New York Times Blogger Stanley Fish today writes about a new translation of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” into English prose. What? Fish quotes the translator Dennis Danielson, a distinguished Miltonist, who is well aware that it might seem odd to translate a poem into the language in which it is already written. Fish writes
The value of his edition, he says, is that it “invites more readers than ever before to enjoy the magnificent story — to experience the grandeur, heroism, pathos, beauty and grace of Milton’s inimitable work.”
I have not yet seen the new translation, but it strikes me as similar to an exercise done by the editors of the United Church of Christ’s The New Century Hymnal, created in the mid-’90s, in which archaic language was updated (no more “thou”, “thee”); no sexist language (God is only referred to in gender-neutral terms; The Christ has no gender, although Jesus the human being can be referred to as male); no “imperialist” language (the word “Lord” is suspect, although it slips in from time to time); no racist language (the words to black spirituals are revised to standard English: “I ain’t got long to stay here” becomes “I don’t have long to stay here.”); Heaven is no longer above (since God surrounds us). It is politically correct–and admirable in composing new hymn texts–but practically quite silly and irritating to many church-goers, especially when many familiar hymns have been tinkered with. I have always found it condescending that the editors felt that church-goers are unable to distinguish between current language and archaic language. How does updating master poets (Christina Rosetti; John Greenleaf Whittier) improve them?
The new Milton translation may be most effective as a teaching “crib” for undergraduates who might have to work harder to understand Milton’s syntax.