Monday, December 1, 2008

Paradise Prosed

Stanley Fish reviews a new translation of Paradise Lost into foolproof, unambiguous English prose. Now, I am fine with translations of Homer and Dante and Tolstoy and Bernanos. Reading the original is always best, but it's better to read a translation than to read nothing because you never got the opportunity to learn Greek or Italian or Russian. But the effort that an English-speaker must exert to read Milton is not so onerous. It means reading footnotes, not taking four years of Latin (although that enhances the experience somewhat). The only benefit I can see in this English-English translation is its potential to teach students about the limits of translation. So much sense lives in the sound of a poem. Stanley Fish shows us this, as well as what happens when you boil off the rhythms, chimes, and syntax:

At an earlier point, the epic narrator comments on mankind’s susceptibility to the blandishments of the fallen angels. Men and women are duped even to the extent that “devils they adore for deities.” The tone is one of incredulity; how could anyone be so stupid as to be unable to tell the difference? But the line’s assertion that as polar opposites devils and deities should be easily distinguishable is complicated by the fact that as words “devils” and “deities” are close together, beginning and ending with the same letter and sharing an “e” and an “i” in between. The equivalence suggested by sound (although denied by the sense) is reinforced by the mirror-structure of “adore for,” a phrase that separates devils from deities but in fact participates in the subliminal assertion of their likeness.

What, then, is the line saying? It is saying simultaneously that the difference between devils and deities is obvious and perspicuous and that the difference is hard to tell. This is one of those moments Davie has in mind when he talks about the tendency of Milton’s verse to go off the rails of narrative in order to raise speculative questions that have no definitive answer.

When Danielson comes to render “devils to adore for deities,” he turns it into a present participle: “worshiping devils themselves.” Absent are both the tone of scornful wonder the epic voice directs at the erring sinners and the undercutting of that scorn by the dance of vowels and consonants.

Or on the phrase, "mortal taste":

By eating of the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve become capable of death and therefore capable of having a beginning and an end and a middle filled up by successes, failures, losses and recoveries. To say that a “mortal taste” brought death into the world is to say something tautologous; but the tautology is profound when it reminds us of both the costs and the glories of being mortal. If no mortality, then no human struggles, no narrative, no story, no aspiration (in eternity there’s nowhere to go), no “Paradise Lost.”

Danielson translates “whose mortal taste” as “whose lethal taste,” which is accurate, avoids tautology (or at least suppresses it) and gets us into the next line cleanly and without fuss or provoked speculation. But fuss and bother and speculations provoked by etymological puzzles are what makes this verse go (or, rather, not go), and while the reader’s way may be smoothed by a user-friendly prose translation, smoothness is not what Milton is after; it is not a pleasure he wishes to provide.

I must admit that this prose Paradise seems especially useless to me because the only thing I like about Milton is the sound his words make. What is left in the prose version? An annoying God, a sexy Satan, angels with cannons, an Eve born already fallen. A mythic-lyric poem distended into an epic. I've always wished that Milton had written an epic about King David. It would have been on the right scale.

High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her Kings barbaric pearl and gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit raised
To that bad eminence....

This isn't Finnegans Wake, people!


Santiago said...

A few years back, they did something similar to the Molly Bloom episode in Ulysses, adding punctuation and whatnot. A bunch of Irish people & academics (and even some Irish academics) got angry about it.

Of course, they do this to Shakespeare already, and it's not even news. Tho I guess the "contemporary idiom" or whatever editions of Shakes at least still pretend to be poetry.

Meredith said...

One of my friends lent me a manga version of "Hamlet" which I really enjoyed. The words were the same, but everyone looked all cyberpunk. It was fun.

The thing I found so odd is that... well, this is Paradise Lost. It's never been as popular as Shakespeare, and I don't think that's about to change. If you are aware enough of Paradise Lost to want to read it, you can probably get through it with a little effort and help from a glossary. You can let the elegant and exotic language wash over you and not have to know what every word means right away. Maybe it's lazy, but I like doing that.

Some of the comments on the article were interesting. One lady mentioned how when she was a kid she liked to absorb the Britishisms in her books. And now, she says, she's seen editions of these books with "sneakers" substituted for "trainers" and the like. I remember getting all hot and bothered when I learned that in England "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" was "Philosopher's Stone."

I've always wondered if you could tell the difference between Joyce (or Cummings) with and without special punctuation and caps, when read out loud. Maybe I will do some recording as an experiment.

Sheila said...

I'm with you on Milton: without the sound, what is he?

Also on changing words from British books. I loved C.S. Lewis when he said words like "hols" or the characters said they had to "swot rather." It's so much neater than the plain stuff we hear every day. We like to hear a taste of something beyond what we know.

Not to mention that the *philosopher's* stone is an actual thing with background, and there's nothing particular about a "sorcerer's" stone to make it special. :P If I've told my students once, I've told them a thousand times: there is no such thing as a literal translation. There is always judgment, and something is always lost.

