Sunday, December 30, 2007

An introduction to Andreas

Andreas is the first poetic text in the Vercelli Book, a late tenth-century compendium, consisting of mostly prose homilies with six poems mixed in throughout: Andreas, "The Fate of the Apostles," Elene (both believed to be written by Cynewulf), "The Dream of the Rood," "Soul and Body I" and one other poetic fragment. The volume is located in Vercelli, Italy, and it is a matter of speculation about how or why this volume arrived at that place.

Andreas is the story of the mission of St. Andrew to save St. Matthew from being eaten by the cannibalistic Mermedonians, who dwell on an island far away from Achaia (Greece). The Mermedonians elaborately prepare their victims for consumption, blinding them, forcing them to drink a potion that deprives their victims of reason, and locking them in a prison for thirty days. St. Matthew is captured as soon as he arrives in Mermedonia, but is delivered from blindness and insanity through divine intervention. God promises Matthew will be delivered from his bonds and Andrew is sent from Greece.

Poetically, Andreas is a remarkable text, notable both for what seem to be a widespread practice of quotation from earlier poems, as well as (and perhaps paradoxically) a powerfully unique poetic vocabulary and frequently hair-raising moments of descriptive and narrative power.

Monday, December 17, 2007


(59-87: Matthew’s Lament)

Then he, weeping with wearied tears,
lamented unto his Victory-lord
with sorrowful speech, to the Lord of Men,
in a wretched voice, Giver of the People’s Good,
and he spoke in words so: “How the strangers
have prepared for me a treacherous net, a guile-chain!
Always was I ever on the paths according to your purpose,
eager in heart; now through anxieties,
I must perform my deeds as those dumb beasts.
You alone know all thoughts, Lord of Mankind,
the heart in breast. If it be your will, Prince of Glory,
that I am to sleep by pledge-breaker’s swords,
the weapon’s edges, I am immediately prepared
to endure in exile what you wish to ordain,
my Lord,Bliss-giver of Angels, Deed-origin of Hosts.
Give to me your mercy, Almighty God, light in this life,
lest I must, blinded in this fortress after the sword-hate,
by hateful sentence of blood-greedy, malign man-harmers,
suffer at length their scorn-speak. I affix
my heart solely to you, guardian of middle-earth,
with fast love of my soul, and I wish to ask you,
Father of Angels, Bright Bestower of Fruits,
that you number me not amid your guilt-foes,
the weary crime-wrights, in the worst death
O Deemer of Hosts, upon the earth!”

(88-118: God answers Matthew & promises him help)

After these words, came a holy sign of glory,
a banner so clearly from the heavens to the prison.
There it was revealed that holy god had effected help,
when the voice of the Heaven-King was heard,
curious under clouds, the voice of the famous prince’s sentence.
Bright-voiced God announced cure and comfort
from the battle-bold to his retainer within the harm-coffer:

“I give my peace to you, Matthew, under the heavens.
Do not be fearful in heart, do not mourn
in mind--I abide with you and shall ransom you
from these storied fetters,* and all those multitudes
that dwell with you in sore confinement. For you,
paradise* is opened by holy powers, brightest of prosperities,
the fairest weal-house, a hopeful and splendid home.
There you may enjoy glory and delight as long as you may live.
Endure these people’s affliction! There is not much time
that the pledge-breakers, sinful through spiteful art,
will be allowed to afflict you with tormenting bonds.
I shall dispatch Andrew immediately as shelter and solace
for you in this heathen city. He shall redeem you
from this folk-hate. There is until that moment a finite number,
a space of time equal to seven and twenty counts of night
truly until you, one sorely aggrieved yet deserving of victory,
will be allowed to depart from your constraint,
from your humiliation into the hold of God.”

(119-168a: Exit God, intrant Mermedonians)

Then from Matthew the holy helm of all beings
withdrew, the shaper of angels, to his uppermost native-realm—
he is by right the king, stirring steadfast, in any place.
Then Matthew was greatly inspired by the new voice.
The night-helm glided past, swiftly slipping away.
Light came after, the rush of dawn.
The multitude assembled, heathen warriors,
crowded in heaps, armor ringing, spears shaking,
swollen-minded under shield-cover.
They wished to prove whether the ones,
while they dwelt in that comfortless place,
remained alive in the prison, secured by chains;
who they would be able to deprive of their spirit
the soonest according to their appointed time
for eating. They, slaughter-greedy, had inscribed,
in both secret letters and computation, the conclusion of men,
when their victims should be made into food
for the meat-lacking in that nation of men.
The cold-hearted cried out to their fierce leader—
one band pressing upon another. They heeded not
the right nor mercy of the creator. Often their thoughts
were taken by the devil’s edicts in the dark shadows,
while they entrusted themselves to his miserable might.

