Translation Review:

Mary Clayton, Andreas in Old English Poems of Christ and his Saints (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2013)

I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner — there are no other Old English poem I love and admire more than Andreas. It was the first text translated on this website’s first version (back in 2007). I actually have gotten into arguments over whether it could be considered “the best” extant Old English poem (and I was right, too). So why not evaluate a recent mainstream translation of the poem? As will become clear when my book becomes available (Political Appetites, forthcoming October 2017 from The Ohio State University Press), my reading of this exciting poem is quite a bit more radical than has traditionally been allowed. I recognize an audacity to its verse—even though the story is derived from previous materials— a meta-textual dimension that questions how genres old and newly invented in English work around traditional analogues, how literary influences meet and warp each other in new contexts, and how Christianity itself becomes the stuff of bizarre adventure. It’s a production of romance, in other words, smack dab in the middle of the long history of the genre in the West, and appearing in England at least two hundred years (and maybe more) before Benoît de Saint-Maure and his confreres “rediscover” the genre in the roman d’antiquites in Old French.

My review evaluates Clayton’s work according to two main ideas: domestication and presence, which are bound together as I will show below. Let’s start with domestication, the transforming of the foreign and unintelligible to something familiar, recognizable, tamed. Any translation transforms its text of origin into a product that the target language will find comfortable, but which inscribes it with power relations and problems of identity. An attitude towards that foreign culture is outlined and made compelling. I quote Lawrence Venuti: “Translation patterns that come to be fairly established fix stereotypes for foreign cultures, excluding values, debates, and conflicts that don’t appear to serve domestic agendas” (The Scandals of Translation, p. 67). In this case, critically established attitudes towards who the Anglo-Saxons were, what their relationship to their religion was, and how they expressed their religious and political values take the form of stereotypes, short-hand tags of identity that stand in the way of respecting difference. Andreas as a saint’s life can then only be allowed to speak its “truth” according these preconceived notions, and whatever exceeds or falls outside those ideas must be suppressed as extraneous and unintelligible — literary bad taste or scribal error or whatever other way to dismiss the conflicting information. It is my argument here that Clayton in her translation of Andreas goes too far in her attempts to domesticate the wildness of Andreas, to accord with standard critical ideas of Old English culture and religion. This domestication causes her to misrecognize what the poem says about presence as a feature of hagiographical romantic narrative.

All translation is a process of domesticating a foreign text, metamorphosing difference into likeness, alien language patterns into something an audience will recognize. There are many schools about how this much be done, from doing the job literally, preserving word-order and maintaining cognates so that the experience is as close as possible, to removing all traces of difference for a smoother reading. The reasonable goal is to aim for something in between, depending on the context and the passage, looking to be clear but also at best respecting the ethics of difference of the original (I am currently writing a full-length argument about these ethics of difference). One ideally wants a version of a foreign poem that communicates the individuality of the original —this can be tough, especially if a single translator tackles several poems in one volume. To tame is not the goal, but to give space for communication.

Clayton’s Andreas unfortunately errs in going too far with domestication, compromising her work’s usefulness as a partner to the facing-page Old English in doing so. Rendered into prose, unusual Old English poetic grammar is wiped clean, removing any experience of the poem’s expressive power in favor of standard schoolbook modern English. The possibilities of the Andreas poet’s language becomes reduced to homogeneity of a majoritarian language (borrowing the term from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus). “Majoritarian” language seeks stability, effacing differences that communicate and preserve the identity of discordant and alternative voices — it purports to speak for all speakers, and enforces the dominant ideologies in language. Andreas, though a story of Christian triumphalism, wrestles with identity. It argues for religious imperialism on its surface, but contains numerous submerged narratives and attitudes (one of which, a “cannibal narrative” has been identified by Heather Blurton). My own chapter recognizes not only a voice of cultural curiosity in describing Mermedonian manners, but also projects an identification with the converted people, whose history parallels an English experience of religious change. In fact, the romance’s violence is an ideologically driven effort to suppress these outstanding survivals of the pagan and the past in the English consciousness.

But back to domestication: some domestication is likely in translating anything; there are moments that cannot be rendered literally, and the translator must make a decision in communicating a foreign texture as well as a work’s ideas. There are probably infinite ways to do this, most frequent is the appropriation of a similar linguistic or syntactical effect in one’s own language to approximate the incommunicable language. To do so requires several types of sympathy in a translator: both an ear for the musicality of the original (a tune that any text, whether verse or prose contains), as well as an awareness of musical effects performed or possible in one’s own language. One doesn’t have to be a poet to be a good translator, but it doesn’t hurt — familiarity and sensitivity to one’s own poetic and literary traditions is virtually required. One cannot translate a poem as if one does a newspaper story.

