I wrote this essay (PDF here) in late 2006 when I was a postgrad.
And then, while watching Danny Boyle’s wonderful Olympics opening ceremony, in particular the Pandemonium section, I remembered the days I spent poring over the British National Corpus and the Translational English Corpus.
I’ll try not to look “backward” too often, but my memories of this essay were happy ones.
Ezra Pound, such a respected figure in translation studies, held John Milton in very low esteem and slighted his efforts at translation which he saw as always trying to ‘make English into Latin’. Milton, I argue, does in fact have an intrinsic understanding of the needs and operations of translation and in Paradise Lost creates a system in which he can test out a whole series of attitudes towards the operation of translation. Having lost so much by one translation act already, the devils now out of desperation ‘cling obstinately to the idea that something can be gained’. Though Satan proves himself to be an exceptional translator, even he is undone by the process once he assumes it complete and consequently returns to a Pandæmonium sunk into pandemonium. Translation, I argue, gains most when in constant dialogue between “source” and “target” languages; illustrated by the differing use of “pandemonium” in two different corpora.
Ezra Pound’s general dislike of Milton is well documented but in 1916 he attempted to make his ‘yearlong diatribes more coherent’ by listing his misgivings: ‘[Milton] tried to turn English into Latin; to use an uninflected language as if it were an inflected one, neglecting the genius of English, distorting its fibrous manner, making schoolboy translations of Latin phrases: “Him who disobeys me disobeys”’. Neglecting the genius of one’s mother tongue is assumed by Pound to be an optional pathway, an undesirable and escapable factor in the generation of “bad” or “schoolboy” translation, and bad schoolboy translation alone. But doesn’t every translation start with some act of neglect? Irrespective of the merits or capabilities of the individual translator—good or bad, “schoolboy” or learned—surely any reading of a “source” text in its “source” language necessarily demands an initial turning away from the target language, a radical forgetting of one’s origins…
“The Locomotion” blasts out of the vast sound system. Pandemonium breaks out as, flanked by a giant blue cut-out wooden train, Kylie steams on stage.
Uranium, plutonium, pandemonium.
. . . holidays. Aha. How is it? Cos it’s pandemonium. Aha. It’s er full of, full of youngsters . . .
But actually in between, I’d forgotten the in between bit of course is while all this pandemonium’s going on, the neighbourhood didn’t realize she was moving, or perhaps one or two did.
. . . from the penthouse bar this evening, while musak thrashed its pandemonium by my ear. Symplegadean ice-cubes clashed in a Scotch sea.
The word “pandemonium” in current English usage almost always means roughly the same thing—’utter confusion, uproar; wild and noisy disorder; a tumult; chaos’. Operating within this broader sense there’s still some room for manoeuvre, of course, and hopefully the examples given above (all taken from the British National Corpus ) will have demonstrated just that range: a disquieting headline in the Economist about nuclear disarmament (CR8); banal real-life conversations dealing with confusing situations at home (KNC) and abroad (H56); the offensively nondescript musak of the penthouse bar in Pea Soup (HNT); an audience whipped up into a frenzy by Kylie Minogue: the superstar next door (ADR). All hell breaking loose in a variety of ways.
The original Pandæmonium was far different. Conceived of by John Milton in Book I of Paradise Lost to be Satan’s residence and the seat of Hell’s own ‘solemn Councel’ (I. 756), Pandæmonium is a neo-classical construction both architecturally and linguistically; Pan-dæmon-ium after the fashion of a noble Pan-theon. Not “all hell”, then, but a place of representation for all the fallen angels in hell, and not a state of anarchy but a beating heart of government. When Pandæmonium “breaks out” into the English language, it ‘rises in baroque splendour, with a backward allusion to Ovid’s Palace of the Sun . . . and with a near-contemporary allusion to St. Peter’s at Rome’.
Anon out of the earth a Fabrick huge
Rose like an Exhalation, with the sound
Of Dulcet Symphonies and voices sweet,
Built like a Temple
Such opulence and surface beauty, however, comes at the expense of great violence, all be that violence subterranean. Supervised by the demon Mammon, the ‘least erected Spirit that fell’ (679),
Soon had his crew
Op’nd into the Hill a spacious wound
And dig’d out ribs of Gold. Let none admire
That riches grow in Hell; that soyle may best
Deserve the precious bane. And here let those
Who boast in mortal things, and wond’ring tell
Of Babel, and the works of Memphian Kings
Learn how thir greatest Monuments of Fame,
And Strength and Art are easily out-done
By Spirits reprobate, and in an hour
What in an age they with incessant toyle
And hands innumerable scarce perform.
