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. 

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