Let’s look at some examples in Clayton. Towards the beginning, the Andreas poet describes the ordained mission of Matthew (Matheus in the poem, Matthias in the sources) out to the land of the Mermedonians, as well as their awful customs:

Þam halig god      hlyt geteode 
ut on þæt igland      þær ænig þa git 
ellþeodigra      eðles ne mihte 
blædes brucan.      Oft him bonena hand 
on herefelda      hearde gesceode. 
Eal wæs þæt mearcland      morðre bewunden, 
feondes facne,      folcstede gumena, 
hæleða eðel.      Næs þær hlafes wist 
werum on þam wonge,      ne wæteres drync 
to bruconne,      ah hie blod ond fel, 
fira flæschoman,      feorrancumenra, 
ðegon geond þa þeode. (ll. 14–25)

Here is Clayton’s version:

Holy God decreed that his lot would be out on that island, where no foreigner could as yet dwell and live; slayers’ hands often fell heavily upon him on the battlefield. All that province, that dwelling place of men, that inhabited country, was enmeshed in evil, in devilish deceit. The people in that place had no bread to nourish them nor water to drink, but all that nation consumed blood and skin, the corpses of men, of people from afar. (p. 185–7)

Of course translators are going to differ how to exactly perform the act of translating. My comments are not to say that Clayton’s efforts here are wrong, just that she has flattened several important aspects at work in this passage, in her efforts to domesticate its language. Grammatically, the final sentence is completely turned over unnecessarily to adhere to a standard modern English expectation of subject-agent and avoid what could be construed as a passive construction. However, this effort buries the important information in the statement. We are meant to wonder at the economic conditions of Mermedonia, a land where there is no bread or water — and the “hlafes wist” and “wæteres drync” are foregrounded in the sentence, with the agent of this consumption withheld for a moment and couched in a dative expression: “werum on þam wonge.” Not only that but the verb expressing their consumption is buried in a inflected infinitive construction “to bruconne” (as an act of eating/enjoying/using), that delay allowing the horror of what the Mermedonians do eat and drink to clang more strongly against the succeeding clause, “blod ond fel, / fira flæschoman” (blood and skin, the flesh-homes of humans), an awfulness made clear by the direct agency of the eaters “hie… ðegon geond þa þeode” (they devoured throughout the nation/tribe) in that final statement. These are not untranslatable effects, but require a minor deviation from standard subject-active verb sentence formation, though nothing radically different. Here is my version of those lines: “There was neither bite of bread / nor drink of water for Mermedonian men to relish. / Instead they gnawed at blood and skin, the flesh-homes of foreign-coming men, throughout the nation.”

This process of domestication here obscures several operative contrasts at work. The first is more simple, the contrast Mermedonia as both an “igland” and a “mearc-land.” “Igland” usually translated as “island” in modern English, a land surrounded by water, however the attribution of the place as a “mearc-land” complicates its islandness. “Mearc” (cognate to “mark” as well as “march” [as in “the Scottish Marches”], though the latter is attributed to the French marchir, probably derived from Germanic, however) is a limit, a border, a boundary, and therefore Mermedonia, as a “mearc-land,” is a land that encroaches, that lies just past the border of what is known, that is a military challenge as well as a neighbor. The poem creates a  paradox between a strange island lying impossibly far away (Andrew despairs of reaching the place in just three days), but also somehow nearby, strategically necessary to the expansion of Christianity. There is a geopolitical warp going on here, and this is something that Clayton’s bald rendering of “province” for “mearcland” buries.*

Also immured in her version is the subtle interplay between verbs of consuming — “brucan” and “þicgan.” First she obscures the verb entirely, by translating “ænig… ellþeodigra eðles ne mihte / blædes brucan” as “where no foreigner could as yet dwell and live.” The idiomatic expression she chooses may replace a similar idiom in Old English, but by losing her grip on the language, the idea of the visiting stranger able to “enjoy/consume/use the fruits/profits/assets” of Mermedonia violates the economic register of the poem. “Blæd” is a tough word to translate, but its valence of “fruit” maintains focus on edibility as an economic consideration and anticipates the miracle of fruit trees sprouting from Andrew’s spilled blood, that blood itself the fruit of hagiographic narrative. “Brucan” is an economic word meaning “to enjoy a product, to use it, to eat it” — and it connotes ownership and the productive use of resources. The Mermedonians do not “bruconne” what their land does not seem to produce — they fail to use its resources properly, they let the land lie fallow. Instead they “þegon” what they derive from human captives, dependent on resources they do not own or control (this fits as the Mermedonians seem extraordinarily hungry despite the possession of their captives). The word “þegn” (servant, retainer) is derived from “þicgan” in the sense that the retainer “accepts, receives, or eats” whatever the lord grants them. The Mermedonians become subservient to their own economic conditions, refusing to fully possess their land’s native resources, and leaving them vulnerable to the exploitation of an outside people. This final colonial valence justifies the actions of the Christian imperialists represented by Andrew: Christianity will bring the land of these foreign people into full productivity (never mind that what that fruitfulness would look like is ignored at the end of the poem). So this final sentence in the passage quoted above operates upon the difference between the connotations of “brucan” and “þicgan,” a tension that is tough to translate. Again, here is my version of those lines: “There was neither bite of bread / nor drink of water for Mermedonian men to relish. / Instead they gnawed at blood and skin, the flesh-homes of foreign-coming men, throughout the nation” —hardly perfect but trying to play off the distinction in eating verbs with the contrast between “relish” and “gnaw at.” Here Clayton obscures all sense of the verse’s complexity, and loses the fuller implications of what Andreas is about. The poem is just a saint’s life here, its action solely religious in meaning, the story unproblematically upholding the Christian triumphalism of its ideology.

