Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Substitute Diaries on Re-writing Literature

Grams favorite days as a substitute teacher are the days when I get to teach English or Language Arts. It's no secret to anyone who knows me that reading is my passion.

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The week before the Christmas holidays I had the opportunity to teach a high school English class that was reading Julius Caesar. I was very excited to learn that they were reading the parts aloud. This is something I remember doing when I was in school. Assigning students to read each part makes for active class participation that this literature lover can really get into. Clearly the plays of William Shakespeare were written to be performed, not read silently.

Imagine my horror when they started reading and I discovered they were reading a modern American translation of Julius Caesar. Seriously! Specifically, they were reading Act 2, Scene II, about Calpurnia's dream.

In the original text Calpurnia said:
What mean you, Caesar? think you to walk forth?
You shall not stir out of your house to-day.
In the modern translation Calpurnia said:
What are you doing, Caesar? Are you planning to go out? You’re not leaving the house today.
I found this disturbing on so many levels. First of all, I'm offended that anyone thinks that high school students can not learn to read and understand Shakespearean English. We did it and I know they're at least as smart as we were. And, second, isn't the way Shakespeare wrote what made Shakespeare Shakespeare? Translation into modern English takes away the rhythm and rhyme of the writing. Shakespeare DID NOT write in modern English. High school students SHOULD NOT read Shakespeare in modern English. Re-writing Shakespeare is what I call a tragedy!

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Then, last week I heard a news story that reported that NewSouth, Inc. will publish new editions of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These new editions will omit the use of the "n-word." WHAT?

If my memory serves me correctly, the use of the "n-word" is central to these stories. It's part of describing the world that Tom and Huck lived in. In my opinion, it's integral to understanding the relationship that Tom had with Jim and what was extraordinary about that relationship. To replace the "n-word" with the word "slave" is not right. Changing that word does not change the reality of the world in that time period. It's part of our history.

As George Santayana said:
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.


  1. Shakespeare has been translated successfully, with the poetry maintained, into many foreign languages. Your students have been supplied, unfortunately, with a poor translation. For an alternative, you might take a look at the work that I have been doing. Samples of my Shakespeare translations are available at www.fullmeasurepress.com.

    Kent Richmond

  2. Boo to the Shakespeare translations! That is what I love about Shakespeare. It almost defeats the purpose of reading it! Except that you still get the great story lines and characters. And I was annoyed with the omition of the n-word when I heard that on the news too. But I should probably ask my husband how he feels, he is black, before I start voicing my opinion too loud :)

  3. I am very upset by the news that the High School students aren't getting REAL Shakespeare! Even if you are simply trudging through the language and don't grasp it all...it's Shakespeare for crying out loud! Ugh.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and helping to make my SITS day a wonderful one!

  4. My wife was a Shakespearean actor in NY (degree from Marymount Manhattan). Though she ended up working in television until I stole her off to Texas. I can almost never get her to watch Shakespeare; I think it makes her sad she's not on stage herself. She did say that when reading lines initially one might use common language to get the feel emotions behind the words very briefly before moving into Shakespeare's airy nothings. I'm all for color blind casting and messing with the sets or time periods... but leave the language alone.

  5. What? That's not Shakespeare! I was listening to a talk show on the radio about the changes being made to Mark Twain. The majority of the people felt the same way you do!

  6. I completely agree! Let's not dumb down what makes our world beautiful and unique. These changes are a disservice.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this.

  7. What is happening to our schools? I agree with you on every point. It's sad that we have lowered our standards to this point. Thanks so much for sharing and for stopping by-

  8. I can't believe that. Is this standard around all the country? Can you believe that in my high school we didn't read any Shakespeare at all? Tragic, right?

    Hope you get to substitute in your favorite classes again soon!