Paradise Lost in Translation
December 1, 2008 4:09 PM   Subscribe

A new 'prose translation' of Milton's classic poem has been written by Prof Dennis Danielson in an effort to help make it available to a wider audience, if they find the original language too difficult. Apparently he wasn't the first to think of it, but considers his a translation rather than a retelling, and it is printed as a dual edition / parallel text.

so, useful pedagogical tool, or evidence that we're forgetting how to read?
posted by mdn (42 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If it gets more people to read Paradise Lost than I guess that's OK. But I read the first book in high school, and the whole thing twice in college for two different classes, and sure, it's tough going at first (not unlike reading Shakespeare if you haven't done it for a while) but it's ridiculous to think you can just take the "content" out of the poem and simply map it onto sentences. The sound is a part of the meaning. A very important part.

Then I did a seminar on the poem in graduate school. Probably read it about three more times through. And while it's one of my favorite books, there's still a ton of it I don't "get." But god forbid we don't challenge ourselves through literature any longer.
posted by bardic at 4:19 PM on December 1, 2008

I suppose it's possible that one could use the side-by-side edition to help students read the poem the first time through...also, it might bring about some very interesting discussions about the translator's decisions, and how translation is ultimately inseparable from interpretation. But I doubt it. I think most students will just read the Modern English version, and not bother unraveling Milton's infuriatingly circuitous, allusion-laden syntax. Because honestly, who would, if they had a choice?*

Also, Milton is not Middle English. You want Middle English, pick up a copy of Piers Plowman. Now that's a difficult poem to read, and one that actually warrants a translation.

*disclaimer: not a fan of Milton
posted by duvatney at 4:32 PM on December 1, 2008

Also, Milton is not Middle English.

One time I was on a Greyhound bus sitting next to a college girl on her way somewhere for Spring Break. Her instructor had assigned her to read Canterbury Tales over break. She was reading it from on of those side-by-side editions, and watching her read, I could tell that she was reading the translation.

I kept trying to tell her that by not reading Chaucer's words, she was depriving herself of one of the greatest literary pleasures available to English speakers. "Just read it aloud!" I kept saying. "You'll understand it!"

In retrospect, she probably thought I was a weirdo.
posted by roll truck roll at 4:43 PM on December 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think most students will just read the Modern English version, and not bother unraveling Milton's infuriatingly circuitous...

I think that students provided with just the text and no guidance would do as you say, but assignments (such as create-your-own-translation, which Fish suggests) can, and are meant to, shape the students' reception of the text.
posted by voltairemodern at 4:45 PM on December 1, 2008

I kept trying to tell her that by not reading Chaucer's words, she was depriving herself of one of the greatest literary pleasures available to English speakers. "Just read it aloud!" I kept saying. "You'll understand it!"

In retrospect, she probably thought I was a weirdo.

Today on the subway I was sitting next to a young woman who was scribbling the second or third page of an erotic story in a notebook. I wonder if I should have asked her to read it aloud? Your experience would combine with mine into a wonderfully strange lawsuit.
posted by voltairemodern at 4:48 PM on December 1, 2008

Milton's classic poem:

This Is Just To Say

I don't care
If they lay me off either
Because I told, I told Bill that if they move my desk one more time
Then, then I'm, I'm quitting, I'm going to quit

And, and I told Don too, because they've moved my desk four times already this year
And I used to be over by the window
And I could see the squirrels, and they were married
But then, they switched from the Swingline to the Boston stapler

But I kept my Swingline stapler because it didn't bind up as much
And I kept the staples for the Swingline stapler
And it's not okay because if they take my stapler
Then I'll set the building on fire
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:50 PM on December 1, 2008 [14 favorites]

The sun to me is dark and silent as the moon—what's not to understand? On the other hand, if you find the original text difficult, then do some research, light a flashlight, what is low raise and support; that to the height of this great argument [Milton] may assert Eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to men.

You don't need a translation of Modern English to do that. An annotated edition will do nicely. In the end, this seems to me like another text that freshman students will buy too high and sell too low to fulfill a requirement they don't care about.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:50 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Chaucer's London dialect evolved into our modern English, so while it's not intuitive for us today, it's a heck of a lot easier than stepping back a few centuries before Chaucer to Early Middle English (Owl & the Nightingale, Ancrene Wisse). Or if you want a tough Middle English dialect written roughly the same time as Chaucer, try the Gawain poet with its youghs and thorns. Alliterative verse means you get a zillion meaning 'knight' and 'sword'. Yet Pearl / Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are mind-blowingly good literature.

