I’m not really a manifesto kind of guy, but I thought I should provide a brief statement on the principles that guide my efforts here at OENPP.
None of my translations are produced solely as an abstract academic exercise, engaged in for the benefit of other early English scholars, just so I can show off that I do know what I’m doing. Competence is not the only issue, though I take great pains to be competent at the language and aware of the critical conversations. That being said, I have little time for or investment in perpetuating those conversations solely because they’re there, that lots of people have agreed to only ask certain questions about these poems, or limit interpretations in exactly the same way. My interest instead lies with these poems AS poems, inheriting all the uncertainties & unevenness & ambiguity that poetry contains. I do nothing if I can’t say something new, or present new possibilities in the poetry.
I see the audience for these translations as students and nonspecialists. I want them to be used in classrooms. They are devices to recruit outsiders into interest in Old English poetry, to show its excitement and value, and argue its relevance to other fields besides literature. So energy and fun is a big part of my process. To create a readable, energetic, and compelling text in modern English is my goal. I’m not interested in saying things exactly the same way everybody else has just because that’s what’s done. I want to draw interest, especially to new generations of scholars to be, and I do not believe that same old boring translations can do that. Shaking up the status quo is vital to the urge that produces poetry at all, even in traditional cultures.
So there is much invested here to be different and show new angles and possibilities in these poems. I am revising the poems all the time, as I continue to read and broaden my application, and I am always reconsidering the impact of what the source text is saying. There are errors of course, and I am working them out but it takes time. This whole year has been spent revising the shorter poems, and it will take a very long time to get through something big like Genesis A & B or Beowulf. Your patience is requested, and I am happy to hear about mistakes when you find them. And I have already, and it’s great to get them even if I don’t agree. The suggestion makes me think about what I’ve said and to be more deliberate. In time, there may be footnotes.
These are the basic ideas I had in mind as I was producing the translations:
1) Alliteration is awesome, and should be a first determining factor in any diction decision—although too much of it in a line can start to feel overly contrived in modern English. If needed, other rhyming relations can substitute for it (assonance, near-rhyme, etc.)
2) Diction needs to feel contemporary, with some exceptions. Sometimes a good word is old or archaic and you can’t do much about it. Cognates are wonderful, even if the modern usage has moved away from that meaning, especially if it makes the product sound a little strange (though I’m not going to write “weird” for wyrd and pretend that’s a deep statement). Also, there is no reason why French- or Latin-derived words can’t be used to translate Anglo-Saxon. Why limit yourself to a quarter of the dictionary?
3) Old English verse is stately and artificial and poesy. It was not meant to sound like ordinary speech. However, to translate it only in a contrived version of modern English poetics seems to me to be perverse. Contemporary lines and syntax works best in almost all cases.
4) However, there are some important and amazing aspects of Germanic verse that can be honored. The sense of gradual discovery and building of tension through delaying a subject, object, or verb is a powerful effect. Also, the piling on and gradual revelation of appositive phrases can be dazzling and rhetorically compelling. If these effects can be achieved without doing too much violence to the modern sense, then let them come.
5) Sometimes a proper noun must be inserted where the original only has a pronoun just for clarity’s sake. But descriptive epithets have vital purpose and synonyms often bear semantic importance. Rendering “God” “Drihten” “Frea” and “Metod” equally as “God” or “the Lord” just doesn’t cut it.
6) Kennings are dramatic and essential to the verse. To translate them in as compact a space as possible is an important goal of my translations. Kenning for kenning doesn’t always work, but a short phrase or genitive connection (“the x of y”) will often do the trick. A long explanation deadens the rhythm and poetic integrity. Asking the reader to supply some effort in interpretation is true to the intent of the original.
7) Line breaks should conform to the unique music of the translation, and not just parrot back the rhythm of the original. Attempting to mimic the meter of the original usually does not work. But the translation should operate as its own poem and not just line-broken prose.
8) I try to add almost nothing except to make the sense clearer. That involves taking a stand on ambiguous interpretations at times, or pushing my own view on what’s there. It can’t be helped, though the effects may be able to be minimized and controlled. Great in-class conversations are often started by pointing out how Heaney manipulates the Nowell Codex text in his Beowulf, for example.
9) One final note: My translation philosophy is equal parts Ezra Pound and Jim Henson. While Pound enjoins us to “make it new,” Henson’s Muppet skits encourage us to make it strange, to play the music in the words of Frank Zappa, “with a mustache on it” (no doubt alluding to Dali). This still does not mean that anything is added, only that a chance is given for the possibilities of the remainder to escape. This does not mean I think the verse is silly, only unusual, and that it needs to be translated in an unusual way. This means that I recognize that the conditions of play are often extinguished by an approach dominated by its own seriousness, constrained by a presumed image of stoic & grim early English tribes that only sang tragic songs there on the shores of frozen seas.
10. I am in the process of revising the entirety of this site, and the conditions for torsion are foremost in my mind as I re-read my work.
Nothing stated here is so urgent or set in stone that it can’t be ignored if the line seems to require it. It is trying to create a pleasing work of art as well as a pedagogical resource, after all.
Comments? Please contact me right away!