Refreshed Classics: Abomination or Illumination?

When I was teaching, I considered modern English translations of English classics something of an abomination, but now that I've got baffled high-school-age kids of my own, I've softened considerably (in every way).

The "No Fear Shakespeare" editions (published by SparkNotes) run the original text of the Bard's plays on the left side and a modern English version on the right. Although you may think these are little more than convenient cheat sheets, at least they retain the possibility that an interested student might wander across the gutter and glance at Shakespeare's verse.

But consider the more complicated case of these sophisticated, even beautiful modern versions:

Dennis Danielson has just published a prose "translation" of John Milton's Paradise Lost (Regent College). But Milton wrote in Modern English, so what's to translate? Well, the complexity of his mid-17th-century style and the erudition of his classical and Biblical references make this tale of man's "fortunate fall" pretty tough going. Stanley Fish has a smart discussion of Danielson's work here.

Burton Raffel -- now in his 80th year -- has just published a beautiful Modern English verse translation of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (Modern Library). Chaucer wrote in Middle English, which for most readers is now almost impenetrable, so this new authoritative version should be much appreciated. His translation of Beowulf -- the Old English epic that sounds completely alien to modern ears -- has been immensely popular since it was published in 1963.

Are we losing something or gaining something with these modern versions?

By Ron Charles |  December 3, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Ron Charles
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I'm of two minds here.

1) For Beowulf, yes, it definitely needs translated, as faithfully as possible, although it is fun to read in the original Anglo-Saxon. I was an English major in college, and we had to read both versions (it was awfully fun to learn A-S pronunciation!). But the translation into Modern English was excellent.

For the Canterbury Tales--I don't really have a problem with the Middle English, but I realize a lot of people might. So a good translation (again, a GOOD one) is imperative.

2) Shakespeare--- no no NO to any sort of "modernizing." That's why we have footnotes! Plus, Shakespeare isn't *Shakespeare* in modern English. It just doesn't read the same. "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" in today's words? No thank you.

Posted by: choirgirl04 | December 3, 2008 10:13 AM

Alvy Singer told Annie Hall, "Never take a course where they make you read Beowulf." Maybe this would help.

On the other hand, Zemeckis's recent film--with Gaiman one of the writers--even featured Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother. Alas, none of it seemed to do much to help at the box offices.

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | December 3, 2008 11:34 AM

RC, AISI U Ha2 adapt to the x's. B4UKI the language changes, so as long as people R reading, Gr8, WYP?

Posted by: prokaryote | December 3, 2008 1:38 PM

I don't really get the problem with Beowulf. It's an adventure story for pete's sake. What do people have against it? I have a MUCH bigger beef with Moby-Dick.

Posted by: choirgirl04 | December 3, 2008 2:07 PM

I was an elitist about "dumbed down" texts until I hit my Shakespeare class in college. My prof said that he read the Classic Comics versions of Shakespeare's plays to his young daughters at bedtime. He said, they're too young for the real thing. They're enjoying the stories now and will be more open to reading them when they are ready. I don't begrudge anyone a translation of a text in an unfamiliar language. I can read Shakespeare and Chaucer fluently because I studied them beyond high school, but both are too good to withhold from those who did not have my opportunity. I say, go for good translations.

Posted by: cebeling | December 3, 2008 5:29 PM

I agree with you, cebeling. I started my younger daughter very early on Shakespeare by reading her a version in modern English rhymed couplets. She got the plots, the characters, some of the themes. And now she regularly goes with us to the Shakespeare Theatre and the Folger and loves it.

Posted by: ronchar | December 4, 2008 2:38 PM

choirgirl04: You might try this "compact" edition of "Moby Dick" from Phoenix. They publish a line of classics that have been carefully cut in half. (Every word is the author's original text, but half the text has been deleted.)

Posted by: ronchar | December 4, 2008 2:41 PM

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