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!

Comments

  • – I lost track of the sentence about fussy Victorian translations but you catch the drift. Ancient people didn’t have dusty lives just because our translations feel dusty. Good job giving the richness and variability surprise required by these texts that have survived for so long.

    I enjoyed reading your translation goals along with the translations of the poems themselves. 👏 👏 👏

  • Thank you for these translations. I came across them via the LRB’s Medieval Beginnings series. I listened to the episode about the Exeter Book last spring or late winter and have been thinking about them since. If anyone wants to hear these poems read in the Old English I highly recommend that podcast.

    Thank you for these vibrant sad and fully alive translations. It is startling, though it shouldn’t be!, that people of those ancient times had complexity of emotions that we believe we have to ourselves. And it’s wonderful to know that just because our exposure as it exists is most often limited to some Victorian translation that sounds super fussy and superficial to the modern ear. These are so valuable and wonderful, adding the depths of centuries of human experience to our contemporary experience.

  • What are the copyright status of the translations? Could they be printed out? could they be used in the classrooms? They are really good and they could help students and scholars in this matter.

    • Hi there — these translations are posted as open-access for all educators. All I ask is that they are not sold or monetized in any way. I guess I’d need more info on how you plan to use them, which is a conversation better held by email. That address is easily found on this site. Thanks & looking forward to speaking further.

  • I think it would be wonderful to have an audio component to these poems. It would be wonderful to have someone read these poems to help make them more accessible. I know that that would be a very involved project, but I would love to be involved.

    • Hi thanks for your suggestion! I would love to do that, but as you suggest, it would be massively time-consuming project. :)

  • Your translation of the Dream of the Rood is beautiful and really does honor the principles stated above. Thank you!

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