A reader with one eye on the problems and complexities of translation might be intrigued at the mention of Babel (694), especially given the litany of allusions to earlier foreign-language classical texts that surround and follow this moment—the description of the bustle in Hell (768-77), for example, that apes Virgil’s bee simile from the Aeneid . Another careful reader of this passage, lingering over the phrase ‘ribs of Gold’, might hazard some connexion between the erection of Hell’s temple and the creation of Eve; this passage, after all, follows a graphically sexualised imagining of Man’s future corruption at the hands of Mammon.
by him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransack’d the Center, and with impious hands
Rifl’d the bowles of thir mother Earth
For Treasures better hid.
In conflating two such readings (the one feminist, the other more typical of a student of translation) we might have expected to arrive at that well-established trope of Renaissance England; of translation functioning as a predominately reproductive exercise and hence perceived of as feminine in nature. But Milton seems to have subverted this commonplace or at any rate thrown it into disarray (pandemonium?); the feminine becomes masculine and it is the mother’s ribs, not father Adam’s, that are extracted in the creation of the phallic Babel-like edifice. Tropes and commonplaces can in their own way be ‘Monuments of Fame’ (696)—‘that which people say or tell; public report, common talk’ —as can the great works of literature that equally seem to burrow their way into the heart of culture by virtue of ‘Strength and Art’. Arma virumque cano. The cannon. Yet no matter how exalted, these works it seems are always liable to be extracted again, mined and reclaimed; put to some new, possibly nefarious, purpose. The earliest rendering of Virgil in English occurs in Chaucer’s House of Fame (c. 1380), but no sooner has the tale been paraphrased by Chaucer’s narrator ‘Geffrey’ than he begins ‘to forget that his poem has a source in Virgil (‘Non other auctour alegge I’ ), and to present himself as the author of the poem.’ In doing this, Geffrey becomes a “reprobate Spirit” as per Milton’s description. He seeks to acquire for himself the fame and canonical status that Virgil’s Aeneid—through ‘age’, through the ‘incessant toyle’ of schoolboys and scholars and through the ‘hands innumerable’ of admiring readers—had been bestowed.
In a poem about Fame this is a significant thing to do: Chaucer introduces the idea that Virgil is the poet to be imitated by those who are eager to press their own claims for a place in the House of Fame, but who fear they might belong on its threshold.
Designated great works, works such as the Aeneid that acquire an embedded significance within their own culture, moreover are seen, whether by those inhabiting or existing outside the particular culture, to have occupied an almost perfectly-justified practically organic position in the evolution of their own language: this allows us to say, for example, that Chaucer ushers in a new age of writing English, Shakespeare another, Milton, Joyce… A text in this position is likely to attract the attention of disinterested spectators from other languages and cultures, yet it is this quality precisely that a text is most likely to lose once the disinterested spectator turns translator. The ‘always lost’, then, in translation is the semelfactive relation between the individual (spoken) work and the presupposed (unspoken) norms of the source context. Rushdie writes that it is normally supposed that something in lost in translation. The ‘normally supposed’ loss is in fact just that, a loss normally determined. Glosses and anthropologically determined translation may attempt to bridge this divide, teach as much of the source language or culture as deemed necessary to the target audience (via footnotes and squared-off brackets) in an attempt to minimise the loss of interconnections. The trade-off with this is a severe loss in vitality, essential at least so long as an ideology of spontaneity prevails. Mined gold is not the same as the gold in the mine, nor ever could be; ‘treasures better hid’. Whatever may be gained from the translation, it cannot be true equivalence. Chaucer may seek to put his name up next to Virgil’s or perhaps even one day supplant Virgil but surely it is never to be indistinguishable from him. What would be distinguished about that? Chaucer’s “Geffrey” wanted a place in the House of Fame and translating the work of a great author from venerable Latin into English (a far more youthful language) seemed to offer a quick smart way in; this is what he gained from translation.
Long before the House of Fame now, though, and far removed—in freshly-built Pandæmonium, a house of infamy—Satan meets with his minions to discuss what strategy to adopt if they are to regain Heaven. All the while as they do so, Milton has operating in the background his own appropriate(d) Virgilian metatext.
facilis descensus Averno;
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.
The fallen angels crave respectability, a good name, and so the smear of having been cast down out into Hell is almost as great as the torments they have to endure there, the fire, the darkness, and so on. Their losses are thus heavy, but as Satan is at pains to point out, not everything is lost. Even though they have been translated almost out of all significance, and are separated from Heaven by a practically unnavigable and uncommunicating void, Satan, like the author of the Satanic Verses, clings obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.
For since no deep within her gulf can hold
Immortal vigor, though opprest and fall’n,
I give not Heav’n for lost. From this descent
Celestial vertues rising, will appear
More glorious and more dread then from no fall,
I propose a rereading of the second book of Paradise Lost that sees Heaven as a symbol for the concept of “source language” and that has Hell standing in for the younger “target language”. The debate on how to reclaim Heaven therefore can be read at the same time as Milton’s musings on the merits of differing translation methodologies and approaches, and the various possible positions that translated literature may assume within the newly-created literary polysystem.
