Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Still Reading Milton after All These Years

I continue to be impressed by Stanley Fish's commitment to Milton studies, even as his academic star-power takes him to the heights of institutional authority and public intellectualism (via his very popular New York Times blog "Think Again"). His reflections on a quatercentenary Milton conference over the summer manage to make a highly specialized academic field accessible to lay readers interested in understanding what all the fuss is about (and why they should care). The piece is also a fine condensation of the central argument of Fish's definitive tome on over forty years of Milton scholarship, How Milton Works (2001).

More recently, Fish wrote on a new prose translation of Milton's Paradise Lost, by the Canadian Miltonist Dennis Danielson. Through line-by-line comparisons of Milton's poetry and Danielson's prose, Fish suggests that the inquiring, interpretively rich poetic voice of Milton is replaced by Danielson's (necessarily) reductive, interpretively blunt prose voice. Without dismissing Danielson's efforts as a fellow Miltonist, Fish makes clear that this new Paradise Lost is best read as an interpretation of the epic poem rather than as a substitute for it. And indeed much can be gleaned from Danielson's work, from a pedagogical point of view:
The edition is a parallel one — Milton’s original on the left hand page and Danielson’s prose rendering on the right. This means that you can ask students to take a passage and compare the effects and meanings produced by the two texts. You can ask students to compose their own translations and explain or defend the choices they made. You can ask students to look at prose translations in another language and think about the difference, if there is one, between translating into a foreign tongue and translating into a more user-friendly version of English. You can ask students to speculate on the nature of translation and on the relationship between translation and the perennial debate about whether there are linguistic universals.
In other words, teachers can subject Danielson's interpretation to a classroom interpretive inquiry of their own -- in which case it should be made clear that students are reading Danielson reading Milton. Perhaps such an effort would be best suited for a graduate seminar, or a practicum on Milton's language and various editions of Paradise Lost.

Like his literary hero, though, Fish is a brilliant wordsmith, and there's a hint in the piece that Fish would prefer to go to the source itself (Milton's poetry) for interpretive exercise. Note that the piece is titled "'Paradise Lost' in Translation," which is at once a literal rendering of what Danielson has done here -- translating the poem into prose -- as well as a figurative play on the word "lost": "paradise" (the interpretive "paradise" of the infinite potential of asking questions through Milton's poetry) being "lost" through Danielson's translation.

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