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.


Written on a cross-country flight…hope this makes a lick of sense.

As promised, I’ve collected my thoughts on Bernard Scudder’s translation of Voluspa, The Prophecy.

It’s an unusual little volume, as I mentioned before, particularly when considered alongside the other translations that are out there.  Most notably, that’s because the other modern translations are of the entire Poetic Edda, of which Voluspa is a small, but important, part.  There’s some sense in this, I think, although I’m admittedly biased, since I’m planning on doing the same thing.  There are a number of different types of poems in the Edda, from the high mythology of Voluspa, to Odin’s homespun wisdom in Havamal, to the fairy-tale origin of man in Rigsthula, to the doings of human heroes in the story of Helgi Hundingsbana.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing to present them separately, I think.

Physically, it’s the odd man out as well.  I don’t know anything about Gudrun Press, which put it out, although the name makes me assume it’s Scandinavian (I’m writing this on a plane, so I can’t really look it up, but it was printed in Iceland).  It definitely has a lower-budget feel than the editions from Oxford, Texas, etc., so I’m assuming it’s smaller as well.  There’s a lot going on on the cover.  From top to bottom, it declares: Voluspa, The Prophecy, “More than 1000 years old,” “The Creation and Destruction of the World in the Viking Faith.”

I found this kind of off-putting and a bit cheesy at first, but as I thought about it, it made more sense to me.  Someone who picks up The Poetic Edda was probably looking for it and has a pretty good idea of what it’s about.  Not so for a much slimmer volume whose spine merely says The Prophecy.  Could be anything.  There’s also a quick, but accurate summary on the back that concludes: “The Prophecy is not only a unique record about the way people thought and viewed the world in ancient times, but also the most famous and undoubtedly the most beautiful poem from the Viking Age.”

Inside, the poem is laid out with a single verse per page; really, this is the only way you can do it if you mean to make a publishable book of it as a stand-alone piece.  I was excited to see that it is illustrated, unlike any other edition that I know of.  Upon looking into it, however, I was a little disappointed to see that the illustrations were not made for the edition.  The illustrations, from what I can tell, are photographs of some beautiful carvings made by Dagfinn Werenskiold, who passed away about a quarter-century before publication.  The carvings appear to be set in brick, so I assume they are decorations in a building somewhere?  One of the carvings, of Odin riding Sleipnir, is also the cover image of Carolyne Larrington’s translation.

While the carvings are impressive, there seems to be a limited number of them, as only 11 of the stanzas actually have an accompanying picture (along with two which, in a sort of recap, replicate four images that appeared earlier).  They also don’t always match up with the text perfectly, which makes sense.

All this makes me think that the target readership may be somewhat different from that which is picking up the bigger Eddas.  Perhaps more casual.  An interest in religion and mythology, certainly, but probably not a serious student.  Not reading it for a class.  Curious to hear more about what they’ve been told is an unusually beautiful poem.

Given all this, there’s a lot of room for Scudder to distinguish himself from the other translations, and I think the big failing here is that he doesn’t do so nearly enough.  It ends up feeling very similar to the others, which makes the whole project seem a tad unnecessary.

Scudder does do some good things to try to make the poem more accessible.  There are three brief appendices, with brief introductions and descriptions of the various players and places.  Scudder also tends to render names and epithets literally, “in order to maintain the flow of the poetry and give some sense of the archetypal forces at work,” so another appendix offers short notes to each stanza to help keep track of the action (although this does necessitate some flipping back and forth).

There is also a synopsis (although it seems it is not written by him) that tells the story in prose, cross-referencing it with the stanzas, which are each individually named.  I did feel like a couple of things in the synopsis weren’t canonically correct, but maybe there are alternate versions?  For example, it states that Odin made the pact with all living things save mistletoe to preserve Balder’s life, when I’ve always understood it to be Odin’s wife Frigg.  There are also a couple of other points where I might disagree with the account of events given here (e.g., the mysterious Gullveig presented as a creature of evil rather than a member/harbinger of the Vanir), but they’re pretty open to interpretation, so that’s OK.

