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.

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