'Divine Interpreter': translation as theme and event in Paradise Lost

Rosamund Paice

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Moving discussions of Milton’s translation-related pursuits beyond matters of interlingual production and filling a gap in the way in which criticism has engaged with Milton’s language to date, this essay calls attention to the appearance of translation activities and translation theory within Paradise Lost. By positioning Raphael’s concerns about “lik’ning spiritual to corporal forms” alongside the desire of Milton’s narrator to channel the muse’s song, I demonstrate that both couch their narratives in terms of translation; both accentuate the gulf between spiritual and corporal forms; and both highlight anxieties about translation as trespass. Moreover, whereas Raphael’s “lik’ning” may be sanctioned by God, Milton’s narrator flirts dangerously with the limits of the human and the (il)legitimacy of his self-created mission. Raphael’s and the narrator’s assumptions about, and questioning of, the tasks they undertake straddle secular and sacred discourses surrounding translation, and respond to classical theories of translation, early modern engagements with the particular issues of sacred translation, and the Bible’s presentation of the difficulties of communication between heaven and earth. I show that Milton envisaged language confusion to be caught up in the problem of the unknowable even in a prelapsarian and pre-Babel world. This in turn indicates that Milton believed the ideal of perfect translatability to be impossible, and so challenges previous critical conceptions of “natural” language in Milton’s epic. Rather than attempt to hide the originary gaps necessitating translation, Milton draws attention to them, presenting translation as a necessary, divinely-sanctioned, but inherently problematic activity within Paradise Lost.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-17
Number of pages17
JournalMilton Quarterly
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 8 Aug 2019


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