As for the translation itself, it’s a very literal take on the text.  There are two points that strike me as mistranslations that affect the action of the poem, although I do not want to say for sure without a) having another look at a Norse edition, and b) knowing what edition he was working from.

There are also a couple of technical issues that arise with a more literal translation that, it seems to me, are pretty confusing if unaddressed.  The first is the issue of female pronouns, as there seem to be at least two, maybe three, distinct female voices in the poem.  The first is the “I” of Stanza One, who asks her human audience to listen to her as she recounts all she knows.  About 16 stanzas in, this abruptly shifts to the third person: “She remembers.”  It’s posited that this “she” may be the spirit who possesses the first-person narrator.  A few verses later, we get “she” again.

Then, even more confusingly, we get a few stanzas in which Odin himself, at some point in the past, visits a third-person “she” to purchase prophecy.  Is this witch the same as the spirit possessing our first-person narrator?  That is, is the ghost of an omniscient witch who once divined for Odin now speaking through the medium of the “I” who addresses her fellow humans?  In the prose synopsis, all these voices and personas are conflated into a single prophetess.  That’s a legitimate decision, of course, but it undercuts the accessibility of the poem to leave in the pronouns which, under that interpretation, now clash with one another for no apparent reason.  Similarly, there are issues with verb tenses; early in the poem, the narrator speaks in the present tense: “I ask,” “I remember,” “I know.”  Then the pronouns switch: “She remembers.”  “She knows.”  Then the verbs: “She sat,” “she saw.”  Then the pronoun again: “I saw.”  Then “she saw.”  Finally back to the present in the poem’s final words: “now she sinks.

A scholar, of course, needs to reproduce these shifts so other scholars can track them and formulate theses about them.  But if the translator isn’t going to provide some sort of explanation for this revolving door, I wonder if it isn’t kinder to casual readers to flatten out some of these differences by picking a person and a tense and sticking with them.

I would argue that the highest duty of a translation filling this particular niche is to the beauty of the poem itself, as extolled on the back cover.  A few nights ago, Meggy and her friend Hanna and I were talking about this issue, particularly w/r/t Biblical translations.  Hanna, who writes quite a lot about religion, said that the only version of the Bible that doesn’t drive her nuts by grating on her ears is the King James.  Which, of course, you probably don’t want to be counting on for your theology, from a standpoint of wanting the most literally accurate translation possible.  But there are other scholars, other translations for that.  For haunting majesty, for a title for your short story collection, there’s Big Jim.  It fills that niche better than any other, and probably will for some time.  That, I think, is what’s needed here.

Unfortunately, I think the poetic qualities of this particular translation are rather inconsistent.  There are a number of arresting, well-turned, yet still literal phrases: “the Vanir stamped the ground”; “drops of poison / drip through the hatch / that hall is entwined / with the ridged backs of serpents”; “men of ill oath”; “smears with red blood the gods’ heavenly site”; “the sunshine was black for summers after”; “all the kin of folly will go with the wolf”; “sun glints on the sword”.

That said, there are also a number of places where I feel that Scudder sacrifices comprehension or distances himself from the reader by staying too close to the text, or simply by odd word choices: “Balder/the blood-stained deity” (why not “god”?!?); “The wolf fills with the force / of men fated to die”; “All men strip clear / their homes in the world”; “perishes by the serpent / unfearful of reproach”.

A related issue is that I cannot sense a clear meter running through the poem.  Some lines are simply much shorter than most; some have more stressed syllables than the rest, or have stresses awkwardly placed.  I recognize that much poetry is now this way.  However, for a poem meant to be performed orally, it seems important to try to retain the steady quality which keeps driving it forward.  The original was flexible in many ways in the way it used meter, but it had a couple of firm rules that I think are worth taking into consideration.