Milton's words don't look inherently strange on the page: the spelling, sounds are modern enough; its the intentionally dense style of epic verse that's tough, and his range of vocab that has fallen out of contemporary usage. Change those, you change the literature. I don't know if that's good or bad. But if you want the plot, it's Genesis.

Even non-English majors are blown away by Satan's speeches. It's good stuff.
posted by woodway at 4:57 PM on December 1, 2008

...'zillion words'. Hyperbole. Whatever.
posted by woodway at 4:58 PM on December 1, 2008

Is the Paradise Lost movie (also seen on this minimalist page) just the total pipe dream it seems to be? I hope not, because it could be 200 minutes of pure AWESOME.

"Say hello to my little friends!" - cue cannon fire, several shots of Angels getting blown to bits - white feathers flying everywhere.
posted by AndrewStephens at 5:02 PM on December 1, 2008

if you want the plot, it's Genesis.

Like, the Lamb Lies Down on Broadway Genesis or more like Invisible Touch Genesis?

posted by basicchannel at 5:05 PM on December 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Total agree, Woodway. I'm a lit. student who's reading it right now, and I am blown away - not just by Satan's speeches, but by more or less every page. Not despite the sentences, but because of them. The weird Latinesque syntax obliges you to read carefully and slowly or aloud, and either way, you're put in a sort of trance, occasionally punctuated by Miltonian explosions (miltplosions?) of language like "the wide womb of uncreated night".

The plot is a little more interesting than Genesis, in that Milton tries to account for Satan with human motives, is as critical of God as the Book of Job is, and attempts to create a universal cosmogeny, what with the incorporation of Hellenic deities, etc.

But the language is constant, difficult joy. If anyone's reading this who is young and afraid of Milton, I am and was and you should go to the library at the earliest convenience. If you trust an anonymous MeFite about this stuff.
posted by goldfinches at 5:16 PM on December 1, 2008

Welcome back, mdn!
posted by jason's_planet at 5:16 PM on December 1, 2008

I'll use this thread to tell the story of my English Major John Milton encounter.

We read a couple books of Paradise Lost in a survey course, the professor led us through it by the hand and I was very impressed. Later on, as a senior I thought I was hot shit and signed up for a graduate level class on Milton that was open to senior undergrads. The professor walked in on the first day and proceeded to start complaining how undergrads were not taught Latin anymore. He said this in Harvard accent that was so SO it sounded fake. Then he picked up a syllabus from the previous seminar and sneered, "Oh, Southern Literature, what a contradiction in terms."

I dropped the class, took Chaucer instead and had a blast.

In spite of the asshole professor above, I occasionally think of tackling Milton's epic. I will someday. Like everyone else said, this will be used by students to avoid the original and thereby missing the whole thing.
posted by marxchivist at 5:28 PM on December 1, 2008

"But if you want the plot, it's Genesis."

Satan doesn't appear in Genesis. Or in the entire Bible for that matter. As a word ("liar," "deciever") but not as a character. In the simplest terms of cultural awareness, a lot of people who haven't studied Milton or the Bible think that there's a guy named "Satan" running around much of the Old and New Testament when in fact there's no such thing. It comes almost directly from Milton's incredible imagination.
posted by bardic at 5:59 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can't believe this kind of thing is still controversial. The original is hard to read. The text is in the public domain. I don't get what is evil here.
posted by DU at 6:01 PM on December 1, 2008

Even non-English majors are blown away by Satan's speeches. It's good stuff.

Let's hope enjoying literature isn't strictly an English-major privilege. Anyway, the more interpretations/translations etc. the merrier.
posted by ersatz at 6:01 PM on December 1, 2008

Of course it's more than Genesis. I was joking. It happens, sometimes.
posted by woodway at 6:10 PM on December 1, 2008

I can't understand how anyone can pick up Milton and not be blown away. He's one of the greatest architects of the English language.

Let's just scrap Milton altogether. We can make Eve a noble warrioress betrayed by poor counsel from the sleazy and somewhat laughable Satan, who turns on Eve when she spurns his advances in favor of Adam. Satan's son Death can be his father's scrappy, wise-cracking sidekick. In fact, let's erase all the religious aspects of the text, rename all the characters and call it P4r4d1z3 10s7. That will get people interested!
posted by winna at 6:22 PM on December 1, 2008

Marxchivist, I think asshole professors are the norm for teaching Milton. Take Danielson, for instance; This patronizing, pretentious twat was the professor who made me hate Milton because of a first year survey he taught in which Milton was barely touched on.

That said, this isn't intended to disparage this translation. I've never read any of his work on Milton. I just intensely dislike the man as a teacher.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 6:23 PM on December 1, 2008

Not only that, but you can improve upon Jay-Z by going in the other direction.