Jake said...

Hi Meredith,

This is quite random I suppose, but I was wondering if you might recommend some specific Latin textbooks to me. I am familiar with Wheelock's (?) but I do not know if there are better ones you might recommend. I'm trying to get a survey from those whom I "know" study the language in order to make a decision. Thanks!


Meredith said...

Hi Jake! I know several textbooks that you could check out. There is John Collins' Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin, which is what they used at Christendom College when I was there. It is straightforward, no pictures, gives you the grammar piece by piece with the usual Latin-English and English Latin exercises, and the vocab is skewed towards liturgical Latin. Then there is Ecce Romani, which is used in a lot of high schools. It's pretty to look at and a lot of people like it. The approach is pretty much the same as in Collins, I think.

If you want to turn up the heat, there is Latin: An Intensive Course, which they use for the intensive Latin summer workshop at Berkeley. Then there is Lingua Latina by Hans Orberg, which is a textbook apart. It has NO English in it. It starts out with utterly simple readings like "Roma est in Italia. Italia est in Europa" and gradually works in more constructions, more tenses, more declensions until you can (ideally) read Catullus at sight. Each chapter has a little grammar section (in Latin) where the grammar features you've seen are explained. It has neat little explanatory drawings and a wry sense of humor. The Latin you learn is idiomatic and good (some books have horrible invented Latin sentences). It's fabulous, especially if you want to speak Latin (you can use a simple question/answer format, with yourself or someone else), but I don't know if it's the best book to learn with on your own. You should give it a look, though! You can check out all of these books on Amazon.

I would avoid:
- Wheelock
- Latin for Americans
- Cambridge Latin

They are dull or have bad Latin or scarifying pictures (Cambridge!) and generally just aren't worth it.

Hope that helps, and good luck with your studies! Are you really going to teach yourself Latin? That's pretty awesome! Ask me about grammars and dictionaries if feel the need.

Meredith said...

I also have to add that Lingua Latina teaches you Latin sound effects and animal noises. How cool is that?

Jake said...

Hi Meredith,

Thank you so much; this is beyond what I had anticipated for a response! Yes, I'll probably get back to you regarding dictionaries and grammars. Would you recommend the Liddell-Scott Lexicon? Actually, this might be a Greek lexicon! The only reason I am even interested in it is b/c of the Lewis Carroll connection anyway :)

Yes, I am going to try to teach myself Latin seeing as my college does not offer it (we do have Arabic though, which might be pretty cool, but not as useful for my purposes!). I am going to try to be disciplined in this pursuit; I say this b/c I have been "teaching" myself New Testament Greek for the past year and all that I have managed to learn is the alphabet!

Thanks again for all of your help. I must express that you served as part of the encouragement I needed and sparked a desire to learn the language when I came across your blog. So, I'm really excited about researching all of your recommendations!


Meredith said...

Glad to be of help! Liddell and Scott is indeed a Greek lexicon. The medium-sized one, affectionately known as the Middle Liddell, is what most people own. What is the Lewis Carol connection???

There's a Latin dictionary that gets mixed up with the Liddell-Scott: the Lewis and Short. It's a great dictionary; costs the earth. Not that it's a replacement, but Whitaker's Words is one of the most useful cheats you will ever see! Google "latin dictionary" and the first hit should be a page from Notre Dame. There is a box in the middle of the page with a link where you can download the program. You type a Latin word, and it shows all possible parsings and definitions! Very useful when you're just trying to comprehend a reading without much flipping of pages.

dylan said...

hello Meredith,

I think someone ought to try to put Paradise Lost, or parts of it, into the awkward cacophonous idiom of the New American Bible, just for fun!

"Of personhood's primary fall,
and the citrus of that vetoed arbor whose deadly savor brought earthward mortality," etc.

Meredith said...

Dylan: ^_^

That's great! You should inflict that on Shakespeare and E.E. Cummings (or maybe not o_0 ).

"that vetoed arbor" is sort of Miltonic, being mostly Latin. Usually, though, Milton puts the Latin in the adjective and not the noun or vice versa, so you're seldom totally lost.

dylan said...

I've inflicted that treatment, heaven knows why, on poor old Clement Clarke Moore:

It was the vigil of December 25th :
and audible within the abode,
No stirring creature, not a single one,
tiny rodents being no exception.

Hosiery of red, carefully tacked into place,
dangled from the mantel-edge
Happily expecting, eagerly awaiting
Nicholas's canonized arrival.

Tucked securely under the sheets
were the small fry,
Haunted by the cranial choreography
of spectral fruit-snacks.

For a glacial forty winks
our minds became mute,
My wife, who was wearing a bandanna,
and in my night-cap, I.

dylan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jake said...

Thanks Meredith! I'll get back to you in the future regarding Latin.

The young girl who asked Lewis Carroll to please write Alice's Adventures Underground, was Alice Liddell, the daughter of the gentleman who co-authored the Liddell-Scott Lexicon.

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