I worry that now I have spent an hour and a half and over 1600 words trying to talk about this translation objectively, and that all I have managed to say is that I don’t love it because it doesn’t do things the way that I want to do them.  Maybe all I’ve done is convince myself once again that my project isn’t obsolete and that I should keep going.  Which is valuable (for me, anyway).

OK.  Turbulence over Omaha.  Time to sign off.



You’ve probably been waiting since the last post, breath all bated as hell, wondering if I would throw in the towel once my package arrived bearing yet another translation of Voluspa.

After tearing open the package with my teeth (it was made of duct tape or something), I disappeared with its contents into the bathroom.  It was a tense moment at the end of a long day.  I emerged with a triumphant whoop.  I can do better.

A fuller explanation of why will be forthcoming, but I want to spend some more time sitting with it first.  I think it does some things right and some things wrong, and I want to try to get a handle on those before I talk too much about it.

In the meantime, I’m heading down to LA and San Diego until next Friday for a conference.  I’ll try to assemble my thoughts on it before then, but no promises.


Pride & Panic.

I’ve amassed a pretty sizable collection of other people’s translations of Voluspa, for a few different reasons.   Obviously, it’s nice, when I hit a particular crux (as I did the other night, causing a Grammar Crisis which took hours to reach any sort of tenuous resolution), to see how previous wayfarers have navigated it.  At the same time, I like to make sure I don’t hew too closely to any of their trails, making myself irrelevant in the process.  Most hubristically, I like to stare at them and fan that spark that says I can do better.

My companions.

There’s a lot of bravado in that, and as in many such cases, it’s covering up some fear.  These other translators are very talented and intelligent folk.  For the most part they are renowned PROFESSORS.  They know all the details I strain to remember.  They write thick tomes.  They’ve, you know, been to Iceland.  While I never made it into that clerisy, and didn’t/don’t even want to, it still carries a lot of weight with me, I guess.  I still fear the mace.

Of course, some of them are not really working on the same project that I am, philosophically speaking.  They generally lean toward the more literal translation.  This is their job, after all; it makes sense that they’d want to keep things reined in.  I think back to my Literary Translation course, the very source of my Voluspa bonnet-bug, where we were warned about being too loose with our source material.  As part of that class, we’d look at multiple translations of a poem side-by-side with the original and evaluate the translators’ choices.  I remember one moment in particular.  Have a look at these various takes on Baudelaire’s Au Lecteur, with a particular eye on the first stanza, and Robert Lowell’s translation especially.

Literally speaking, the fourth line in the original French basically means “like beggars nourish their vermin.”  For the most part, all the various translators turn it out just so.  But Lowell, for no apparent reason, gives the line as “like whores or beggars nourishing their lice.”  While our prof asked disdainfully, “Where’d these whores come from?” I admit I was inflamed.  It was clear to me that his version was the best of the bunch.  Not because of the whores, necessarily, but because Lowell, more than any of the other translators, seemed to get that this poem needed to be GRIMY AS THE F**K 2 .  If some whores would help that cause, hell, bring in the whores!  We then proceeded to hear that this was just the wrong approach.  Leave your whores at home, son.  Don’t take your whores to town.

Another memory: this one from grad school, my Beowulf class, basically the whole reason I went to grad school.  We translated the whole poem, start to finish, so most of our daily focus was on the grammatical and syntactical elements, so that we wouldn’t shame ourselves, should we ever publish on the poem, by having to rely on someone else’s translation, or worse, immortalizing a howler of our own in the pages of Anglo-Saxon England, revealing our ignorance to the world.  That’s not to say we never discussed theoretical issues — one of my stronger memories is of a fellow student making an impassioned case, based on the language used, that the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s mom is rife with sexual tension — but most of the class was your standard line-by-line oral translation.  It was the only way to cover the material in one semester.

