Sunday, February 24, 2013

Translations: Deor by Simon Armitage part two

Simon Armitage’s translation of Deor demonstrates what happens when a pattern, in this case alliteration, imposes its demands on the vocabulary of a poem. It’s also a good example of how poetic sounding images can be empty place holders in a line.

Weland the goldsmith      knew grief’s weight.
That strong-minded man      was no stranger to misery,
his loyal soul-mates      were sorrow and longing,
a hurt like winter      weathered his heart

The original opening line:  Welund him be wurman wræces cunnade,

Is literally: Weland, through serpents, (experienced/explored/put to the test)  (exile/persecution/misery)

It  has exercised the ingenuity of many commentators who try to explain what those serpents are or were doing,  so dropping them makes sense,  and since Weland is no longer well known,  so does introducing him.  But the first two B lines are padding: the original does not mark time.

The warning bells start at goldsmith. That’s what Weland was in one version of the story.  However here, rather than the more familiar ‘smith’, it seems to be padding like “loyal soul-mates” in line 3: because the modern poet’s choice of alliterative pattern sets up the need for two alliterating sounds in each half line. (‘Loyal soul-mates” translates “companions”: can someone be your soul mate if he, she, or it is disloyal?)

The new alliterative pattern requires ‘weight’ to be at the end of the line.  While OE exuberantly strikes compounds the way Raymond chandler coined similes, “grief’s weight” sounds vague compared to ‘knew misery” and seems to be filling a place in the B line so that ‘misery’ can occur in the second one. “No stranger to …” is a syntactical cliché and gains nothing from having misery stuck at the end.

a hurt like winter      weathered his heart

sounds consciously ‘poetic’ in the worst, archaic way.  Perhaps the alliterative pattern forces the syntax.   But ‘A hurt like winter’ translates the simple compound wintercealde wræce, (Winter-cold misery) which I thought was one of his companions, along with sorrow and longing.   

The problem with the simile is that it defuses the image.  Misery that is Winter-cold evokes northern Europe: dark, cold, painful, cutting, inexorable, deadly.  Something utterly beyond your control  which can only be suffered.  But it  passes. 

But with “Like winter” the image evaporates in a multiplication of conflicting associations.  If you were an Anglo-Saxon and you got your planning right, winter could be a good time: no fighting (until Guthrum changed the rules)  not a lot of work to do outside, and inside the firelight, communal life, story telling, friendly ways of keeping warm, resting for the hard work that comes in spring.  

For a modern reader winter contains all sorts of good things as well as bad.

If “A hurt like winter” doesn’t work, neither does ‘weathered his heart’. Presumably withered was discarded because of the Winter/weather associations, but weathering produces all kinds of effects, some of them spectacularly beautiful. The idea that sorrow, longing and being hamstrung make you into a work of art may reach for a suitably grim irony, but seems wrong here. The line has too many possible readings, too many of them contradictory for it to work.

And so on.
Simon Armitage’s translation:
Original text at:
Anyone interested in a comparison should read the translation provided at the link above. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Deor by Simon Armitage:LRB 21 February 2013

Although labeled in the online index as “ A poem by Simon Armitage”  the poem Deor is actually a reasonably faithful translation of the OE  Deor from  The Exeter Book. This is explained in a note in the side bar on the page the poem appears in the online edition.  In the print edition I see no such information. I’m not suggesting anything underhand is happening.  I’m just wondering if this is a claim that the poet who translates, remakes and therefore owns the new text or do we assume that all readers of the LRB know Deor is Old English? 

I could get to like the way Armitage has broken the alliterative pattern of the original and alliterates each line of the first verse on the last word,  which the original doesn’t.  I’m not sure I like “a hurt like winter” which sounds too vague, and I don’t understand “my name was Deor "(even if it's faithful to the original)  or “and [she] imagined misfortunes”  but all this is irrelevant.  It’s an awkward gnarled poem to translate and I couldn’t produce a translation which read this fluently. The people who can tell you how accurate it is are the very people who don’t need it,  so the question is who does? Who is the intended audience? 

