Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A philosophical translation

Last week I tried my hand at translating Mary Wollstonecraft into English, as she is spoke today. You can judge the results here. Sandrine Berges (whom I hope I may call this blog's resident philosopher, or at any rate our chief guest) pointed out in the comments that someone else had tried their hand at A Vindication of the Rights of Woman too. It turns out that this someone is none other than an academic philosopher, as kosher as they come, called Jonathan Bennett, who has devoted his talent and time to developing a site called Early Modern Texts. You can read all about him; but 'twould be more rational to skip directly to his explanation of the necessity for this project:
An average student, when required to read a stylistically difficult text, will either (1) confess defeat, or (2) glide along the surface of the text, getting a vague sense of having understood it. The greater disaster is (2). When so much in our world and indeed in our educational practices seduces people away from close and precise attention to the written word, it would be a sorry thing if this seduction were furthered by philosophy, which ought to be its most implacable enemy.
This explains how he translates these texts -- very methodically, and with a light but thorough hand. (These sound like the attributes of an excellent baker.) "The texts are not dumbed down. Where a change is made, it is to make the original thought more accessible than it is on the original page. In no case have I knowingly simplified or otherwise altered the intellectual content," he assures us. Jonathan Bennett is the further side of 80, and his efforts remind me of the so-called grandmother hypothesis -- the benefits to society of a body of people, willing and able to contribute their skills and knowledge, but no longer driven by necessities such as earning a living, getting the children to bed at a reasonable hour, and pleasing the department head.

Aside from his translation of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, he gives us the works of several people who were important influences on Mary Wollstonecraft, including her mentor, the Dissenting minister Dr Richard Price, and the French philosopher and educationalist Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Also in his list is Anne Conway, who, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy"was one of a tiny minority of seventeenth-century women who was able to pursue an interest in philosophy. She was associated with the Cambridge Platonists, particularly Henry More". I wonder if Mary knew of her Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy?

Not the twilight of decrepitude, but the sunset of senescence: I feel a warm glow as I contemplate the wine he has bottled for our mutual delectation, from vinyards he has tended his whole life. His copyright statement is admirably clear. "There is no charge for any permitted use of the texts. No public money has supported the work of preparing the texts, or defrayed the costs of creating and maintaining this website." Is this not the epitome of generosity? The internet has given us new ways to be useful and to help each other. Long may it continue! 

It is a fantastic resource, no question. But without raining on anyone's parade, I have to point out that the passage I attempted to translate, he has left almost untouched. I ran his version through the readability calculator, and it came out with a US grade level of 12 to 27, take your pick. It's not easy material.

When students are introduced to the great philosophical works of the early modern period, it is usually in the hope that they will engage with the thoughts and arguments that the texts present. The teaching experience of many of us suggests that most students simply cannot understand these texts. The increasing rate of change in the English language ensures that fewer and fewer of today’s readers can cope with the writings of the 16th-18th centuries. There are difficulties of syntax, length and complexity of sentences, words that are no longer current, still-familiar words used in meanings that they now do not have, arcane references to other philosophers which today’s students will seldom understand or be required to follow up; these and other factors create forbidding obstacles to engaging with these early modern texts. 
I reduce the obstacles so that students can more easily come to grips with the philosophical thoughts the texts express. Once they do that, they still won’t have an easy time, because the material itself is hard; but their efforts will go into getting philosophical understanding, not decoding old prose. 
My versions are faithful to the content of the originals, but are plainer and more straightforward in manner. I could have made them even plainer, but that would have taken them further than I wanted to go from the stylistic feel of the originals. I love the original texts, and am glad to have spent years wrestling with them in their pristine form. I do wish, though, that through the years I could also have read them sometimes with all my energy going into the philosophy.

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