Sounds simple, but honestly, I’ve always enjoyed these sorts of classes.  I do like the grueling code-breaking elements of translation, and knowing I might have to read my results aloud had me looking for pretty or fun turns of phrase when I could find them.  And, from that months-long class on my favorite book, my most vivid memory is translating some passage that involved a king’s food and drink…I think maybe Wealhtheow’s serving everyone in Heorot?  Anyway, my offering was a grinning “his sip and sup (link contains sound), if I may?”  To which my prof arched her eyebrow: “You may not.”

Of course, as I mentioned, not everyone’s going for the literal translation.  Most notable of these (and the first I ever encountered) is Paul B. Taylor & W.H. Auden’s translation.  I think there is some good to be found in this version.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there’s a better sense of meter and more than a mere gesture towards alliteration.  But while there is more poetry to be heard in it than in others, I feel Auden actually handcuffs himself by trying to stay very faithful to the line-by-line translation.  The problem here is that the original poem itself, as you’ve heard me say before, is (a) an extremely sketchy overview of Norse cosmology and mythic history and (b) is wildly allusive, depending on the deep knowledge of its listeners.  If your focus is an academic, literal, trustworthy translation, no problem.  Just make sure you have plenty of footnotes; no big deal if the flow of the poem is broken up.  But in this case, if you want the translated poem to stand alone as a work of art that remains comprehensible and interesting, I think you have to be willing to deviate from what’s on the page.  I haven’t seen that yet, and that’s what convinces me that my efforts are to a good end.

So, as I was finishing up with a stanza the other evening, I was unpleasantly startled to accidentally discover that there’s another translation floating around out there, more recent than these others.  I dug around more and was nervous to learn that its translator, Bernard Scudder, was “the doyen of Icelandic translators into English,” according to his 2008 obit in the Guardian.  His versatility — he was also a successful translator of crime fiction — makes me think it won’t be so stodgy as some others.  And to boot, his version of Voluspa was published as an illustrated stand-alone piece!  (This really preys on one of my secret fears about my project.  If you look again at that stack of books above, you’ll quickly see that all those volumes feature Voluspa alongside 15 to 30 other poems.  I do worry that when I finally finish with this poem, I’ll be told that I’m actually nowhere near really being done.)  On the one hand, it’s exciting to see that there’s precedent for my very project.  On the other hand, says my worrywart, that must mean it’s REALLY GOOD.  In which case, what’s the point of me?

Thanks, Amazon.  Thanks, two-day shipping.  I will find out soon enough.  But in the meantime, I’m just a little bit antsy.



My wife just scolded me.  It doesn’t happen very often, as I am generally quite docile and well-behaved, so I figure I ought to pay attention.  “When are you gonna write another blog post?!” she says.  “I said on my blog that yours was smart and funny, but people are just gonna think it’s hella old!”

Well, that’s no good.  Domestic tranquillity is my watchword, and it looks like making tasty egg scrambles (kale, mushrooms, zucchini, scallions, shallots, false bacon) isn’t going to be sufficient today.

You’ll (hopefully) be glad to know that while I haven’t been attending to the ol’ blog very carefully, it’s not that I haven’t been translating.  In fact, part of the reason that the W-SG has been on the back burner is that I’ve wanted to make sure that my energy, which has been somewhat limited of late, was going toward the actual translation, rather than the documentation of said translation.  And while I’ve been doing a good amount of outside reading, it mostly hasn’t been Norse-related (with the possible exception of two novels by Halldor Laxness), so I haven’t had any fun stories to send your way.  I’m between books right now (mostly just re-reading graphic novels while waiting for the shower to heat up), so I’ll try to adjust that too.

But this week is a school break, so there’s plenty of energy to go around!

I have not forgotten that I owe you a follow-up post to the dwarves post of many months ago.  It has hung heavy o’er my head, you had better believe.  So it’s only right, I think, to return there before proceeding on to talk about more recent translation struggles and successes.  You may want to go back a few posts and read it before I continue.

(…doo doo doo…)

OK, great.  Let’s forge ahead.

