Sunday, April 3, 2011

A first attempt at translation

A representation of the method of lexical simplification
presented by Jan De Belder, Koen Deschacht,
via Wikimedia Commons
Mary Wollstonecraft is often praised for the directness and vigour of her writing in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), but in fact many students required to read her works find them, and her, obscure and off-putting. That's the last thing I want.... I'd like to convey her stylistic punchiness to those in the midst of their first education, so just for fun, I'm going to turn a much-cited chunk into more modern language.

I've chosen the passage I read for the link into the Woman's Hour interview. This one-minute audio clip covered the noises of biographer Barbara Taylor and me finding our seats opposite the formidable Jenni Murray, who kept her eyes on her papers until she was ready to pierce us with her first question.

From the introduction:
My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists—I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonimous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.
Dismissing then those pretty feminine phrases, which the men condescendingly use to soften our slavish dependence, and despising that weak elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility, and sweet docility of manners, supposed to be the sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel, I wish to show that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex; and that secondary views should be brought to this simple touchstone.
I ran the text above through a readability calculator.  It said the passage had three sentences, with an average of 67 words per sentence, and gave as an "indication of the number of years of formal education that a person requires in order to easily understand the text on the first reading" ... 32.  So that would be finishing high school, and continuing to study for 20 years. After two decades I think I could translate the passage into Japanese (which, dear reader, I speak not a kanji). It gives an "approximate representation of the U.S. grade level needed to comprehend the text" -- in fact, it gives several, ranging from 12 to 35. These are imperfect tools, but still, by any standards, the text is difficult to penetrate for the reader unaccustomed to eighteenth-century literary norms. Here's my first attempt at rewriting the passage for the C21:
Women won't mind if I treat them like people who can think. I don't intend to say how charming they are, or to look at them like grown-up children, always dependent on others. I want to describe what makes real happiness, and, yes, human dignity. Women should try to grow strong in body and mind. Things which are thought to be feminine -- certain ways of talking, feeling strong emotions easily, giving way to others -- are almost the same as weaknesses. People who others feel sorry for, and the kind of love which they feel for these people, will soon be looked down on.
I won't use pretty, feminine phrases. Men talk like that because they don't respect us. We depend on men, as a slave depends on his master, and they want to charm us into forgetting that fact. Having a weak mind, having no will of one's own, being too fussy about everything -- all these characteristics are supposed to mark us as the weaker sex. I want to demonstrate that elegance is less important than doing the right thing. The most important objective in anyone's life, the first thing to strive for, is to develop a good reputation as a human being. This is true for both men and women, and everything else should be measured against this objective.
That has 13 sentences, with 17 words per sentence, for much the same grand total. It would only need ten years of formal education, or about grade 8. (I don't really understand the difference.) Now let's simplify it -- the rhetoric, but not, I hope, the ideas -- still more. Mary turns to face us directly:
Look, I'm sorry, but you're a thinking person, right? I'm not going to flatter you by saying how amazing you are, like you're a little girl or a doll. You can stand on your own two feet. I'm here to tell you what real happiness is about. Strengthen your mind! Strengthen your body! Soft chat, falling in love, doing what other people want, all these are weak. If people pity you, their love will turn to contempt.
I'm not going to talk in fancy phrases, like men do when they want to soften us up. As if we're slaves, dependent on them!  Letting your brain go mushy, and acting all nicey-nicey, is supposed to make you a girl. You know what? Acting nice is less important than doing right. The first thing in life is to get respect. It doesn't matter if you're male or female. Every thing else follows on from that.
16 sentences, 10 words a sentence, so somewhat shorter. And now we're down to a grade 5 reading level.

That was kind of fun! I wonder if anyone has tried this with their students? The comments are for you...

[Later: see my description of Jonathan Bennett's site on Early Modern Texts, which offers a wide range of texts, in somewhat more contemporary language.]

[And still later: the 220th anniversary of the Vindication, in February 2012, prompted me to recap the resources around the book. There is lots out there, to help learners learn and teachers teach, and to help all concerned and interested readers get the most out of the experience. Not to mention the conferences...]


  1. 20 years of formal study! No wonder my students, for whom english is a second language, have difficulties reading the Vindication. Jonathan Bennett, a retired philosopher is compiling an 'english' translation of early modern texts. One of his latest inclusions is the Vindication, here:
    He doesn't translate everything as you do: I think he leaves the passage you quote more of less untouched.

  2. Thank you Sandrine. What an amazing resource that site is! I may come back to it in a future post. Your memory serves you correctly: Jonathan Bennett leaves the passage I've chosen much as MW wrote it.

  3. What an amazing result - well done you Roberta!

  4. 32 years of study, huh? Well no wonder I struggled, I've not been alive that long! Those translations are great.

  5. Iam always puzzled why we as humans keep re enforcing constructed gender roles as if their natural?

  6. Thank you, Anonymous, for dropping by. Mary Wollstonecraft was not opposed to gender roles per se -- though of course that term had not been coined. She saw different spheres for men and women, but she also saw how women in particular were hampered by an education (or maybe now we would say "upbringing") that focussed on the marriage market (or maybe now we would say "making oneself agreeable to men"). She championed the domestic virtues, as opposed to those of war. To some degree, she opposed, or at any rate was not comfortable with, trade and competition.

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