose. Anyone got any idea what that might mean?
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: Who talks through their noses?
Random Dumbass: People with colds?
Me (talking through nose as snobbily as possible): Well, possibly, but I was thinking more along the lines of a general stereotype. [Dumbasses appear to notice nothing.]
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me (still talking through nose, and now tipping head to look down nose): No one can think of anything you associate with noses and social class?
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: How do snobby people talk?
Front row Dumbass: They use big words. [If this were the smart class, I would think that was a little dig. As it is, I am unsure.]
Me: They might, but we were thinking about noses, remember? [He clearly doesn’t. Dumbasses omnes look blank. Pause.] Well, sometimes people say that people who are snobby, or who are trying to sound very proper talk through their noses.
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: No one heard of that before? [Apparently not.] Then, he goes on to comment about her French. What does he say about it?
Least Dumb Dumbass: It’s very good?
Me: Well, he says she speaks it very nicely, yes. Where does he say she learned it?
[Long pause while they all look at the text for a couple minutes.]
Tentative Dumbass, reading from the book: Stratforde atte Bowe?
Me: Yes, and where is that?
Mumbler Dumbass: [something that sounds like, but cannot possibly be] Russia?
Me: Sorry?
Mumbler Dumbass: Nvmnd.
Dumbass who can read footnotes, but not the whole of the footnote: Middlesex.
Me: Yes, that’s partly what the footnote says. Where is that, then?
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: If you look at the rest of the footnote, it explains that it’s just outside London. So, what kind of French do they speak in London?
Back row Dumbass: Good French?
Me: Really?
Least Dumb Dumbass: Not so good French?
Me: Possibly. Why would that be?
Dumbasses omnes: [silence]
Me: What language do they speak in London?
Random Dumbass, having a flash of brilliance: English?
Me: Right! So, if the Prioress learned her French in London, and she doesn’t know Paris French, what does this say about her? [They stare blankly. I realise that this question was far too complex, and so I backtrack.] Remember the video we watched last week about the French invading England, and how the language changed?
A few Dumbasses: [Vague nods.]
Me: And who spoke French?
Least Dumb Dumbass: The king.
Me: And who else?
Front Row Dumbass: Rich people?
Me: Right. And remember how the guy was talking about families paying for people to teach French to their children? Why did they do that?
Least Dumb Dumbass: Because the were rich? Or noble class?
Me: Yes. And who else would want to do this? [By this point, I totally feel like Sir Bedevere in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Why do witches burn?”]
Girl Dumbass: French people?
Me [Kindly ignoring this sally]: “What about people who might want their children to associate with noble people? Would they want their children to speak French like the nobles?”
[Dumbasses nod sagely.]
Me:  So, we could call them social climbers? [No, of course we couldn’t. This gets more blank looks.] Anyone know what that means?
Mumbler Dumbass: People who smthing r other.
Me [desperately grasping at straws]: Yes! People who aspire to a higher social class, or who want to look like they come from a higher social class. So, teaching your children French would be a way to gain social status. But if you didn’t speak French yourself, would you be able to tell if they learned to speak good French?
Least Dumb Dumbass: Maybe not.
Me: Right, so maybe Stratford French is the kind of Englishy French, and it might be the kind that people who want to look like nobles speak? [The Dumbasses graciously concede that this is so.] So, he’s making a little joke about the kind of French she knows, and maybe saying she isn’t as good as she thinks it is.
King Dumbass: It’s not a very funny joke.

At which point I groaned and banged my head against the desk.

However, I did have a moment of teaching genius today. Professor Birkenstock was moaning (bragging, actually) to me and assorted colleagues in the hallway about his brilliant class of keeners. “They all have their drafts done already! I don’t know what to do with them.” I said, “So, give them the talk about how smart they are, and how, because of this, you are going to have to raise your standards and increase the difficulty of the material.” He looked nonplussed. “But then I still have to think of new things for them to do.” Poor poppet. “No you don’t,” I said. “You just do exactly what you would have done anyway.”

In which I yet again admit I am slack (oh, and evil).

I am working on a post about my brilliant insights into Harry Potter, and it was the first week of term, so you know, busy and all. I feel bad aboout procrastinating, of course, and once more vow to do better. So, in lieu of anything deeper, I offer one funny anecdote, and a bit of silliness.

As you may guess, or possibly know from experience, the first week of term is characterised by a general feeling of not-knowing-arse-from-elbow-ness. Students come to class having been told that English 135 is interchangeable with English 351, and other such nonsense, professors can’t get their keys to open the smart cabinet, bookstores claim no knowledge of the concept “book,” and librarians concur. In the context of all that chaos, then, it takes a really special something for a student to manage to stand out as particularly clueless. One managed.

Clueless: “So, like I was at Much Bigger U last year, and I failed everything.”
Me (noncomitally, but kind of backing away): “MmmmHmmm?”
Clueless: “So, like, I am here this year, to kind of like, upgrade, or something.”
Me (wondering where this is going): “And you were hoping this class would help you with your GPA?”
Clueless: “No, like, I did a class that was kinda like this one.”
Me (still not clear where this is going): “Mmmmm?”
Clueless: “And I was kinda, like, hoping this class used the same book.”
Me: “But it doesn’t?” Thinks: wow, this is the kind of dedication and purpose I like to see in a student.
Clueless (a little despondent): “No. It’s this one.” Holds up copy of Norton Anthology.
Me (brightly): “Oh, you know what? Dr Hobbit is using that edition in his section. If it really is important to you.”
Clueless: “Wow. Thanks.”

Now, don’t get all disillusioned. I never said I wasn’t evil.

In another corner of the internets, I have been involved in ongoing discussions about the vileness of 12 year olds and their internet speak. Someone amused the populace by finding an English to 12-year-old translator, which really is scarily good at reproducing the usual level of nonsense. However, it clearly falls down when presented with a more challenging literary translation, for example of Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare.



Clearly, while the translator has modernised the spelling, I don’t think it truly gives the flavour of the discourse of the 21st century internet 12-year-old. In other words, it doesn’t explain the poem in ways idiots can understand.

Thus, I make my own humble offering, which I have not rendered anti-grammatically into 12-speak, but which, I like to think, offers a much clearer reflection of the thought processes behind the OMG WTF!!!oneone type discourse.

 K, like I think you are hot.
Rilly, rilly, hot, but not, hot like actual temperature.
You have nice boobs, and I can say this because you are also nice, and won’t take it the wrong way.
You are hot because you are young.
Hot in like, a Lindsay Lohan way.
Or, you know, like how Brittany used to be hot.
But now she is all saggy
And stuff.
I actually think I might still like you
when you get older, because,
I like you for more than just your hotness.
Which actually says more about how I am a deep
and sensitive person than it does about you. Really.