So Satan’s pep talk continues. According to Satan, Hell is not only more democratic than Heaven since Hell by definition acknowledges those with a dissenting voice and was itself created as a by-product of Free Will; it is also in Hell that a king paradoxically finds himself more securely installed, ‘a safe unenvied Throne’ (23) by comparison with the King in Heaven whose seat by far greater number is far more envied. But such comments are window-dressing for the main event.
we now return
To claim our just inheritance of old,
Surer to prosper then prosperity
Could have assur’d us; and by what best way,
Whether of open Warr or covert guile,
We now debate
In favour of outright war is Moloc.
His trust was with th’ Eternal to be deem’d
Equal in strength, and rather then be less
Care’d not to be at all; with that care lost
Went all his fear: of God, or Hell, or worse
He reck’d not,
Moloc, who by his own admission is not that good with wiles (51), represents the kind of translator who would never neglect the genius of his own mother tongue (for which read “target language” or Hell). Such is the blind faith he has in his own prowess that the impossibility of translational equivalence is discounted out of hand; hence all the tools or weapons Moloc imagines to hand are sourced from the environment in Hell, ‘Turning our Tortures into horrid Arms / Against the Torturer’ (63-64). It is an impassioned rallying cry, do-or-die stuff, but the self-deception really knows few bounds. In all but totally ignoring the terms of source language, unsurprisingly this approach is somewhat flawed when it comes to translation; to prove this point Milton has Moloc mistranslate from Virgil. ‘Th’ascent is easy then’ (81) Moloch says, because it is what he’d want to hear. The reader would have known however that the original stands ‘facilis discensus’.
Belial, whose tongue drips Manna, is the next to speak. He sees the flaws in Moloc’s arguing but himself proposes no course of action more active than the tentative hope that eventually, by developing independently on its own, Hell may evolve into a ‘purer essence’ (215), as its demons accustomed to the limitations will grow used to the darkness and the ‘void of pain’ (219). There is no way to change the content of God’s mind so brother, what’s the point in trying? By this thinking translation can never gain more than loss, so why do it? Translation is considered by Belial as an unnecessary exercise, but Milton descries this approach as ‘peaceful sloath, / Not peace’ (227-28). Mammon also counsels peace but couched in more optimistic terms than Belial which better catches the public’s mood, its
To found this nether Empire, which might rise
By pollicy, and long process of time,
In emulation opposite to Heav’n.
This is not resignation, Mammon’s tone is optimistic—and while not so forward as to propose any actual translation certainly there’s a willingness to asset-strip devices from the source language in a way that is more sophisticated than mere reproduction of them (viz. the masculation of the feminine trope of reproduction discussed earlier). Of all the interlinguistic strategies laid out in Hell, Mammon’s would seem the most likely to yield the Latinate English that Pound and many since have thought so characteristic of Milton, the uninflected language treated like an inflected one. The eventual aim is the full identification with the structure of the source language, even if this comes with no cultural understanding of the source “culture”. Hell, by its very nature, could never become Heaven but it might start to resemble it; Mammon had been chief architect of Pandæmonium whose appearance resembles a pantheon. Mammon is prepared to build up in the language features that may help it grow just as, according to Pound, Milton developed certain linguistic features that assisted the development of English.
Honour where it is due! Milton undoubtedly built up the sonority of the blank verse paragraph in our language. But he did this at the cost of his idiom. He tried to turn English into Latin; to use an uninflected language . . . [etc.]
Perhaps Milton was in some a Mammon: certainly both have similar tools at their disposal; it is as a result of the Fall of Man that the term ‘precious bane’ can stand for any of the classical texts that Milton uses and weaves so deftly and craftily into his work. Milton’s writing still clearly indicates a need for translation proper, and Mammon like Belial in proposing peace shies away from confronting a source text head on. What might a source text be in our scheme of things? Moloc wanted to translate the entirety of the source language even if that was to be at the cost of his own linguistic existence. Futile. A translator needs a source text and only Satan is able to identify what that text might be. The Argument to Book II puts it most succinctly,
The Consultation begun, Satan debates whether another Battel be to be hazarded for the recovery of Heaven: some advise it, others dissuade: A third proposal is prefer’d, mention’d before by Satan, to search the truth of that Prophesie or Tradition in Heaven concerning another world, and another kind of creature equal or not much inferiour to themselves, about this time to be created: Thir doubt who shall be sent on this difficult search: Satan thir chief undertakes alone the voyage, is honourd and applauded.