Then they found the holy hero, wise-minded,
under the dark enclosure, battle-strong, expecting
what the bright king, source-point of angels,
wished to give. When the time was passed,
the stipulation of the time-mark save three nights—
as the slaughter-wolves had inscribed it—they intended
to break apart the bone-rings, quickly separate body and soul,
and then distribute the fated flesh-home to old and young,
a meal and a grateful repast for men. They mourned not
for life, the greedy warriors, how the journey of the soul
after the death-throes was decreed by word.
So they called a feast after thirty counts of night;
there was much desire to swiftly break with bloody jaws
human flesh-homes, for their sustenance.

Then he, who had established middle-earth
with strong powers, was mindful how Matthew
dwelt in a strange people’s misery, locked up
with storied fetters, he who had often suffered
for God’s love before the Hebrews and the Israelites—
he who had withstood quite strongly the magic arts of the Jews.

100: The word here is leoðu-bendum, which appears 3 times in Andreas but otherwise unattested in other texts (according to the Dictionary of the Old English Corpus.) The first part resembles leoð: "song, poem, story."

102: This is my favorite A-S word neorxna-wang which is used fairly frequently, and is glossed by Ælfric as "Paradisum." Except for the -wang part ("plain, field"), it is uncertain how the word is derived.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Translation Rationale

OK, I promised to share my goals in creating my verse translation, the aspects of Old English verse that I feel are most necessary to preserve or approximate when rendering the verse in modern English.

My first goal is of course what all translators strive for, to create a smooth, readable text. I want my rendering to portray the complexity and beauty of the original without relying on archaic diction, words that only appear in fancy documents or on Renaissance Fair signs. It is also possible to overstate the solemnity of the verse to suit some preconception of how a certain subject matter must be expressed. If Middle English, Latin, Old Norse, or Old French verse is any indication, then there has always been a taste for the mixed voice, the incongruous shift in tone, and a shameful, delightful appreciation for puns. Also the marked tendency of extant Anglo-Saxon poetry to engage in litotes (ironic understatement, such as in the phrase "sweras unlytle" [not small columns] from Andreas 1494) and other sorts of irony, grim or otherwise, indicates that drollness and deadpan delivery were alive and well for Old English writers. I want to try, whenever possible, to bring out the humor that appears in the verse. The hagiographic poems I like so much are intended as pleasurable reading, as well as edifying, and one way that this pleasure manifests itself is through humor. They may not be belly-laughs anymore, but they should test your mouth with a smile every now and then.(1)

Second, is to honor the poetic features of the verse. Allow me to briefly outline the major features one at a time:

a) Alliteration: A-S poetry has traditionally been broken up into lines of four strong stresses, with the first three of the four normally marked by alliteration, or a repetition of an initial consonant sound (any vowel will alliterate with any other, if needed). This pattern varies, of course, with lines with only two alliterating syllables allowed to stand, and sometimes all four stresses have alliteration. Here are the first four lines of Andreas to show what this looks like:

Hwæt! We gefrunan on fyrn-dagum
twelfe under tunglum tir-eadige hæleð,
þeodnes þegnas. No hira þrym alæg
camp-rædenne þonne cumbol hneotan,

I really the admire the way that alliteration stretches the vocabulary of a poet and encourages variation through the use of epithets to stand in for proper names. Furthermore, it is an important stylistic tool of all English poetry since and has remained an effective rhetorical device in oration, advertising and prose. However, I find that overly relying on alliteration in modern English can get tiresome, especially as the translator must often strain a reader's credulity further and further in order to find the right word. I decided to push it as far as it feels right to do, and to substitute other sound-relations (such as assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme) when appropriate.

b) Specialized vocabulary and kenning: The need for variety in alliterating sounds leads to the use of a set of words that only appear in poetry, words like guma, secg, and wig, all meaning 'man,' pop up in order to extend the number of places that man can be expressed in a line. In these cases, I do not wish to rely on archaic words in order to preserve the diction, but use something more natural whenever possible.

Related to poetic diction is the issue of kenning, the compound words formed by combining two separate words, whether noun-noun, adjective-noun, noun-adjective, or adverb-adjective. These combinations are a form of tight metaphor, meant to pull between the vehicle (the image suggested by the words) and the tenor (what the words are supposed to represent), sometimes violently. Because of the tugging effect of the kenning, I have a hard time accepting translations that just give a word for the tenor (as Heaney says he has done in his Beowulf when a kenning is used for a common object). There is always a choice to be made, and when I feel that a kenning expresses a unique, unsettling and defamiliarizing image, I will try to maintain that image as much as possible.

