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.

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