Monday, February 27, 2012

Word Exchange reviews, part one: the Riddles

If any corpus of a language’s poetry was in a need of a thorough re-translation, it is the poetry of the earliest English people, the Anglo-Saxons. Even with only about 30,000 lines surviving in manuscripts, it is a job that exceeds the capabilities of any one person. Some of that work is being conducted as we speak on this website (and with the posting of The Phoenix, it is well under way), but more is still pressingly urgent. Enter the 2011 collection of Anglo-Saxon translations contained in The Word Exchange. This volume leverages W. W. Norton’s considerable clout to acquire the translation services of some of the finest and most famous Anglo-American (and Irish) poets writing today, charging them with the translation of a single poem (or a few poems, in some cases) in order to recreate the image of the body of Anglo-Saxon poetry as speaking with diverse voices. Too often, the poetry, through the efforts of a single translator, seems to speak with one tongue, turning the often-startling effects of the original poems into variations on a theme.

I want to sing the praises of the project of The Word Exchange, which has the potential to reach thousands of students of early English who would have otherwise been traditionally turned off by archaic views of Anglo-Saxon poetry as fusty, antique, and relentlessly moralistic. These negative, totalizing impressions of the poetry stem in large part from the inadequacy of previously-available translations, which often are written in the spirit of discredited or passé notions of what medieval poetry means. S. A. J. Bradley’s encyclopedic volume Anglo-Saxon Poetry (Everyman, 1982) has long been a standard assigned text for teaching the subject, but its prose renderings often tend to the sententious and its introductions harp repeatedly on the note of patristic criticism as reflected in the poetry. It is very thorough, covering nearly all of the long poems (though it only gives excerpts from Genesis A&B), but makes many odd omissions. Neither “The Riming Poem” nor “The Rune Poem” are present, nor is “The Order of the World,” and the Exeter Book riddles are very sparingly excerpted. Two of the metrical charms are present, but nothing from the Metres of Boethius or Paris Psalter. This approach loses some of the diversity of the Anglo-Saxon corpus, neglecting a full view of the playful and materialist perspective on the world provided by a more complete view of the riddles and charms, and looking away from the power of Old English versifiers to adapt the authoritative texts of poetry.

The bulk of The Word Exchange is devoted to a multifaceted, capacious rendering of the Exeter Book riddles. Though not every poem is recreated (a notable omission is the famous “Lot’s Family” riddle—not necessarily the most fun-filled of the riddles to a contemporary reader), the sampling is rigorous and astounding. Here for the first time since Craig Williamson’s A Feast of Creatures (U of Pennsylvania P, 1982) are the riddles exhibited as the glorious, complex body which testifies elegantly and persuasively to a fundamentally different view of the Anglo-Saxon world. This is a view of material reality that cannot be easily subsumed into an allegorical or exegetical interpretation. Here The Word Exchange is at its best, playfully moving from riddle to riddle, grouped chronologically into various “hoards,” each riddle translated by a different poet to create a view of these amazing little poems as a celebration of diversity in themselves, a bemused and bemarveled reaction to the miraculous world of nature and objects. Many of these riddles strike exactly the right tone, even when they take numerous liberties with the language and imagery, and have the power to communicate effectively with students of the literature. For the reader trained in Anglo-Saxon, the original text is given on the facing-page, providing an opportunity to navigate between poetic license and translational fidelity. In many cases, this transparency allows the power and art of the translator to shine through, even when the rendering has to settle the multiplicity of possible solutions, such as in the case of Riddle 30, which is often solved as a tree, or wood, or a wooden cross.

Here is a literal, unlovely translation by me:

I am flame-busy, I flicker with the wind,
wound with glory, joined with the weather,
eager for the forth-way, occupied with fire,
the trees blossoming, a burning coal.
Very often companions send me by their hands,
so that proud men and women may kiss me.
When I am lifted up, and they all bow to me
the many with mildness, there I must increase
for humanity the rising of prosperity.

David Constantine’s rendering of Riddle 30, “I Dance like Flames” is very liberal with what the Anglo-Saxon says, but does so in a way that illuminates the bouncing energy and seething transformations of the wood that speaks of its miraculous existence.

I dance like flames, I lend the winds
Glorious shapes, the fire in me
Eager for exit, feels for the lightning
And breathes me away down the wind. Or you
Cup me in hands from lip to lip
From man to woman, from woman to man
Kiss by kiss or you raise me up
For luck in the house in winter, lit.

Constantine backs away from the religious implications of the wood’s possibilities, instead focusing on the change that turns the wood into a cup kissed by its drinkers. Is this literally what the poem is saying? Of course not, but he manages to catch an interpretation which feels right, and is at least not misleading. The translation is at its best when it is close to the frenetic energy of its opening, and I think errs in trying to maintain that sense of the indefinite in the poem, of preserving the wood in its state of potential to become many different things: a tree, a cup, a torch.

Not all of the riddle translations manage to capture their source text so well and fail in trying too hard to make their material resonant to a contemporary reader. An example of this tendency can be found in Patricia McCarthy’s rendering of Riddle 8, “I Can Chortle Away in Any Voice,” a riddle with an accepted solution of a nightingale. I present first my literal version:

I through the mouth speak with many voices,
I sing in modulations, I frequently exchange
head-voices, I cry out aloud,
I keep my counsel, I conceal not my voice,
I bring an olden evening’s minstrel to earls,
and bliss to cities, when I cry aloud
in the voice of dwellers; still in their homes
they sit listening. Say what I am called,
who so clearly a feasting song [a song of buffoonery?]
imitates loudly, proclaim to men
many welcome things by my voice.

And then present McCarthy’s adaptation:

I can chortle away in any voice,
an impresario of impressions.
I broadcast my deathless lyrics,
never backward in coming forward.
Ancient soloist of eventides, I perform
for those unwinding at home.
They sit quietly in their houses,
downcast. Guess who I am?
I parody as loudly as I can the japes
of comedians. I top the charts,
karaoke the most popular songs.

Her translation is playful and brash, unafraid to go out on a limb and change the register of the poem to cast it in contemporary terms. But the loveliness which is palpable in the original is only sporadic in McCarthy’s version. The closest she comes to the riddle’s beautiful nostalgia is her “ancient soloist of eventides,” a gorgeous phrase which translates the elegant “eald aefensceop,” and in her fairly close rendering of the effect of the nightingale’s song on those who hear it in the cities (þonne ic bugendre / stefne styrme; stille on wicum / sittað nigende). There is a hushed silence present in the hearers, who listen, stilled to contemplation by the contradictions and modulations of the nightingale’s voice. That hush is preserved in McCarthy, but then it crashes away against the too-obvious attempt to strike a funny note and perhaps resonate with the modern reader. The contemporary-sounding terms (impresario, broadcast, parody, comedians, karaoke) shake the riddle unwelcomely (this in a poem whose final line invokes those “welcome things”). I appreciate her effort in trying to make the riddle her own poem, to follow the dictates of Dryden’s third head of translation, but ultimately I think the rendering fails, turning the verse into something other than the riddle it translates.

The other seventy-one riddles translated by the poets of The Word Exchange do not go quite so far as McCarthy in changing the tenor of the riddle they work with (Riddle 86 by Marcia Karp is close, which turns the description of the “One-eyed Seller of Garlic” into a Dr. Seussian wonder, though the playful verse does not seem so contorted in this case). Most are quite adequate in communicating the sometimes-ribald, always ludic nature of the Riddles to the contemporary student while still preserving something of their strangeness—the key I feel to convincing a student to taking the poems seriously as examples of poetic art.

Further reviews of the poems in the Word Exchange are forthcoming.