Monday, December 1, 2008

Is Paradise Lost Lost in Translation?

Miltonists out there, the news is that Dennis Danielson's translation of Paradise Lost into modern English just came out. It is actually a parralel text - Milton's verse on one side of the page and against it Danielson's prose. Critics say that Danielson "frees the reader" from "this streneous and often frustrating labor" of reading the original. Stanley Fish supposes that "once liberated, [the reader] will be able to go with the flow and enjoy the pleasures of a powerful narrative" (New York Times). Here is an example that Fish provides:

"When Adam decides to join Eve in sin and eat the apple, the poem says that he was “fondly overcome by female charm.” The word that asks you to pause is “fondly,” which means both foolishly and affectionately. The two meanings have different relationships to the action they characterize. If you do something foolishly, you have no excuse, and it’s a bit of a mystery as to why you did; if you do it prompted by affection and love, the wrongness of it may still be asserted, but something like an explanation or an excuse has at least been suggested."

In the end of his article, Fish concludes that this is a wonderful edition for teaching Milton.

Well, here are some concerns that I harbor:

1. How are you, as an intelligent reader, feel free to go with a flow and even enjoy a text whose overall effect is essentially embedded in its language, when someone actually TRANSLATES it for you from Milton's English to Modern English? And aren't other forms of rendition of the text, like plays and films, supposed to do this for the lazy reader, only that they use an entirely different form which justifies the "translation", and don't simply derrogate the poem by depriving it of its essence - the Milton's English?

2. Isn't part of the pleasure actually reading the poem in Milton's English and treating your senses to the different connotations (even the latinate syntax, as Dr. Fish suggests)? Isnt' this the way in which the modern English speaker learns about the development of not only language, but concepts, and thinking? And yes, this translation would make for a great textbook for teaching Milton's language, but would it not deprive the student of the overal feel of the text and his personal struggle in the labyrinthine "latinate syntax"? Then the real question comes: this translation will make a great texbook but for teaching what? Are there that many people, as the article suggests, who are actually trying to actively learn how to speak Milton's English? Because this is what this "translation" does: it probably teaches quite successfully the connotations of the Milton's English words in Modern English words. How about the real experience of reading the original? Finally, wouldn't the original give the reader a chance to go back in time and have the experience the Milton's English erudite (or just a listener to a public reading)?

3. In the end, there is one comment after the article with which I have to agree: This book is not a translation; it is an interpretation of Paradise Lost.

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