Which means I’m most intrigued by the fact that it’s been published in what seems to be such a prestigious market.  It’s a neat translation of an obscure poem, famous for its refrain (which here sounds unnecessarily clunky) and its allusiveness,  but which doesn't seem to offer a modern reader much if anything.  

So has it been published because it’s written by Simon Armitage and to advertise his new book?   There are numerous translations currently available. Does this version offer new insight into the poem or a new way of reading the original? Does it suggest the writer went “digging for the treasure” in Pound’s version of translation and recast the original in a way that’s alive as a poem for a modern reader?

I’d answer no to both those last two questions and the reason for the negative is simple.  Deor is famously allusive. It is assumed, these days, that the original audience must have known the stories of Weland, Beodohilde et al.  (It wasn’t Weland’s hopes which were hamstrung (as the Armitage version states): he was. Weland then took his revenge by killing Niðhad’s sons and raping his daughter, Beodohilde, who was driven out her wits by her pregnancy. Or at least that’s the familiar notes attempting to explain the poem).

“We have heard” the poet repeats working variations on the phrase, but “we” reading in the twenty first century, are not the “we” who heard or knew.  Stripped of original context or contextualizing notes,  the poem on its own makes no sense beyond a vague suggestion that because a list of (unknown) people survived (equally unknown) bad things in a vague past the (unknown) poet’s (stated) bad times may also pass.

Look at me says the poem in the LRB: I’m a translation! I’m the ghost of Anglo-Saxon Poetry talking a walk on part in a museum.  I’m the painfully obvious replica they send out when the original is too valuable to move. I’m quaint,  I’m awkward. You won’t understand me,  but don’t worry.  I look old and different and that’s enough.   Look at the me, the ghost of  “Anglo-Saxon Poetry” with its non Anglo-Saxon alliteration.  Look at my typography. How quaint. How obviously Old.  

But since we all know this Anglo-Saxon layout is a modern editorial convention, with its half lines and breaks, why not ditch it?

I feel like I’m being asked to admire the combination of the badly faked replica of a museum piece and a fine musician demonstrating her ability to play scales. 

Neither of which is something I’d willingly part with money to see. 

Or is it indicative of the fact that many readers don't expect a 'poem' to make sense anymore? 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Junk E male announcement

Motto: No Body is Above the LAW



Sadly the word HUDLOOM does not appear in the OED.  

But it should damn sounds like it deserves a film, directed by John Carpenter. The Hudloom and the Drown fight for the souls of our young heroes in a dirty foggy city where the sun never shines and it's always dusk. Our beautiful heroine is seduced by The Hudloom's undeniable charms into a descending spiral of drugs and immorality, while The Drown edges closer to killing her lover in a disused church on the edge of a disused graveyard at the end of a disused street which is littered with the parts of broken down cars....which are therefore disused cars though that sounds almost as odd as "No Body is Above the Law."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Drown still at large!

The Drown saga continues:

Last night the coast was tense as Mr. Plod’s  heliochopter searched for Drown. Locals huddled behind locked, barred and bolted doors, nervously clutching cricket bats, hockey sticks, cast iron pans, chain saws, strimmers, forks, rakes, spades and other implements of destruction.

Commercial news teams swarmed like flies around a honey pot.   Reporters from Spiff news, who have recently been accused of redefining “eye witness”, were keen to thrust recording devices up the noses of anyone who opened his or her door.  In subsequent Spiff  bulletins, Tom “an eyewitness” announced ”I didn’t see anything” while Doreen “another eyewitness”  eagerly told viewers “Something definitely happened. I didn’t see or hear anything but something definitely happened.”