So, as you’ll remember, I’m trying to tell a single unified, evocative, readily-understandable story of dwarf creation at the hands of the Aesir that alludes to three separate stories (dwarves as maggots, dwarves from Ymir’s flesh, dwarves from earth & stone).  At the same time, the original text is telling two different stories that don’t match up perfectly.

Original Text Story #1 (stanza 9) has the gods in council deciding that they should create some dwarves (perhaps to help them figure out what to do with ALL THIS GOLD) out of Ymir’s body parts, or, metaphorically, earth.

Original Text Story #2 (stanza 10) has the first two dwarves, Durinn and Motsognir, go on to create the rest of the race by molding them out of clay.

I may have screwed myself over by bringing in this little chump. I...I don't think I'm capable of creating a more disgusting dwarf than him!

[PRONOUN ALERT! I think there is probably ambiguity about whether it’s the gods or D&M who do the molding, as it just says “They.”  Since D&M appear in the previous line, though, it’s a fair guess that it’s them.]

[TEXTUAL SIDE NOTE! There’s a very strong case to be made (specifically by Ursula Dronke in her edition of the poem) that not only that long list of dwarf-names is a later addition to the lost original manuscript by a dwarf-mad scribe, but that so too is stanza 10.]

You’ll notice that there’s no specific mention of the maggotgenesis, so maybe I shouldn’t even be trying to introduce it here.  However….Snorri’s interpretation of this whole affair in Prose Edda equates OTS#1 with the maggots, while also incorporating OTS#2, which had been shoehorned into the textual tradition prior to, say, 1225:

[The gods] issued their judgments and remembered where the dwarves had come to life in the soil under the earth, like maggots in flesh.  The dwarves emerged first, finding life in Ymir’s flesh.  They were maggots at that time, but by a decision of the gods they acquired human understanding and assumed the likeness of men, living in the earth and the rocks.  Modsognir was a dwarf and Durin another.  So it says in The Sibyl’s Prophecy…

So Snorri sees the reference to Ymir’s flesh as a clear reference to the maggotness of dwarves, and I’m willing to trust his judgment.  Plus, I also just really like that story, and I do want to make sure that a modern reader is thinking of non-Tolkien dwarves by making them as nasty as possible.

I’ve already told Ymir’s story in a previous stanza, so my readers should know his name and his resting place(s), making him available for a callback here.

1 To their doom-stools draw the doughty gods
2 to moot, to mete, to mull their thoughts:
3 Words finish.  Fistfuls of fleshy Ymir:
4 his mealy marrow they muddle with blood —
5 Silt and saltwater, stones and clay —
6 From that muck and mortar manikins shape.
7 Thumb dull sockets in the sallow ooze:
8 palely flickering  pinpricks of eyeshine.
9 After master Motsognir and minion Durinn,
10 through the wounds of the world worm dwarvenkind.

The first two lines are a refrain repeated word for word a few times; in fact, it’s actually common enough to be abbreviated in one of the manuscripts.  I’m hoping that having line 4 as an appositive to line 3 successfully juxtaposes the blood ‘n’ guts element with the earthiness.  I’m also hoping that words like “fistfuls of fleshy Ymir,” “mealy,” “muck and mortar,” and “dull sockets in the sallow ooze” get across the overall unpleasantness of these dwarves, which so upset Freyja in the previous dwarfpost.  Finally, I’m hoping that line 10 successfully alludes to the maggot, or “worm,” backstory.  If we think of the landscape as being made of Ymir’s broken body, then it seems legitimate to think of caverns and crevasses as “the wounds of the world,” those places where it doesn’t quite knit together anymore.  I’ve also delayed naming this creation explicitly as “dwarvenkind” until the final line in hopes of preventing readers from reverting to those preconceived notions of dwarves.  Instead, readers see the step-by-step creation process before the revolting end result.

My illustrator/best palbro Ryan has put together a sketch of what these little dudes might look like.  I think it’s the first time I’ve had his art on the blog.  I’m pleased with how it turned out, and I wanted to show it to you too!

I assume he's just singing a pleasant mining shanty and not moaning with despair...

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