Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Wanderer

I had the pleasure and the privilege to help organize Hartwick’s seventh annual Student Showcase, which was this past Friday. Over 300 students gave talks, presented posters, showed their art, gave short performances, did readings, …

There were the predictably interesting pieces of work: a geology student who mapped the outcroppings behind the science building, translating the layers there into a history of streams and deltas; a nursing student who had studied a more effective way of conducting prenatal education for pregnant women, studies on the chemicals used in fracking, examinations of post-war U.S. policy in Afghanistan, a consideration of fetishistic imagery in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.

The big surprise for me was a group of five students who had worked with Prof. Lisa Darien to translate the Old English poem “The Wanderer.” And when I say “old,” I mean Saxon, sometime before 1000 AD. (Here's someone else's translation.)

The students put a piece of the poem up on the screen, the original saxon on the left (complete with those strange characters “þ” and “ð”) and their translation into modern English on the right. With the text before us, they’d read the Saxon as we followed along, then read their rendition into familiar words, words where we could understand the meaning, but where a certain music was absent. They followed up with discussion of choices in translation, and rhythms, and what was behind some of the words, and what we could learn about the mental world of the person who would write such a poem. It was fascinating stuff.

And then Prof. Peter Wallace asked what they had betrayed in their translation. He explained that another student had done an honors project in which she’d translated some Spanish poetry and then written a paper about the process, titled “Translation as betrayal,” getting at the idea that when you translate, you inevitably commit some betrayal of the original text, because of the things that you have to leave behind, the things you can’t manage to port over into the new version. What did these students feel they’d betrayed?

They had no problem answering. In the course of studying Saxon and reading numerous poems, they’d reached the point where they could understand what they were reading, they could feel both the music and the meaning in the words, without being able to to see how they would render all of that into our English.

I was struck by the glow in their eyes as they described this sensation of having reached into a foreign world and found things there they couldn’t bring back.

This was education in its purest sense.

When you allow the worldview of an exiled Saxon warrior to insinuate itself into your mind, it’s hard to imagine how you’re qualifying yourself for some particular activity in the hard-nosed “real world.” but for these students it had obviously been a profound experience. And for all the ease with which we dismiss such pursuits as “academic” or a cultural luxury, it seems to me that if a student can stretch her mind to a task as strange as this, if she can be alive to and engaged in something so foreign, it’s a fair bet she’ll bring that same creative, critical mindset to other things she does. Which would actually make her really valuable in the “real world.”

That’s what the liberal arts is supposed to be about.

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