Hwaet, habban pager. | (How writan stressmark?)
Alle in mead-held, | hittan me auf.
T-Mobile namedrop, | tambourine ringtone,
(O Times-new-Roman, | thorn-rune is where?)

(Alt-0254) | þǽrbig bin ic Viking!
So holla back alle | hittan me auf.
Ablative absolute | Absolut drinkrum
Glock-9 geblastet, | Grendel go pow!
posted by kid ichorous at 6:33 PM on December 1, 2008 [4 favorites]

I feel I should also mention that I still consider Paradise Lost among the greatest verse in the English canon. While it was trying at times, I did find it a rewarding read. I started to loathe Milton's absurd cosmology when Danielson felt it was his duty to defend the putative brilliance of it.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 6:38 PM on December 1, 2008

When I divorced the last time, I moved to a little house on Milton street, so I decided that since I had all this free time, being single and all, that maybe I'd read a copy of Paradise Lost that I'd just picked up on the cheap, since hey, it was Milton street, and all that. I struggled and labored for hour upon hour through -- uh... three pages... then realized I understood not a single sentence, an only rarely individual words.

I need me some modern idiom, and I think a side-by-side "translation" might be just the ticket. I got my new wife (no more divorces! Like EVAR!) a copy of the love poems of Pablo Neruda when we first met, and it had Spanish|English on each page. I know just enough Spanish to get myself in bad trouble, so I thought that was really helpful in enjoying the beauty of his work. Turns out my wife isn't exactly a Neruda fan, but hey, she loves me anyway, and I like the book, so it worked out great that time.

Might work for Milton, too.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:00 PM on December 1, 2008

I read Paradise Lost last summer, with a pencil in hand, summarizing every few lines in the margins. I know it's great literature, and of course I was reading it because some of the faculty in my department are arguing over whether any of it should be on our reading list for high school seniors or not, but what I got out of reading it was that it was great fun and weird as a furry teakettle full of Dipping Dots on a hot plate. Also, Satan is one of the most goofy and wrongheaded characters in modern Literature.

But let's get something straight here. Anything you can do to make students actually read ANYTHING they are assigned, whether it's in modern English or not, means that they will be reading SOMETHING. Most of them don't read what you assign them, even most of the elite students at the better schools, except the crazy loons who are going to end up in graduate school getting their degrees in English Literature. Don't fool yourself.

Yeah, you read it, you know who you are, and you even liked it, but you know very well they all made fun of you in the cafeteria behind your back because you read while you ate your chicken nuggets.
posted by Peach at 7:02 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's nothing evil about a modernized PL, as long as it gets people to read and understand the original even better.

For realsies, I read the first book as a 16 year-old. Granted, I had a good teacher, but I refuse to think that Milton in the original is so hard as to defy any comprehension at all. It's modern English. Difficult, highly poetical modern English, but as mentioned nothing that a quality annotated edition couldn't help with (and there are plenty of quality annotated editions out there).

Or maybe I'm just a genius. Yeah, that must be it.
posted by bardic at 7:06 PM on December 1, 2008

It comes almost directly from Milton's incredible imagination.

Or, possibly, from a long line of late classical and medieval epic biblical poems that Milton cribbed from. Give Avitus a try someday, for one startlingly Milton-esque example. Satan gets some great speeches there too.
posted by Casuistry at 7:41 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

So, OK, listen up guys...'Cuz I got this kick-ass story, 'K? About how, like, we all got screwed, and we all have to die and shit, just because these two guys were like, straight-up, "whatever" when they got told they couldn't eat this fruit.

OK, OK, OK, I know it sounds totally stupid? But, like, hold on? Just give me a sec and, like, I'll get my muse going and shit...
posted by PlusDistance at 8:42 PM on December 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Screwed because we have to die? More like FELIX CULPA AMIRITE?

That aspect of PL is endlessly fascinating to me. Milton is meticulous is showing that life in Eden was less desirable than a grubby life of mortality. Not that I agree, but the way he frames it all is interesting.
posted by bardic at 9:01 PM on December 1, 2008

Yeah, you read it, you know who you are, and you even liked it, but you know very well they all made fun of you in the cafeteria behind your back because you read while you ate your chicken nuggets.

OMG, it's like you went to { elementary school, junior high school, high school, college } with me!
posted by infinitewindow at 9:37 PM on December 1, 2008

Ezra Pound said:"Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary... deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books forever."