The need for translation is systematic—‘Warr hath determin’d us, and foild with loss / Irreparable’ (330-31)—yet a translation engaging with something more manageable than the impregnable walls of Heaven. The source text, then, will be Man, created in the image of the source language. ‘Search the truth’—a wonderfully deceptive phrase—feigns disinterestedness while at the same time plotting,
To waste his whole Creation, or possess
All as our own, and drive as we were driven,
The punie habitants, or if not drive,
Seduce them to our Party, that thir God
May prove thir foe, and with repenting hand
Abolish his own works. This would surpass
Common revenge, and interrupt his joy
In our Confusion, and our Joy upraise
In his disturbance; when his darling Sons
Hurl’d headlong to partake with us, shall curse
Thir frail Original, and faded bliss,
Faded so soon. Advise if this be worth
Attempting, or to sit in darkness here
Hatching vain Empires.
Satan sees the genius of his own Empire as being perpetually frustrated unless there can be translated literature of some kind; even in its absence translated literature occupies a central position in the literary polysystem of Hell, itself “young” and “weak” and on the verge of a literary vacuum (all the three major cases in which Itamar Even-Zohar imagines translation acquiring this sort of importance ). Satan desperately seeks to rescue gain from out loss and, for poetic justice, by the same mechanism (though reversed) as that which had generated loss—Satan and his minions were translated out of Heaven so Satan hopes to translate Adam and Eve out of Paradise. In his attempt to translate Satan ventures to go out alone, neglecting his kingdom for a while and abandoning his idiom while on his mission in order to navigate the void which separates the two linguistic realms. Despite this, even because of it, Satan’s power never seems greater, nor his kingship more secure, than at the moment he volunteers to depart from his own language, raised by ‘transcendent glory’ (428).
With reason hath deep silence and demurr
Seis’d us, though undismaid: long is the way
And hard, that out of Hell leads up to light;
As befits Satan’s status as arch translator, he (unlike Moloc) achieves a perfect translation of the Virgilian metatext in these lines. It is at this moment, according to Paul Stevens, that Satan assimilates the reader to his enterprise. He earns a place in the literary House of Fame. Milton’s Satan is charismatic, appears spontaneous, and is exceptionally gifted in powers of persuasion. He is the perfect translator, one might almost say, created by Milton to represent all that sometimes he may have wished yet could not be.
As Satan leaves Pandæmonium it is joyously concordant. When he returns, with the proud boast that he has fully corrupted God’s creation, fully translated, the palace he returns to is a sea of hissing serpents and he himself dissolving into one. It is from this second pandemonium, that of discontent and disorder, that the current English word begins its derivation. For what Satan seems to have underestimated is translation’s ability to throw up new forms that influence not only the source text but also the target language; having adopted the body of a serpent in order to converse with Man—the form stuck and found itself replicated throughout the language system. The gain was Satan expected was only the joy in seeing a fellow creation owned, not in any substantial change to himself. Pound may have dismissed Milton’s skill as a translator but Milton knew all too well how to change the language in which he was writing, how to distort its fibrous manner, and in distorting both take something away from the original idiom and add to it as well (the sonorous blank verse). It takes a translation act (which Satan is all very good at) in order to bankrupt his ability in speech. All translation’s power comes in the dialogue between translated and translating, and only in the dialogue can gain and loss be simultaneously entertained.
The word pandemonium has developed in a certain way in English. It stands out like a sore thumb because of its length—five syllables—and its unusual –ium ending that lends it an either scientific ring (remember the headline in the Economist, ‘Uranium, plutonium, pandemonium’), or that of slightly comic hyperbole. Some range evident in the British National Corpus entries for “pandemonium” but there we find there also an unexpected shortfall of sense. Of the 76 entries, only 5 or so use the word “pandemonium” in any situation where the stakes are genuinely high, a matter of life and death. In the 90% majority of cases the word has been domesticated or else feels slightly trivialised. One sense of pandemonium—the original genuinely terrifying warning against complacency—is in danger of being lost forever; the word of being translated within its own language out of all recognition. And yet contrast this with the results that show up in the T.E.C. There, 10 of the 15 entries for “pandemonium” accord the word real gravitas and true sense of dread—pandemonium breaks out and there are skirmishes and attacks and wars. The decision by these translators (all translating into their mother tongues) to use the word “pandemonium” had not been wholly governed by the source texts since the word “pandemonium”, an artificial construct in English in the 17th century, does not exist in any other language. However five syllable words are rarely less infrequent than they are in English and it may be that translators may have become desensitized to the foreign-sounding-ness of the word that makes it so potentially, and erroneously ridiculous sounding. It seems a distinct possibility to me that the translator’s ear and pen can thus be invaluable in helping to keep a target language “true” to itself. Translation’s greatest gain may be that of preventing further loss; of keeping pandemonium from sinking into pandemonium.
Tags: john milton, pandemonium, translation