Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Literacy, Translation and Technical Issues to Consider to promote literacy in Nunavut

I've always been fascinated - nay, mesmerized - by patterns in language and expression of beautiful thoughts and ideas made possible by the human language. I don't remember exactly when and how I learned how to read but everyday of my life involves some reading (whether for work or for pleasure or both) and I feel incomplete without words to read. I love reading, and I love creative and technical writing.

When I taught adult students recently an English Writing Lab, I tried to impart some techniques for reading and writing: to find and imagine a voice when you read (for example, for Plato's Apology, I imagine Anthony Hopkins' voice when reading Socrates' words); when I write I do the same and imagine - lately - Glen Gould's voice when I write for pleasure. Finding and imagining a voice purposefully makes the process of reading and writing much easier (and pleasurable).

The best way to contrast well- and poorly- written and delivered text (for those who watch and listen to CBC) is to analyse and contrast Rex Murphy's blunt force pedantry with Glen Gould's surgical-precision pedantry (I love Gould). Murphy writes overwhelmingly large words for the simple sake of showing-off and he apparently gives no thought to how he sounds to his audience, while Gould crafted his writing like he practiced his piano - with mathematic precision and elegance where every note and cadence is placed deliberately within the context of the architectured whole. -In fact, Gould experimented with the spoken voice as a musical composition (which I found a bit cacophonic, but I digress).

As a translator and thinker on education and language, I've experimented with the notion of translating classical literature into Inuktitut, and actually have made more than a few attempts with Shakespeare, Orwell, St. Exupery, etc. but not only that; I've also experimented with mathematical concepts and physics and chemistry (most scientific concepts are beautiful and their basic principles simple enough for children of 7 years to grasp, if not actually solve).

My aippakuluk, Danielle, brought home recently a book that I'm enjoying immensely. It is called, Will in the World: how Shakespeare became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt. While reading it I began going back to my contemplations on Inuktitut translation of the classics and the technical issues that one should consider in such an exercise.

Consider freeform verse:

Herein lies the path thru Orchard
A walk that requires no action
A thought that needs no thinker

Herein lies the path to illumine
A path to edify:
Seek ye me
And you’ll see only a simple man

How can I put this:
It’s my never-ending trek thru Hell
I realize I’m walking 'round in circles
And that is my curse:
My awareness and freewill

This type of poetry is the easiest form to write in and the lyrical form of popular music tends to follow this loose, easy-going structure (though I've never been able to master the lyric form, I love and enjoy well-written songs). The music and lyrics of Sume (a Greenlandic rock band from the 1970s) are examples of Inuit masters of the lyric form.

Now consider the Shakespearean sonnet form (that I composed for my aippakuluk, D):

if I were master of space and time between us
I would not change the place nor the second when we met
like notes in measured music on the clef in sequence
I would mark the beat with my heart and bated breath
if I should touch one strand of hair and leave the rest untouched
our lives would change but play their fugue most sad
the snow beneath our feet would then not squish and crunch
and we would be but ghostly memories our love ne’er had
I would not tempt my God nor fate the hour
should He or She or It forget a beat
and I should end my days insane and cower
in darkness with only a candle for warmth and heat
a thousand lifetimes I will endure and live
in hope that my heart your love will give

The English sonnet form (there are other sonnet forms, like Italian) is more rigidly structured than freeform, and requires a bit more thought to compose. It has this basic structure: abab cdcd efef gg. Shakespeare's sonnets are beautiful not only in imagery and notion but in its basic form as well, which provides its structural beauty.

Now, consider this excerpt from Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine:

Nature that framed us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds
Our souls whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wand'ring planet's course
Still climbing after knowledge infinite
And always moving as the restless spheres
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all
That perfect bliss and sole felicity
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown (Tamburlaine: 2.7.18-29)

Here the words do not rhyme but there is still a structure. Spoken, there is something aesthetically pleasing about it even if we do not know what and how the structure is affected. Here I imagine the voice of one of my good friends, Kalman, whose voice I love hearing as he reads poetry for his friends. I've asked him many times to read one of the poems I love the most: "Kubla Khan, or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment" by Coleridge.

Anyhoo, here is what Stephen Greenblatt writes of the excerpt above:

"The actor in Shakespeare would have perceived what was powerful in [Edward] Alleyn's interpretation of Tamburlaine, but the poet in him understood something else: the magic that was drawing audiences did not reside entirely in the actor's fine voice, nor even in the hero's daring vision of the blissful object at which he lunges, the earthly crown. The hushed crowd was already tasting Tamburlaine's power in the unprecedented energy and commanding eloquence of the play's blank verse - the dynamic flow of unrhymed five-stress, ten syllable lines - that the author, Christopher Marlowe, had mastered for the stage. This verse, like the dream of what ordinary speech would be like were human beings something greater than they are, was by no means only bombast and bragging. Its appeal lay in its own 'wondrous architecture': its subtle rhythmes, the way in which a succession of monosyllables suddenly flowers into the word 'aspiring,' the pleasure of hearing 'fruit' become 'fruition.'"

As a linguist, translator and connoisseur of well-expressed language, I find and appreciate that tension between form and content when I read, write or translate (interestingly, there is an additional tension in translation not only between form and content but also conceptual meaning). Inuktitut, like all human languages, has this great creativity and flexibility that is not immediately obvious (and, therefore, under-appreciated by most) but whose key to unlock that great creativity and flexibility lies in understanding its underlying form. Marlowe's discoveries in Elizabethan England showed us the possibilities, that vista of infinite possibilities that should not be denied Inuit children for the simple fact of ignorance and prejudice.

Gould appreciated this fact in ways that Rex Murphy apparently does not. Gould's pedantry was simply beautiful the way Murphy's is not. Having and deliberately cultivating this mastery of underlying forms of the human language has unimaginable power and grace, and makes that small but significant difference between Murphy on the one hand and Gould on the other.


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