Lit Unlocks Cultural & Linguistic Barriers

Alexandre Cabanel, "Portia from 'Merchant of Venice'"

Alexandre Cabanel, “Portia from ‘Merchant of Venice'”

While attending my Carleton College reunion I ran into classmate Betsy Barnum, who after 40 years has returned to graduate school to get her PhD and who is writing her dissertation on Henry James. I invited her to contribute to the blog and she responded with this lovely post about teaching the classics to international students with poor English skills.

Betsy’s point—that the classics convey something profound even when read in in abridged versions—is similar to a point that Jason Blake made about translations last year when he argued that much more of the original comes through than literature professors think.  So while purists, uttering dire warnings about “the heresy of paraphrase,” might shudder at the editions Betsy must use, she reassures us that the greatness survives. Make sure you read her eloquent speech to her students when, following their dramatic reading of Merchant of Venice, she tells them “This play is part of the legacy of the English language to the art of the world that helps us to understand human beings, ourselves—and how we learn what love is, what truth is, what the baser and finer parts of ourselves are.”

By Betsy Barnum, Grad Instructor in English, Univ. of North Dakota

Out my window in graduate student housing at the University of North Dakota, I watch a young Indian mother playing with her one-year-old. She is coaxing him to walk toward her on uncertain pudgy legs, arms out for her to catch him. And as he comes close she walks backward at the same pace he is walking forward, so he covers much more distance than he thought he was going to before being clasped in her arms, with cooings and verbal applause, both of them all smiles at his accomplishment.

My day job is teaching English to international students who aspire to become undergraduate or graduate students at an American university. In the reading and writing classes at the school where I teach, students must do what is called “extensive reading”—reading for fun as opposed to the intensive reading they must do to write their papers and pass their reading quizzes. Extensive reading, though it is also required, is intended to expose them to the pleasures of reading, and most of the readings are condensed or simplified versions of English or world literature classics—Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, and many plays by Shakespeare. Reading these simplified works of literature is a way of coaxing international students to learn to enjoy reading, and in doing so to actually learn more English than they thought they were going to.

The class I taught in June read The Merchant of Venice—not in the original, but in a form that more or less captured the action and relationships and the central dilemma of the play. And though the simplified version did not convey Shakespeare’s inimitable iambic pentameter or most of the English wordplays and culturally specific references—Portia’s famous speech about mercy lost a lot of its beauty in being made comprehensible to people in the equivalent of their third semester of learning a foreign language—it still carried the impact of the play, the setting of the letter against the spirit of law, the question of who can love and what love is, and the playing with gender identity.

For a class project, I assigned them to choose a scene and act it out for the class, not memorizing the lines, but practicing so their reading would be fluent and appropriately inflected. And somewhat to my surprise, they got into it! The student portraying Shylock did a Snidely Whiplash imitation, almost complete with twirling mustaches (unconsciously, I’m sure—unlikely these students have ever seen Rocky the Flying Squirrel or any melodrama featuring a nasty villain). Though some students stumbled over their parts without being able to bring any real characterization to the lines, several made quite appropriate inflections for surprise, happiness, sadness or other emtions, and portrayed the characters correctly in terms of their relationships and status. When the 19-year-old Saudi Arabian young man who played Portia took the “stage” in front of the classroom using a notebook as a fan—his own idea for a prop to indicate femininity and a degree of privilege—I realized that this play’s power was still there. Even when reduced to its own skeleton through painful condensation and  the almost entire substitution of linguistically simplified prose for Shakespeare’s poetry, this piece of timeless literature still carried the power of the original to evoke recognizable characters, moral and emotional dilemmas, human truths.

When they were finished with their quite impressive portrayals of the scene of Portia, dressed as a young lawyer, successfully preventing Shylock from retrieving his promised pound of flesh from Antonio, I felt a little like the mother I had observed coaxing her baby to find he could walk farther than he thought. My students, it seemed, had not just read something they wouldn’t otherwise have read, and learned some new vocabulary—they had also been touched by the uncanny and universal power of literature.

Moved by their performance, in a somewhat quavery voice I tried to make clear to them the importance of what they had just done. “All cultures have their magnificent literature,” I said. “Each of your traditions has beautiful poetry, epic stories of love and conquest, and marvelous uses of words that move people to laughter or tears, and to recognition of what it means to be human. This play is part of the legacy of the English language to the art of the world that helps us to understand human beings, ourselves—and how we learn what love is, what truth is, what the baser and finer parts of ourselves are. Don’t forget this play, now that you have read it and learned to portray the characters. It is very important that you remember this moment.”

Lots of discourses in society today insist that culture separates us, that different understandings of words, relationships, values, religious and other practices, and so much more, keep us in irreconcilable worlds. These differences, they say, require us to tread so very delicately in our efforts to communicate, so that connecting at all with people from other countries and traditions may be difficult if not impossible. But we need not accept this, and literature provides one kind of evidence that this assumption of separation is false. Literature has a unique value in being able to dissolve cultural and linguistic barriers between people, and to show us to each other in our common humanity. I saw this in an ordinary and even silly, yet surprisingly profound way, through the experience of reading The Merchant of Venice with my class of students from several disparate cultures.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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