Translating the Worm.

I’m writing this from vacation in Half Moon Bay with Meggy; we headed out here to eat a hella fancy brunch and to work at a different coffee shop, apparently.

Fortunately, the sea did not take revenge for the shovelfuls of caviar I had just eaten, and I was not devoured.

I’ve been thinking ahead a little bit w/r/t the translation, specifically to the World-Serpent stanzas, and even more specifically with an eye to the question of how to interpret Jormungandr visually.  It’s pretty traditional to depict it as a fairly straightforward sea serpent (with some interesting exceptions).  Which is fine, I guess.  I’ve got nothing against sea serpents, honest.  The entrance to our apartment is basically a vestibule devoted to sea serpents.

That said, a great part of what (I imagine) made sea serpents terrifying, beyond their sheer size, is how alien they are.  They came from depths man couldn’t reach, and they returned beyond pursuit when their havoc was wrought.

The thing is, I think dragons and sea serpents have become a bit overexposed, particularly when they’re depicted as nothing more than a radically oversized and otherwise scientifically accurate snake.  There’s nothing in that image to unsettle a viewer.

I was at the National Gallery in Washington, DC earlier this week, looking at a painting of Adam and Eve in the garden (I forget the artist, sorry).  I didn’t notice the serpent slithering down the tree at first, as the focus was definitely on the two human figures.  It was literally with a start that I finally noticed the small reptile WITH A HUMAN HEAD AND FACE.  Very upsetting.  You are not supposed to shout and gesticulate in a museum, but what else could I do?

Translating’s not just about getting the words right; it’s about doing your damnedest to capture the feeling as well.  When you see Jormungandr, the appropriate reaction should be, “Well, shoot, that’s it.  Here comes the end of the world.  It is impossible to see this and live.”  Dragons may have done that once, but they don’t anymore.  Of course the Midgard-serpent has to be LONG; otherwise it can’t wrap itself around the earth.  But there’s got to be more to it than that.

So, other than snakes with human body parts, what makes me freak out and punch the person next to me in the arm to get some relief from my profound discomfort?  Easy.  Deep sea creatures.  Meggy and I recently watched “Blue Planet: The Deep” (available on Netflix streaming!) and shouted a lot.

Jormungand is definitely some unholy combo of the hairy angler and gulper eel.  It’s got some fangtooth fish and viperfish in there too.  He may not be a goblin shark, but he has some as minions.  Yet I also love the idea of him as a poisonous, almost obscene worm (hence the blog name) like the awful, awful hagfish.  It can tie itself into knots, for pete’s sake!  Which is perfect.

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2 Comments

  1. mordicai said,

    April 25, 2011 at 7:27 am

    I actually feel the opposite about dragons. I mean, the complete opposite! I think it is the NARROWING of “dragon” to mean “scales, wings, breathes fire, you know what I mean” that is the problem. I think, for instance, if you go through & re-read “Call of Cthulhu” with open eyes, you’ll see that Cthulhu is a dragon. Shed the depiction of Cthulhu as a giant mindflayer– it is wormy, has scales, it is totally a dragon! Similarly, I think bringing your deep sea critters into the dragon-mix is a good way of re-capturing what dragon MEANS.

  2. April 25, 2011 at 9:29 am

    Yeah, I think we are on the same wavelength here.

    I…I think I have never actually read Call of Cthulhu, now that I think of it. Is that wrong of me? On the flip side, I did pick up Game of Thrones on your rec yesterday.


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