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Why ‘Paradise Lost’ Is Translated So Much

New book shows the enduring power of the epic poem has made it spread across dozens of languages and hundreds of years

A wood engraving from the 19th century depicts a blind John Milton dictating his influential epic poem "Paradise Lost" (Fortuné Louis Méaulle / Wellcome Library)
smithsonian.com

"Paradise Lost," John Milton's 17th-century epic poem about sin and humanity, has been translated more than 300 times into at least 57 languages, academics have found.

“We expected lots of translations of 'Paradise Lost,'" literature scholar Islam Issa tells Alison Flood of the Guardian, "but we didn’t expect so many different languages, and so many which aren’t spoken by millions of people."

Isaa is one of the editors of a new book called Milton in TranslationThe research effort led by Issa, Angelica Duran and Jonathan R. Olson looks at the global influence of the English poet's massive composition in honor of its 350th anniversary. Published in 1667 after a blind Milton dictated it, "Paradise Lost" follows Satan's corruption of Adam and Eve, painting a parable of revolution and its consequences.

Milton himself knew these concepts intimately—he was an active participant in the English Civil War that toppled and executed King Charles I in favor of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth.

These explorations of revolt, Issa tells Flood, are part of what makes "Paradise Lost" maintain its relevance to so many people around the world today. The translators who adapt the epic poem to new languages are also taking part in its revolutionary teachings, Issa notes. One of the best examples is when Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas spent years translating "Paradise Lost" painstakingly into Serbo-Croatian on thousands of sheets of toilet paper while he was imprisoned. The government banned the translation, along with the rest of Djilas' writing.

That wasn't the first time a translation was banned—when "Paradise Lost" was first translated into Germany, it was instantly censored for writing about Biblical events in "too romantic" a manner. Just four years ago, a bookstore in Kuwait was apparently shut down for selling a translation of Milton's work, though according to the owner, copies of “Paradise Lost” remained available at Kuwait University's library.

As the world becomes increasingly globalized expect to Milton's seminal work to continue to spread far and wide. In the last 30 years, the researchers found that more translations of "Paradise Lost" have been published than in the 300 years before that.

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