Translation, Technology & TPACK: Reflections on French Lieutenant’s Woman

Note: When Sean of Nashworld asked me to guest blog while he was gone I had a couple of different things I wanted to write about. Something I had been wanting to write about for a long time was the idea of how different media engender different ways of meaning making. So I spent a good part of a day writing that up but finally, when I was done, choose not to post it to Nashworld, mainly because it was too long. So I ended up writing about something else altogether (read A TPACK video mashup!), but I was now left with a freebie blog post… Enjoy.

When we think about different media for communication we tend to think of them as being somewhat interchangeable. For instance, we often compare teaching online with teaching face to face. This, to me, is a fundamental misconception of what media can do. At the heart of this mis-characterization is the idea that media is a neutral pipe or conduit for information. But just as McLuhan said many years ago, the medium is the message. In another context I had written the following:

… technology is not neutral with regard to its effects on cognition… different technologies (or media) engender different mind-sets or ways of thinking. Relatedly, many of the characteristics that promote these ways of thinking are inherent in the nature of the media and, thus, invisible to the users of these media.

Since this may seem somewhat abstract I would like to make this concrete through an example taken from the cinematic adaptation of books. Two different media, two different ways of communicating. There are a few examples I can speak about but I will restrict myself to one, the book The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and its movie version. (A related essay about 2001 A Space Odyssey can be found here).



A bit of context first. The book, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, is an acclaimed and complex novel about Victorian times, published in 1969 and authored by John Fowles. It has been recognized in 2006 by Time magazine as one of the 100 best novels written since 1923.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a complex novel that works at multiple levels. It is at one level a story about a woman shunned by Victorian society and at another level it is a look back at the Victorian age from today’s, more sexually permissive, vantage point. It is a compelling story that also works as a piece of meta-fiction. The author of the book steps into the story multiple times to comment (though as a somewhat shadowy, even unlikable character) on the happenings, openly muses on how the story is to end, and finally chooses to give us, the reader, a choice of endings. As film critic Roger Ebert describes it:

Reading the last one hundred pages of John Fowles’s THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN is like being caught in a fictional labyrinth. We think we know where we stand in the story, and who the characters are and what possibilities are open to them, and then Fowles begins an astonishing series of surprises. He turns his story inside out, suggesting first one ending, then another, always in a way that forces us to rethink everything that has gone before.

This fictional labyrinth created by Fowles was long considered to be impossible to film. In fact Ebert quotes John Frankenheimer, one of the directors who tried to film it, as saying: “There is no way you can film the book. You can tell the same story in a movie, of course, but not in the same way. And how Fowles tells his story is what makes the book so good.” But the film was made and it stands to this day as being one of the best adaptations of a novel ever put to film. The movie was directed by Karl Reisz and starred Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons (with Streep receiving an Oscar nomination).

The reason the movie succeeded (despite Frankenheimer’s doubts) was by playing havoc with the structure of the novel and yet, and this is the most important part, remaining true to its essence. Maybe the most important person in this translation was Harold Pinter, who wrote the screenplay. Pinter (author, dramatist, actor, and Nobel laureate) was called in by John Fowles and director Karl Reisz because they realized that “what the project needed above all else was … a writer sufficiently skilled and independent to be able to rethink and recast the thing from the bottom up.” And Pinter delivered, in spades!

You can see a preview of the movie here

Pinter’s script discarded the multi-layered fictional devices of the novel (something more suitable to the print medium) and replaced it with a new cinematic approach that would capture the same level of ambiguity, but through the visual syntactics of film. Instead of on story with multiple endings, the movie provides us two parallel stories, a film within a film, invoking the same contrasts that exist in the novel (past and present, choice versus destiny, science versus art) but in a completely new way. The affair at the heart of the Victorian story is paralleled by a story set in today, about an affair between the lead characters playing the Victorian story. I will paraphrase from Ebert’s review below (since this was the best description of the process that I found):

Frankenheimer was right in arguing that just telling the Victorian love story would leave you with just a Victorian love story. The modern framing story places the Victorian lovers in ironic relief. Everything they say and do has another level of meaning, because we know the “real” relationship between the actors themselves. Reisz opens his film with a shot that boldly states his approach: We see Streep in costume for her role as Sarah, attended by a movie makeup woman. A clapboard marks the scene, and then Streep walks into the movie’s re-creation of the British coastal village of Lyme Regis.

“It’s only a movie,” this shot informs us. But, of course, it’s all only a movie, including the story about the modern actors. And this confusion of fact and fiction interlocks perfectly with the psychological games played [in the original novel].

The end result is a movie that is inspired by the book, but is also a creation that can stand on its own. Strangely enough, in doing so, the movie in a deep and profound manner captures the novel far better than a literal adaptation could have. Gone is the shadowy narrator, the meta-analysis of what it means to write such a book, the ruminations on art and history.

So with that extended digression on novels and movies and the stuff in between let me bring up my key question (and one that you, if you have stuck around, must be asking as well).