The erasure of the foreign text outlined thus far compromises the poem’s ability to communicate its most important aspect, and this is the second of the two points I want to address in this post. Stories of saint’s lives and deeds, tales of a shapeshifting Christ who animates stone statues and dead patriarchs, are arguments about holy presence in the Christian existence of belief. The poem dramatically, ironically, and rather experimentally approaches the question of saintly presence in an affronting and challenging way: the holy apostle that ventures his life in strange lands is threatened not just with death, but consumption. The joke is not just Eucharistic, though the bizarre miracle of the Host is surely teased here. The needs of the Mermedonians go appallingly beyond the flock of the faithful, who receive their wafer and ritualistically experience the continued, universal presence of the Corpus Christi. The anthropophagite nation actually consumes the very present, available, and mortal flesh of God’s ambassador, after forcing their captive through a rigorous and awful process of dehumanization. Presence in Andreas is not passive (and it is not in any of the other OE hagiographical poems), the violence of the saint’s suffering is emphasized. Numerous and repeated kennings and epithets of a saint as God’s warrior are not only metaphors, not just references to militarized language in theology. The fight is literal as well, the peril very real. Saints are fighters (Juliana certainly was, Guthlac too, even if he now prefers a “leofran lace” these days). The presence of the blessed man or woman disrupts the expected order of the world, warps reality, gives birth to miracles, brings glory down to humanity to experience in all its terrifying majesty. Hagiographies are stories of rebels and disruptors — they challenge not just the political and religious status quo but also the way the world works.

Andreas does not work in the space of divine calm and beatitude, at any level, from the word to the episode. It is colorful and immediate in its language. When Jesus brings his followers to the High Temple in Jerusalem, the poem conveys a bodily aspect to his teaching: “haliges lare / synnige ne swulgon” [The teaching of the holy one the sinful ones would not swallow] (ll. 709-10), connecting spiritual teaching to a corporeal meal tantalizing teased throughout the poem. The poem’s Jewish adversaries do not make a meal of Jesus’s precepts, but the Mermedonians might eat Andrew. Clayton backs away from this important implication in the poem, rendering the line with an anodyne “the sinful did not accept the holy man’s teaching…” (p. 231). There is affirmation aplenty in the dictionaries, Bosworth-Toller gives a meaning for swelgan of “to take into the mind, accept, imbibe,” but this definition is derived from its more immediate physical sense. There is a metaphoric connection here between learning and eating that ought to be respected, especially found in a poem consumed with edibility. To do otherwise is to misrepresent a compelling urgency to the story.

Distancing language that domesticates the poem is rife throughout Clayton’s translation, that reduces the terrifying and world-altering power of holy presence, and no blog post could go through every instance found there. Some of this may arise from a fundamental difference of what she and I see happening in the poem. My reading stems from an identification of Andreas as exceeding mere hagiography and pushing into the generic realms of the early romance, partly because its sources, biblical and apocryphal walk along that edge, but mostly because the Andreas author recognizes ways the story of St. Andrew speaks to secular heroic literature, like Beowulf, but certainly a richer field at the time of the story’s invention. This reading challenges the doctrinal purpose of this and other similar poems in Old English, sliding out from beneath ideological lessons into realms of delicious fictional irresolution. They become adventures, pleasurable reading beyond just the sugar coating on the bitter pill of precept. If Andreas and other hagiographical stories are adventuresome, then translators need to tap into its potential to amaze, shock, and give pleasure. Language must rise to the challenge, the opportunity, the experience. Anglo-Saxonists have beat these poems to death as doctrinal lessons and ignore these stories’ use-values, the way they appeal to an audience, and play with ideology in creative ways. Doctrine, even in the monasteries, could not have absolutely rigid and totalizing. Imagination and play will always find a way in a creative, ironic mind — Andreas is the result of such play, and translating it quietly will never serve.


* Clayton uses “that land” when the word reappears in line 801-2: “Geweotan ða ða witigan þry / modige mearcland tredan”, which again buries the important aspect of the borderlands, a concept emphasized throughout the animated statue episode (777-78: “on þa leodmearce / to Channaneum” as well as 788: “ofer mearcpaðu” — both compounds  featuring the “mearc” element, and she at both ignores that part [translating “country” and “the paths over that land”]). At a moment which challenges the temporal and ideological borders between Christianity and Judaism, and suggests that they may not be settled or permanent, the repetition of this idea cannot be idle or meaningless.

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