A televised debate was quickly convened between unknown academics who are experts at having opinions.  Dr. D, famous in very limited circles for his seminal work “Foucault and The Bath Sponge: modernity, postmodernity and plastic ducks” debated with Dr. A,  whose justifiably unknown “Derrida was French and didn’t like Cheese: nationality, rationality and diary intolerance” is considered essential reading by nobody. Both agreed they had never heard of Drown but while they were agreeing on the undoubted significance of “Hetero Normative Patriarchal Discourse” the program was hijacked by tweets from a retired underwater hockey player who announced that Drown is the evil mastermind behind the doping scandal in sport and the resignation of the Pope. 

A viewer poll showed there was unanimous disagreement, but when Dr. A agreed and said Down was also probably behind global warming,  98% of tweeters tweeteed to say she was being silly.

Attempts to interview Noddy, who has just been appointed Mayor of ToyTown, failed because “Yous guys have been so mean to me. So I’m not talking to yous”. He claimed he was also busy not talking with environmental groups who are questioning the sanity of his plans to build a space ship terminal, intergalactic gambling casino, red light district and formula one race track on an unnamed sand bank that sometimes appears off the coast at very low tide. “You’re all so negative’ he said. 

No further sightings of Drown have been reported. Mr Plod says this just goes to show how dangerously clever this criminal genius must be.

The crisis is ongoing. Who knows when or where Drown will strike next.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

In praise of second hand book sellers

Real magic. (Second hand books)

Let us praise and give thanks to the second hand book seller, custodians of  dusty magic, and forgive him or her for driving me to financial ruin, since that’s nobody’s fault but mine. And forgive the grumpy ones who mumble when I leave without buying anything, and be understanding of the ones who find it difficult to part with any of their books,  and maybe even forgive that really irritating one who will remain nameless but who doesn’t bother to open his shop.

But let us praise  those who can produce the book I need,  who wrap it so carefully, (unlike  and mail it from Glasgow or Calcutta, Singapore or Solihull, let us give thanks for the absurdity of which allows me to browse for books I need in countries I will never visit  and let us not forget the miracle of the international postal service, which is one of mankind’s greatest inventions, and which whisks my book across the globe to the laughing man who delivers it: “Another book? Do you eat them? “

And let us praise that endless mystery: the second hand book. Let us not pause too long on the smell and feel of them for fear of sensual distraction,  but consider the faded, the scribbled in, or the pristine  (pages uncut for a century),  books with missing plates, books badly paginated, books unpaginated, books read to destruction and skillfully or badly rebuilt,  and of course the unexpected ‘signed by the author’ “To Bill”.   The grammar textbook printed in Calcutta  in 1901. The book of Tennyson’s poems presented to Mabel on her twenty first, with love from Fred, who hopes she’ll like it and to see her soon, Bradley’s Lectures on Poetry given as a prize to the Dux of mathematics at the Glasgow Grammar school  in 1916/7. 

So reading Tennyson, In Memoriam ironically,  I wonder about Fred and Mabel. Why was he writing from South Africa? Did they ever meet? Did they read Tennyson to one another?  And what might that have led to?  Did the bright young maths student ever read his prize: did he die on the western front within the year.  Sad letters someone left inside a book saying Dad had died: the shopping list that makes me wonder what was being cooked that night; the scribbled love poem on the flyleaf;  the explosive “nonsense”  with three exclamations marks and “news to me” in the margins of a biography.  The strange calculation which reaches no conclusions.

Books pass through lives, are lived with, sometimes loved,  sometimes tokens of love or remembrance,  valued beyond their price or content, until they come to rest here, temporarily. They will eventually move on.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Beware of Drown!

Headline in the Gold Coast Bulletin 11/02/2013 (p4):

Tears for Drown Victim

So if you come to the coast, beware of Drown. Not sure if it's The Drown, or A Drown, or whether there are secret gangs of Drown, made up of many drowns, prowling the beaches, kicking sand in the faces of puny weaklings, intimidating topless bathers and making the surfers nervous.

The next time any journalist or politician starts to bang on about the failure of literacy in schools they should be locked in a room with a year's supply of Gold Coast Bulletins and not allowed out until they have shown they can explain and correct all the errors.