What does this have to do with teaching with technology?

I think there are five six things here that I would like to point to in answer to that question. In each case I have provided a heading that directly speaks to education (with an explanation that speaks to the adaptation of the book into a movie).

One, understand the technology
Translating form one medium to another requires a fundamental rethinking of how the ideas are to be presented. Different media have different representational strengths and translating / adapting requires a deep understanding of the strengths of each. It is not a simple one to one mapping from source to target.

Two, understand the content
A good translation captures the essence of the original, even though it may require playing havoc with the surface features of the original. This of course requires a deep understanding of what it is that is to be communicated but also a willingness to let go of one’s understandings. Pinter needed to understand more than the surface facts of the story. He needed to go deeper to the themes and ideas that underlie the story.

Three, understand the pedagogy
The final product of the translation, needs to communicate the ideas in ways that are powerful and moving. It is not just knowing that cinema is a visual medium or that the story is profoundly ambiguous but rather knowing how ambiguity can be conveyed in a new way. It requires understanding your audience so that the ideas can be tailored to meet their expectations and background.

Four, in a good solution one can’t really separate between the first three
The final movie works (and the reason I use it as an example) is because all the first three issues I raise (technology, content & pedagogy) work together as one. There is an integration, a coherence, an elegance, a sense of the whole, a sense of inevitability in the design, that is at par with the most beautiful mathematical theorems.

Five, translation is an act of creation
A good act of translation is a creative and artistic act, at par with the creativity that led to the building of the original. I argue that the author of the screenplay, Harold Pinter, is no less creative than the author of the original book, John Fowles, even though Pinter was building on what Fowles had created. It is creative because there are no rules that one can follow to create a great translation. Each act of translation is unique, determined by the context.

Aside: An interesting fact that emerged from my research on this piece was that the original novel was an act of translation as well. As it happens, John Fowles was inspired to write his novel by reading an earlier French novel (published in 1823) Ourika by Claire de Duras. Fowles wrote and published his novel in 1969 and followed that up with a more direct translation of the French novel into English in 1977 (and revised it again in 1994). So there are almost two levels of translation going on here. From the French book to its more literal translation into English by Fowles and then a more complicated act of translation into a new novel altogether.

Six, collaboration is key
A complex project like making a movie requires the collaboration between different people with different strengths and expertise. No one person can handle it all. Sometimes it may need bringing in someone relatively new to the project because they can see things that those more closely and deeply engaged can miss (Harold Pinter in this case).

So coming back to Educational Technology. What I have tried to argue using this example is that technology integration requires a deep understanding not just of the technology, but also the content to be covered, and the pedagogy. Also the solution that emerges will have these three components tightly integrated in ways that prevent us from teasing them apart. Moreover, there is an art (and an understanding of the aesthetic) to doing this that is often ignored and neglected in discussions of technology and learning. Finally, more often than not such things are possible only within collaborative groups.

This is how I understand the TPACK framework.


Some links that I found useful in writing this post:

5 Comments

  1. Thanks Sean. The Fight Club is a great example as well… maybe that deserves another post, though I may need to revisit the book AND the movie to do so (which will be time well spent!). My biggest concern with how the TPACK framework is being handled is that it is being taken at face value – three circles, overlap them and good things happen. The actual process though is far more complicated, unpredictable and creative. You are so right to say that sometimes the best we can do is model what it looks like. The only thing I would add to that is that the modeling needs to be done not just for students but for teachers as well. And we are “quite poor at the proper scaffolding experiences required” for both students AND teachers.

  2. Man… excellent post. You thought this one was “long” to do as a guest post because it gives the depth of the framework its due. It isn’t as long as it is a slow, involved read. To me, this is a perfect example of how important this understanding really is. It certainly is a “wicked problem.” ;)

    Your characterization of a movie being a creative interpretation arising out of and becoming a creative entity all its own is something that made me immediately jump to the movie “Fight Club.” The novel by Chuck Palahniuk is absoltely amazing. The movie was different. No kidding, right? Of course it was… for all of the reasons you so carefully described above. The movie was a different beast and a creative work every bit as shining as the novel. The director David Fincher and the screenwriter (can’t remember) and a host of other creative folks were required to pull of this audiovisual work of art.

    I need to spend some serious time & effort working the ideas in this post down to a palatable level for students and teachers. This is the sort of thing we wish want to see when kids use video as a tool to demonstrate their learning & achievement. We know good stuff when we see it, but “it” is such a complex interplay of things that it is really difficult to put it into words, let alone a comprehensive “scoring guide.” The result? We can model “what it looks like” for kids, but we are quite poor at the proper scaffolding experiences required to get kids to each “next level.”

    Thanks once again for giving me a ton of things to ponder…

    Sean

  3. This seems like a great metaphor for TPACK. Often as teachers we say some of what we do is an art, this helps to explain that process. It also seems a way to explain Dewey’s “psychologizing the subject matter”, a creative translating of the content matter so that that it meshes with the experience of the learner through the use of pedagogy and technology/environment.

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