Simplifying difficult texts – 2

To illustrate the problems of simplifying original texts, we can look at examples from Shakespeare and the Bible. I came across a site that seeks to make Shakespeare’s plays easier to understand by re-writing them:

Here is the original text from HAMLET Act III, Scene i, lines 57-91

To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Here is the simplified text:

The question is: is it better to be alive or dead? Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all?


Fear of death makes us all cowards, and our natural boldness becomes weak with too much thinking. Actions that should be carried out at once get misdirected, and stop being actions at all.

Do the two passages have the same meaning? They convey different senses to me.
Or take the famous passage from Ecclesiastes 9:11 of the Bible. Here is the familiar King James Version:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

And here is the simplified modern language of the New Living Translation:

I have observed something else in this world of ours. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise are often poor, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being at the right place at the right time.

Again, does the simplified passage capture the meaning of the original?

I am not criticizing the quality of the simplifications, although there may be better ones around. If you asked me what Shakespeare’s passages mean, I probably would have come out with a more confused meaning than what was given above. But the point is that it is in the process of struggling to understand the author’s original meaning that we make individual sense of the passage. I think that the best we can hope for is a shared consensus of the meaning, and we can never hope to exactly enter into the author’s mind.

This problem is always present when the US Supreme Court tries to rule on the constitutionality of present day issues using a document written over two hundred years ago. People who call themselves “strict constructionists” say that the constitution should be interpreted according to the text and the intent of the frames. But how can you glean intent? The text of the document, by itself, is not sufficient, because words can never capture exact meanings. Literary theorist and legal scholar Stanley Fish has an interesting article that is worth reading. In it he says:

It follows that any conclusion you reach about the intention behind a text can always be challenged by someone else who marshals different evidence for an alternative intention. Thus interpretations of the Constitution, no matter how well established or long settled, are inherently susceptible to correction and can always (but not inevitably) be upset by new arguments persuasively made in the right venues by skilled advocates.

This does not mean, however, that interpreting the Constitution is a free-form activity in which anything goes. The activism that cannot be eliminated from interpretation is not an activism without constraint. It is constrained by the knowledge of what its object is – the specifying of authorial intention. An activism that abandons that constraint and just works the text over until it yields a meaning chosen in advance is not a form of interpretation at all, but a form of rewriting.

This is why I am so much a fan of collaborative learning and discussions to tease out meaning. I think you get more out of having a group of people reading the original, (difficult) text, and then arguing about what it means, than by reading a simplified text alone, however ‘clear’ the latter might be.

Here is a Zen koan:

Hyakujo wished to send a monk to open a new monastery. He told his pupils that whoever answered a question most ably would be appointed. Placing a water vase on the ground, he asked: “Who can say what this is without calling its name?”
The chief monk said: “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”
Isan, the cooking monk, tipped over the vase with his foot and went out.
Hyakujo smiled and said: “The chief monk loses.” And Isan became the master of the new monastery.

What is the message this koan is trying to convey? The words are simple but the ideas are deep and captured succinctly. I think that it illustrates the point I am making here and I can try and tell you what it means to me, using a lot more words than in the original. But what does it mean to you?