Monday, December 01, 2008

Milton, In Translation

Just in case you didn't know, Milton's Paradise Lost is a masterpiece of the English language. It's also really difficult to slog through, which is why it is infrequently taught outside of an college English classroom. What if there was a way to translate the epic from English...well, from hard English to easier English? Would that betray the project of the poem, or make the work more accessible to the everyday, non-English major reader?

Stanley Fish wrote today in the NY Times about a new "translation" of Milton: a prose interpretation alongside the original work. It makes a great work of English literature accessible to those who want it.

My initial impulse is to dislike it (why don't we just get students to use ClifNotes?), but after a bit of thought, I realized something like this could be a great teaching tool for high school teachers, or in an introductory English course in college. Milton's epic is worth experiencing, even if you need a bit of help translating/interpreting.

I think I'm going to order it and check it out. Maybe I'll even try to read the whole work--I've read parts of it, but that epic is long!--to experiment with how it will read for a student. For me, works like this have to strike a balance between getting folks to read Great Books and simplifying it for readers. I think Danielson's translation doesn't reduce it down (like ClifNotes might), but instead illuminates it. And that is a worthy project.


the secret knitter said...

Having not read it, is it fair to say this is in something like old English and thus in a form of the language no longer in use? If memory serves, haven't Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales been "simplified" also?

Obviously it would help if I knew what the text looked like, but at face value I guess it doesn't sound like anything other than translation. I assume that's acceptable for novels not in English.

Jenn said...

It's actually an interpretation rather than translation. Milton wrote in the 17th century, after Shakespeare, so _Paradise Lost_ is readable to a modern audience. The problem is that it is dense and full of complex language and imagery--and that's what modern readers find difficult about the text.

Technically, you can slog your way through the Canterbury Tales in Middle English; it just helps to have an annotated edition to help with the tricky words.

Jennifer said...

I think "No Fear Shakespeare" is an abomination.