c) Accumulation and apposition: Another challenge to smooth translation is the frequent patterns of accumulation; piling up epithets and articles in apposition to each other --i.e., filing the same grammatical place in the clause. Often these accumulated epithets are distributed along one side or the other of a series of consecutive lines: for example, the epithets will accumulate on the first half of the line, while the action, or another series of epithets describing something else, will accumulate on the second half of the line. (This can happen with other rhetorical patterns of a sentence: say, placing descriptors of a cause on one side, and the those of the effect on the other.) These will be handled on a case by case basis: sometimes the strength of the verse lies in the interwoven pattern of accumulation, other times untangling the clauses into a straightforward syntax will read more easily.

d) Meter and Lineation: How to break the poetry up into lines is another matter entirely. As Thomas Bredehoft has reminded us, much of the appearance of Anglo-Saxon verse is the result of a great deal of detective work.(2) It is detective work that has proven very useful, nevertheless it is still a hypothesis. The poetry in the manuscripts is not lineated, and the idea of the tight, alliterating line of poetry consisting of four stresses broken by an internal caesura, is based on a venerable process of scholarly examination and comparison. Whether the audience or readers of this poetry ever actually heard or experienced it the way we do is probably unanswerable. The theory of Oral-Formulaic composition (that is, of an entire system of metrically-correct half-line formulae that selected from and adapted as needed to build a poem) would seem to confirm that the poetry as we present is more or less correct, but there seems to be a circularity to the argument. We want to think that Anglo-Saxon poets thought in terms of half-lines because we have construed the poetry in that format. The problematic existence of metrical features in many homilies, such as those by Ælfric and Wulfstan, complicate the picture of the verse.

Another pressing matter that I am not sure has ever really been addressed is the absolute similitude of Anglo-Saxon verse, regardless of its use or genre. It's always four-stress verse, with some, but not systematic, variation in stress patterns (the famous Sievers types). Other poetic traditions contemporary with Anglo-Saxon, and/or that may have influenced their poetry, as well as others that may have been experienced aurally rather than read, are notable for their variety. There is a bewildering variety of Greek, Welsh, Latin and French verse forms, forms that are able to be distinguished by the ear, whether through rhyme, meter, or other effects. Why has that idea of variety never caught on with Anglo-Saxon verse? I find it hard to accept that the Riddles must be in the same form as the epic Beowulf -- it tends to reduce the picture of the Anglo-Saxon's poetic prowess.

Therefore, I feel no compelling imperative to match or approximate the meter in my translation. Not only is that extremely difficult, since we must use so many more articles and prepositions to express a sentence, but many of the lines that we perceive as metrical are only revealed as such through amendment (heavy or otherwise). I've been flirting with some sprung rhythm, but it has so far declined to do more than meet my gaze every once in a while. I like the sound of sprung rhythm, but there is an element of nostalgia in it, since it is often assumed when a poet wants to sound old-timey (and even Hopkins, as startling as he was, often feels like a nostalgist). I would be content if there is a tendency or a hint of it in my translation -- I want startling and dramatic (even melodramatic occasionally), but not to participate overmuch in longing for lost temporalities. In terms of poetic lines, I really admire Robinson Jeffers and the long lines he uses in his tragic narrative poems (like Roan Stallion or Tamar). These seem like approximations of Greek dactylic hexameters, but to my ear do not come off as so rigidly metrical (though I may be wrong here) -- I see seven or even more stresses in them. My own, abortive attempts to write verse of my own has tended to follow in these long Jeffers-epic lines.

I am also disinclined to force the translation into lines that fall into even halves. I want caesuras and rhythm patterns to shift, and often, to facilitate the dynamics of the verse. You should be able to locate anything in the translation easily if it is compared to the Old English text (and in an ideal world, the publication of these works would be facing-page). So I will try to match the sound and sense patterns wherever possible, and feel free to exceed them or overflow them whenever the translation may be improved by it.

(1) See Jonathan Wilcox's collection of essays, Humour in Anglo-Saxon Literature (D.S. Brewer, 2000) for a detailed examination of many facets of this issue.

(2) "What are Old English Metrical Studies For?" The Old English Newsletter 39.1, pp. 25-36.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Monster of Translation

We all know that the epic poem Beowulf (c. 800-1025?) was originally written in an early ancestor of our own language, but the majority of its readers encounter the story in a modern English voice. The poem itself is particularly suited to translation: an important epic work that is fundamentally obsessed with the problems of looking back, especailly from a Christian ethos preserving and retelling the image of the pagan past. To make a translation of Beowulf is just to add another frame to the several already contained with it, and perform an act of interpretation that seems to need to be renewed every few years or so.

The language of the poem speaks only in small pieces, a snippet of Anglo-Saxon read aloud by the instructor, or a disembodied voice speaking on an audio recording — in either case an uncanny experience mixing familiar sounds with foreign grammar given in an exaggerated tone of solemnity. The class soon shifts back to the lighted realms of Modern English, intrigued by the alterior experience, but glad to get back to the text in front of the class.

