Monday, September 14, 2015

Variations in Translations

Translating poetry is never simple.  A translator must consider how (or if) they use the original rhyme and meter in the translation, and they must find the balance of poetic language and colloquialisms with making the work understandable to a new audience.

Skaldic poems came in several basic forms: Fornyrthislag ("Old Verse" typically identifiable by having a title that ends in "-kvitha"), Ljothahatrr ("Song Measure," typically identifiable by having a title that ends in "-mol"), and Malahattr ("Speech Measure").  That being said, few poems perfectly follow form so there is no formulaic way to translate them.  Mix in the use of alliteration, assonance, caesuras and those often troublesome kennings and you have a Sisyphean task ahead of you.

Jackson Crawford, translator and editor for The Poetic Edda that we are using in class set out to create a translation that could be understood without the use of footnotes. It's one of the main reasons why I chose his translation to use as the text for Modern Mythology. It is a very readable version, but it still retains the vitality, and the "oomph" of the original.

Other translators, however, aim for translations that fit more accurately the original meter and sound of the poems -- which means they are a bit less readily accessible, but often (I think) a bit more savory to the ear.

As an example of how much one's approach to translating can change the sound and feel of a poem, here are three different translations of Hovamol stanza 10 (one of my favorites).

Jackson Crawford:
"A traveler cannot bring
a better burden on the road
than plenty of wisdom.
It will prove better than money
in an unfamiliar place --
wisdom is the comfort of the poor."

Carolyne Larrington (Oxford World's Classics):
"No better burden a man bears on the road
than a store of common sense;
better than riches it will seem in an unfamiliar place,
such is the resort of the wretched."

Henry Adams Bellows (Dover Publications):
"A better burden         may no man bear
For wanderings wide than wisdom;
It is better than wealth       on unknown ways,
And in grief a refuge it gives."

Even in these very short passages you can see that line structure, word choice and (to some extent) the meaning of the poem changes. Are we talking about "wisdom" or "common sense"? Is it a "comfort of the poor," a "resort of the wretched" or a refuge in grief?

Not speaking or reading old Icelandic myself I can't say which translation is the most accurate, though I suspect that ultimately depends on what you mean by "accurate."

As a side note, there's a word in old Icelandic that Crawford addresses in his introductory notes  that does not have a direct translation into modern English. The word is argr and Crawford describes it as "a highly pejorative adjective implying a lack of manly qualities, and, especially, imputing to another a desire for a passive role in sex with a male" (page xxii). Crawford translates it as "sissy," Larrington uses "pervert" and Bellows goes with "womanish." I find all three of these translations a bit troublesome, but then maybe since it is a "highly pejorative" term it should be troublesome.  Knowing a culture's insults can be just as informative as knowing their myths.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Egyptian Birds of Prey

For those of you who have long been wondering if, in fact, the Ancient Egyptians bred birds of prey, we may be getting close to an answer. New Evidence Shows Ancient Egyptians May have Bred Birds of Prey

Saturday, September 5, 2015


If you're interested in the history of the exploration of Egypt there's an excellent mini-series from the BBC available on Netflix Streaming.

It's called simply: Egypt

The first two episodes are about Champollion and his truly remarkable work on translating the Rosetta Stone.

The next two episodes cover Belzoni, the sideshow strong man turned archeologist, who discovered some of the most important sites in Egypt.  Belzoni was significant not only for what he found, but also for the fact that unlike so many others at the time, he was interested in preserving and studying rather than looting.

And last but not least, episodes 5 and 6 cover Howard Carter and the discovery of King Tut's tomb.

The series is really well produced, it is a beautiful blend of drama and documentary.  Unlike many re-enactments, the dramatic scenes are compelling with some top-notch performances.  If nothing else: it's beautiful to look at.

It makes a great companion piece to the King Tut exhibit currently at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, too.  Go see that too.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Snorri Sturluson

Snorri Sturluson, the man responsible for much of what we know of Norse mythology, is a fascinating figure in his own right. It's rare that we have any information about the people who passed down their culture's myths so we are quite lucky to know as much about Snorri as we do.

I can't recommend more highly Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown. As far as I'm concerned, this is the authoritative look at Snorri.  It provides a fascinating look at Icelandic history, and Snorri's crucial role in it along with very compelling arguments for why we owe Snorri credit for keeping Norse myth alive.

If I ever get a chance to teach a course on just Norse Mythology it would include Song of the Vikings alongside the Eddas.

I also recommend Brown's blog God of Wednesday which, along with links to her other writings, it contains a lot of beautiful pictures from her own travels in Iceland.

In his time, Snorri became the most powerful man in Iceland, but he wasn't always the smartest politician -- which lead to his untimely and inauspicious death at the hands of Norwegian soldiers.  Rather than facing death like Odin (whom he liked to compare himself to) riding into the mouth of Fenrir, Snorri was killed unceremoniously while cowering in his home.

Here is the Jorge Luis Borges poem about Snorri's death. I wonder if Snorri was as disgusted with himself in his final moments as Borges clearly is.
[This translation and seven of Borges other poems can be read in pdf here]

Snorri Sturluson

"You, who left to posterity an unsparing
Tribal mythology of ice and flame,
You, who made fast in words the violent fame
Of your forebears, their ruthlessness and daring,

Were stunned to feel, as the mythic swords towered
Over you one evening, your insides churning,
And in that trembling dusk that bides no morning
It was revealed to you you were a coward.

Now in the Iceland night the heavy seas
Tower and plunge in the salt gale. Your cell
Is under siege. You have drained to the lees

A shame never to be forgotten. Now
The sword is falling above your pallid brow
As in your book repeatedly it fell."

Sunday, August 30, 2015


Welcome Mythographers!

This blog exists as a resource for the mythology courses I teach at KCAD.  If you are not one of my students you are also welcome and will (hopefully) find this to be a handy collection of mythology related excitements.

More to come soon.