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.