And he was talking about Chaucer.
posted by Phanx at 12:55 AM on December 2, 2008

He was also a fascist. (Pound, not Chaucer)
posted by woodway at 3:45 AM on December 2, 2008


what does that have to do with anything?
posted by FunGus at 3:53 AM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, FunGus, it certainly has a lot to do with Pound.
posted by cobra libre at 6:12 AM on December 2, 2008

If I weren't working on other things I would totally spend the time necessary to write 'This Is Just To Say' in iambic pentameter and at 10x the length.
posted by spamguy at 7:25 AM on December 2, 2008

Oh, something to make Paradise Lost even more amazing. Milton was blind when he wrote it and dictated it out loud to some clerks he employed. I guess that means he composed the blank verse in his head? I'd need a pencil and an eraser at least to write something comparable.

That's the story I heard from my English 262 professor, and she knew her stuff.
posted by marxchivist at 8:09 AM on December 2, 2008

I liked Paradise Lost a lot more when I read it than I had expected. What bothered me about this "translation" was the decisions the translator gets to make. LIke that "fondly overcome by female charms" = "an infatuated fool overcome by a woman's charms" line listed in stanley fish's article... it is ambiguous (not to mention rhythmic) in the original, whereas it is very straightforward in danielson. But the whole point of ambiguity is that it is not clear. It strips the poem of its meaning, nuance and possibility. Someone else could have rendered that line very differently...

If this were done to Shakespeare, I feel like a lot more people would be upset. If an ambiguous and rich line of Shakespeare were interpreted by one man's view of it as the translation rather than being called an interpretation or some kind of textbook or something, I doubt it would be accepted, but I suppose Milton isn't read as widely to start with. Or maybe because it is explicitly religious people feel like it doesn't apply to them.

I was even more vehemently atheistic at the time that I first read it and I still found it beautiful. It's mythology - you don't have to take it literally. I love the stories of Zeus, too. And as an allegory for the western mindset, the idea that freedom is primary and we would rather be free / rule in hell than oppressed /ruled over in heaven, but that we often forget the second part, that we need to also take responsibility for the ruling that we will do, it is pretty interesting. Also the idea that knowledge is a tragic element of our existence... I may have to go read it again. It's just full of interesting stuff.
posted by mdn at 11:09 AM on December 2, 2008

Anyone with an interest in literature who is studying at the University of British Columbia should try to get into one of Professor Danielson's Milton courses. I did so, despite being an international relations student, and found it to be one of the most memorable and worthwhile academic things I did as an undergraduate.
posted by sindark at 1:13 PM on December 2, 2008

Oo, if we really want to geek out, there's the question of textual authority: what's the best version out there, short of Milton reciting the text to us? Decisions made by editors and annotators influence our reading, as do the contexts in which we read, per several comments about teachers who wreak well or woe on malleable minds.

As for Pound's pontificating, pff. It's not all about the size of your glossary (nudge, wink). Politics, poetry, the politics of poetry... lots could be said here. I don't think Milton would be pro-dictator. He lived in revolutionary times and wrote pamphlets about divorce in the seventeenth century, for heaven's sake... or hell. Haha, Hell! (Sorry, Devil's Rancher.)
posted by woodway at 2:10 PM on December 2, 2008

Pound said a comparatively small glossary [is] necessary. You two agree.

Personally, I'd rather read good literature by people who I disagree with than mediocre literature from hyperdemocrats.
posted by ersatz at 6:51 AM on December 3, 2008

Not exactly. Early Middle English and non-London dialects are even more challenging for modern readers than Chaucer, but I disagree wholeheartedly with Pound's premise that people who struggle with Chaucer's English are "lazy," or that his writing merely requires a modestly small glossary for comprehension.
posted by woodway at 7:20 AM on December 3, 2008

If this were done to Shakespeare, I feel like a lot more people would be upset.

Let the riots begin.
posted by spamguy at 11:50 AM on December 3, 2008

Let the riots begin.

well, that's a website listed as a textbook - much more like cliff notes than the sole new authoritative voice of an esteemed scholar. But I suppose I can see the positive side of providing more information.

I think it is something about the patient pace of reading and the frenzied pace of the current world that I'm stuck on, that makes me wonder if translations that don't merely update old words, but actually simplify complex concepts, are in demand because of a disinterest in taking the time to think.

I don't think Milton would be pro-dictator.

No, well, everything on earth is flawed, so no one would be able to rule... Basically, only perfection can rule appropriately; all else is chaos, which is what Satan's realm is called. Even if a monarch claims to have the will of God, it's just his claim. But I was just thinking that the reflection on freedom and order or responsibility was an interesting one, since we all desire freedom, but fear chaos (which is just other people's freedom).
posted by mdn at 6:33 PM on December 3, 2008

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