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?
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