It was into this frame of mind that I found myself thrown as I watched the 2007 remake of Beowulf and was stunned to hear Anglo-Saxon speech in two circumstances: the first comes any time Grendel has dialogue, the second is the scop performing at the feast later in the movie. At first, I didn't recognize this language that I've studied, admired, translated from. Gradually I felt the sounds slide into the patterns that I knew from my work, and could hear it, in a distorted version of Crispin Glover's voice, ventriloquized through the film Grendel's image of abjection and disgust.

Given the film's many, many liberties with the story, the presence of the original tongue in these circumstances is striking. I wonder how the film uses Anglo-Saxon strategically to firm up its own authority to tell the story. The uncanny, vaguely familiar sounds of Modern English's lingustic ancestry are placed in the mouths of propagandists (the scop) and the enemy, a move that casts director Robert Zemeckis and screenplay writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary in the role of Beowulf himself, whose exertions bravely offer rescue from the monstrosity of the original.

I have to say it is a clever move, perhaps even the best way to insulate their efforts from the objections of anyone who would have preferred a more faithful adaptation of the poem. It is quite possibly what J.R.R. Tolkein may have envisioned himself doing when he delivered his "The Monster and the Critics" talk in 1936: rescuing a piece of literature that he admired against an old guard that had maintained that the poem's value lay in its chronicling of Danish genealogy. And even Tolkein's form of allegorization of the poem needed to be overthrown by later generations of critics.

I didn't hate the movie, though. The story told in the poem is probably unfilmable, but at least Gaiman and Avary get points for tossing in references to many of the texts' issues and tangents, such as the Christian frame of the tale, and the unreliability of Beowulf's boasting (My favorite one may not actually have been intended, but I thought when Beowulf turns over the mead-cask onto Grendel's witch-fire, there seemed to be a nod towards that great crux of the text, the uncertain referent of the unusual word, ealuscerwen.)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

A bit of translation to start things off...

To get things moving, I will provide the first 58 lines of Andreas. I will set out some my considerations and values next post, but this should get things moving.

(1-18: Invocation & Introduction)

Listen to what we have learned in former-days—
of glory-blessed heroes, twelve under the stars,
the thegns of the Lord? Their force did not fail
in the war-reckoning when the banners clashed together —
afterwards they separated as their lord himself,
Heaven’s High-King, had assigned their lot.
Those were illustrious men upon the earth,
bold folk-leaders on the fate-plain,
doughty warriors and battle-brave, when shield
and hand defended their crown on the harrying-field.

There was among them a certain Matthew,
who, first among the Jews, began to write
the Gospel in words with wondrous skill.
Holy God had decreed the portion for him:
out to the island of Mermedonia where they did not allow
any strangers to enjoy the prosperity of their native land.
Often he had encountered stoutly
the hand of slayers in the harrying-field.

(19-39: The Land of Mermedonia)

That whole march-land was wound in murder,
the enemy’s deceit, the dwelling-place of men,
homeland of heroes. There was neither bite of bread
nor drink of water for Mermedonian men to enjoy.
Instead they consumed blood and skin, throughout the nation
the flesh-homes of foreign-coming men.
Such was their custom that they made all strangers,
who sought their island from outside, into meat for the meat-lacking.
Such was the peace-less token of these people,
the violence of the wretched, that the gore-grim enemy,
sad-minded, destroyed the sight of the eyes,
the head-gems, with the point of spears.
Afterwards, druids bitterly mixed together
a frightful drink through error-craft for their victim—
their wit was perverted, the conscience of men,
the heart in breast, mind changed,
so that their victims mourned no longer for the joys of men,
the bloodthirsty heroes, but, exhausted, tormented by hunger,
they ate hay and grass instead.

(40-58: Matthew arrives in Mermedonia)

When Matthew was come to that notorious city,
into that fortress, there was a great clamor
throughout Mermedonia: a band of the wicked,
the defiled's tumult, after the devil’s thegns
had learned of the noble one’s arrival.
Then they went against him, swiftly under shield,
armed with spears —none were late—
the enraged ash-bearers, towards the fight’s flame-point.
They bound the hands of the holy one there
and fastened Matthew by the fiend’s craft,
those hell-hastening heroes. His head’s flags
they burst with the sword’s edge. Nevertheless he honored
the guardian of the heaven’s realm in his breast,
even though he accepted the terrible drink of poison.
Blessed and single-minded, Matthew with courage still
worshipped the Prince of Glory wordfully,
the heaven-kingdom’s guardian with a holy voice,
from his prison. For him, Christ’s praise was
wound up tightly in his soul-enclosure.