Oh sweet baby Jebus, “Wulf” is a wild one. A short lyric, found in the Exeter Book, traditionally listed among the 9 or so “Elegies” (a deeply problematic term, as I’ve pointed to before). The best translations vary widely (which they should) but more traditional approaches have fallen short. I get frustrated with disappointing translations (I love a good one so much!), but I want make clear that not all translation work in the same way or have the same objectives. That’s our fault probably for refusing to think through these issues more clearly. I want my translation to open up spaces & draw new readers. Others are needed to help newcomers through the language. That’s worthy as well, of course. But an absolute insistence on the latter in publishing & reception has actually disadvantaged the field, left people out, preserved unhelpful narratives. Vocabuary rarely ranges much past the synonyms chosen by Rev. Bosworth back in the day. [Mea maxima culpa: as I learned OE, most of my stuff has this same problem — I’ll get to it]
“W&E” sings to me in a voice of eroticism, in folds of desire & longing. To give that voice more room for expression, one has to first understand how sexual language works often works — that is, in many terms, most of them slang, which are derived from a cunning awareness of the fissures & pleasures in whatever is our native tongue. Officially sanctioned words are definitely not the most sexy in all contexts, so why should we assume this previous culture wouldn’t hide its pleasures in strategically deployed language as well? This an important aspect of many resistance communities, from the long-enduring play of “signifying” in African Diasporic cultures, to queer languages basically everywhere (like Polari in fin-de-siecle UK), even to Cockney rhyming slang. To savvy the spoken, you need to salta through four leaps of logic & reference, which takes not only membership in that culture (or some form of sympathetic listening, if possible*), but also the cleverness needed to survive in the hostile environments that create that identity. It’s the essence of French feminist language theory, like one can find in Helene Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa,” but don’t forget Audre Lorde or Gloria Anzaldua either (to name a few), to see the bigger issue of political resistance and language rebellion explicitly made.
So the possibility exists to explore potential leaps of logic & frame. But here’s the catch: I am not a poet or audience living in early Medieval England (huge, if true), so can I claim absolute certainty that my two-step through signifcance is “accurate”? Absolutey not, nor would I want to. The key here is that by pushing on possible resonances of OE diction through the linguistic registers & brawling grounds of my own language (some of which is common to some of you), I can find a fire that causes a question. A question that suggests something new. A new way to understand ancient cultures not as uniform, arid spaces (like some reactionaries would love to believe), but as zones of circulation. A place where poetry happens.
The poem appears to be spoken by a female character, as several adjectives describing the “I” speaker have feminine endings. But does this character even need to be human? Others have suggested this, and the idea is amazingly emancipating. “Wulf” was pretty common in OE names, usually as a suffix (for instance, there are so many likely Cynewulf’s in written records that no one can say for sure who was our poet), but it can also just be “wolf.” “Ead-wacer” is a kenning, made up of “ēad” (property, wealth [someone who is lucky because they’re “ēadig” are wealthy]) and “wacor” (watchful). “Property-watchful” or one who is so watching. Who or what watches one’s property? A guard dog. So there’s that. There’s a lot of talk of eating: the rarely attested “āþēcgan” (whose root can mean to accept or to eat) which is usually used to mean to ingest, perhaps extended to mauling like dogs would do. The infant is a “hwelp” — ok, not too subtle there. And when the speaker describes Wulf’s caresses in such aching terms, she says she was “bogum bilēgde” — she is not using human terms here. “Boga” can mean “limb” but is not often used for human limbs as far as I can tell.
To be clear, I am suggesting all three are animals here — a three-way romantic/erotic relationship between dogs, a love traingle perhaps. But given certain contemporary subcultures, this may be a “furry” story, and these are like “fursonae,” or projections of an erotic identity past a solely human body & its acculturated limitations of gender, sexuality, and society. Perhaps a congruent (not identical) exploration of desire is going on here, in terms strange enough to make something culturally awkward expressible, or generally unspeakable articulate. This doesn’t mean all talk on sex was forbidden or censored though. Research seems to indicate that most folks were pretty pragmatic about their sexuality, that it was not necessarily “forbidden” or “puritan” (that came later, and Foucault starts a good conversation on what even those cultural prohibitions on sex talk might actually mean about sexual practices…). But there is always something tough to talk about.
Summing up here, the possibilties that open up in new translation reveal what attitudes, assumptions, stereotypes, and mythologoies suppress (and even the nicest scholars carry with these stereotypes into their work). A reluctance to make waves perhaps, or draw criticism. I think that time is over. Many projects are developing that challenge these former modes (I’m thinking particularly of Miller Wolf Oberman here, among others). I look forward to amplifying all these poets’ work and doing my small part alongside.
This is becoming a real project for me here, and it’s taken 12 years to see how it could be expressed. Translation is critical work, and it has been shunted out of legitimacy for far too long. If the “legitimate” academy could hack at a small corpus of poetry & come up with relatively few new ideas in all that time, then it’s time to reconsider how an academic opinion is derived and who derives it. The Beowulves of Heaney & Headley create space for critical confrontation, to trial-test the old patterns and see if the forms still fathom anything worth fathoming. I do not see this as a matter of pure poetics but political urgency (nor does Headley per her intro), as can be seen playing out in my comments section and in the spaces of public medievalism.
* Other scholars and activists would be better able to speak on whether such a thing even exists. Such issues plague traditional anthropoology as well.