Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Wanderer (I)

At the beach I got maybe halfway through translating The Wanderer, an Old English poem from the 10th Century or thereabouts. Since I reckon most people would prefer to get it in bite-size pieces, if at all, I'll post as I go along, with comments as I please. It's about five pages long. Below is first installment.

Translating Old English alliterative poetry into Modern English alliterative poetry is relatively easy. Sometimes the alliteration can be lifted wholesale from the original: vowels shift around a lot more than consonants, over the centuries, and usually one or more of the heavily-stressed, alliterating words that carry the heaviest charge of meaning in a line has a direct descendant to build a Modern English line around. Alliteration in any case is far easier than rhyme in any Germanic language.

The difficulty is in capturing the rhythm. Modern English, having lost most of its inflections, is afflicted with a swelling rash of articles and prepositions, little unstressed words that we can't do without -- and keep a remotely natural-sounding diction -- but which wreck the pattern of Old English sound. The usual rhythm of Old English goes BOM bom BOM bom BOM bom BOM bom; the usual rhythm of Modern English is more like bom BOM bom bom BOM bom bom BOM bom. The brilliant effects of iambic pentameter are founded on the interplay between the theoretical five stressed syllables of a line and the actual two or three that Modern English supplies. I have found it difficult to break the pentameter habit, but it seems critical to me, to catch even a ghost of the Old English, to have two strong stresses in each half-line, with a strong caesura in between. The problem is that this bloats the line. I've switched back and forth several times between breaking my "long alliterative line" into two lines -- which feels a little juvenile and jerky -- and keeping lines that feel a little too long. (The solution that immediately occurred to me, of course, was to adopt William Blake's magnificent fourteeners; but this was a disaster. Its rhythm is even further away from that of Old English verse, very Miltonic, very latinate. No go.)

What I found myself doing was occasionally falling into a "hypometric" couplet or two -- lines with only two major stresses -- but keeping for the most part the basic form of "four stresses with a hole in the middle" that Seamus Heaney used for his translation of Beowulf. I have a feeble excuse for this variation: something like it occurs, if not very often, in Old English poetry -- isolated so-called "half-lines," with double alliteration. More common are "hypermetric" lines -- in which each half-line has three heavy stresses, rather than two -- when it wants to slow down and become graver: the last five lines of The Wanderer are in "hypermetric" verse. That's not really a valid precedent. Really I'm just following George Orwell's rhetorical dictum, that one should break any rule rather than say something downright barbarous.

The real rhythm of Old English verse is simply not reproducible in Modern English: it has to do with how two long, stressed syllables crowd each other or back away from each other within the half-line. Maybe I'll take Rachel's suggestion and try to produce an audio file of The Wanderer in the original, so you can hear it. I know of nothing like it in the modern poetry of romance or germanic languages.

Here is the beginning of The Wanderer:

Often a friendless man must wait it out for favor,
The Measurer's mercy, although, troubled in mind,
He must for a long while, over the water,
Stir with his hands the frost-cold sea,
Wander in exile: Wyrd has all been spoken.

Metod, "the Measurer," is the old Pagan name for personified Fate (Old English "Wyrd"), adopted easily, here, into an epithet for the Christian God. Anglo-Saxon England was remarkable for the smoothness of its transition to Christianity -- it was fortunate in its missionaries, who were broadminded, tactful men, more inclined to assimilate Pagan thought and practice than to challenge it. Early scholars of Old English, who were eager to reconstruct a Pagan past, and who had a Protestant prejudice against the medieval Church, tended to see, in poems such as this one, Pagans pretending to be Christian. In the last generation or two a more sophisticated understanding has developed, which sees this Christianity as deep and sincere, though certainly colored by the Pagan understanding of fate.

So said the earth-stepper, remembering hardships,
And the fall of his family
In savage slaughter.

Often I have told my trouble to the dawn;
There is no living creature now
That I can talk to freely. I know for a fact
It is a better habit to keep your heart's cage locked --
To keep your mind's wallet closed -- think what you will.
A worn out heart cannot withstand Wyrd
And a disordered mind mends nothing.
Someone who wants to be thought well of
Binds his unhappiness up tight in his breast.

The shift from third person into first person is as unexpected in the original as it looks here. Translators sometimes deal with it by putting quotation marks at the beginning of the poem, but then you have to decide where they end, and where they begin again, and so on; the first person speaker seems to come in and out of focus throughout the poem. The effect to me is dreamlike and satisfying; I feel no particular need to sort out narrators and tidily assign speeches to them.

So I have hidden my heart-spirit
Miserable with care, cut off from home,
Far from my family, bound in fetters;
Since I wrapped my gold-friend, years ago,
In the darkness of earth, and I, abject,
Went from there, winter-troubled,
Over the lacing waves, looking, hall-sick,
For where I might find, far or near,
A master in a mead hall
Who knew of me and mine,
Or who would comfort a man of no kindred,
Welcome him warmly. Wise men know
How cruel a companion sorrow is
For a man meager in patrons.
He is attended by exile, not golden armrings;
A frozen heart-cage, not the flowering earth.
He remembers hall-friends and receiving treasure;
How in his young days his gold-friend
Accustomed him to feasting: all joy fails.

"Gold-friend" means king, liege-lord -- an Anglo-Saxon king traditionally rewarded his thanes according to their bravery in battle, typically with gold arm-rings (though it might be anything -- horses, land, anything valuable). The relationship between lord and thane was an intense one, even a passionate one. Becoming lordless is generally the worst calamity an Old English poet can imagine.

More anon...

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