Sunday, May 07, 2006

Koshtra's Retraction

Okay. Time for me to eat crow. I'm as far as Beowulf's arrival at Heorot, in Seamus Heaney's translation. I'm blown away. This is a magnificent translation. Read it. He gets Beowulf. No other translator has ever succeeded so well, particularly in capturing the Beowulf-Poet's tone, his modulations from formality to pathos, his passion and his sly, straight-faced humor.

Read it. But be aware that it does not (as some of the rave reviews imply) reproduce the Old English verse-form. This is not a "modernization" -- as some translations of Chaucer or Shakespeare, for instance, are. The words and syntax and verse form are quite different. Which is as it should be. (At this point I'm going to get technical; if you're not interested in metrics, it's probably time to move on. Just get Heaney's translation and enjoy the ride.)

In Old English manuscripts poetry is not broken into lines: it is usually "pointed," looking something like this:

there at the pier stood . the ringed prow . icy and out-eager . a prince's vessel . they laid . their dear king . giver of rings . on the ship's bosom . famous by the mast . there were many treasures . from far ways . ornaments loaded . I never heard of a comelier . keel furnished . with battle weapons . and war dress . swords and hauberks . on his breast lay . many treasures . to go with him . into the tide's sway .

(I've tried to be very literal here, but I've added a sprinkling of articles -- "a" and "the" -- that already vitiate the strength of the original.)

Some of the very earliest editors of Old English verse treated the "points" as line-breaks, printing it thus:

There at the pier stood
The ringed prow
Icy and out-eager
A prince's vessel

(The lines are bound into "couplets" by alliteration: both heavily stressed syllables in line one would alliterate with the first heavily stressed syllable of line two.)

Others -- whose practice prevailed -- borrowed the lineation of the later Middle English alliterative tradition, which printed both "half-lines" (as they came to be called) as a single line with a space, a caesura, in between, thus:

There at the pier stoodsssthe ringed prow,
Icy and out-eager,sssa prince's vessel.

All of Old English verse is now printed this way, in a form that no Old English poet ever saw. Translators, to a man, ape this format, which saves space and "looks like poetry" to people trained in pentameter. But usually they dump even the caesura, destroying the last remaining indication of half of the line-breaks in the poem. Thus Heaney has:

A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour,
ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.

Now this is a beautiful rendering, and it alliterates (as my own does not), though on different words than the original. But notice what's happened. The alliteration has stopped being functional. It no longer ties two lines together; it just decorates one line, and it seems like possibly a bit too much of a good thing, even though Heaney sensibly drops one of the alliterations from each first "half-line." The other thing that has happened is that the verse has sped up. It's verse to be spoken, not chanted, now.

Another thing that is injured -- Heaney is sensitive to this, but it can't be helped -- is that the Beowulf-poet alliterates on the words that are most important to him. There is a deep sense to what alliterates. In the first line, or couplet if you like, the words that alliterate in the Old English are "pier" and "ring"; in the second it's "icy," "out-eager," and "prince." Compare that with Heaney's "ring" and "rode," and "clad" and "craft." The Old English alliterations emphasize the meaning of the verse; Heaney's just ornaments it. This example is maybe a little unfair on Heaney, who is very aware of this property of alliteration and tries to reproduce it, often with brilliant success. But even he loses more of this than he manages to save.

The details of Old Germanic metrics are too complicated for me to get into here. It's far more complex and satisfying than "a four-beat line" (or two-beat, depending on how you count.) It simply can't be reproduced in modern English, which usually has only two (not three) degrees of stress and no variation in vowel "quantity" (a "long a" is not a longer version of a "short a," in modern English -- it's just a completely different vowel.) Suffice it to say that Heaney has not, and would never claim to have, reproduced the Old English meter. He's translated it into a variation on its nearest cousin, the Middle English alliterative line, which is simpler and more forgiving.

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