Keeping consonants consistent, pt. 2

To follow up on last Thursday’s post:  I left you with some pungent prose, no doubt.  Why would I do it?

Thus far, this bloggo’s purpose has mainly been the sharing of fun little fragments of texts you mightn’t know, and — not to worry — it shall continue to be so.  However, I have another project in mind as well, and I’d like to tell you a bit about it.

Back during my senior year of college, my final project came as part of my Literary Translation seminar.  I spent the fall and winter months deciphering an Old Norse poem that purports to fit Norse cosmology from soup to nuts — or Ginnungagap to Ragnarok — in about sixty four-line stanzas.  Then, I had to re-forge it into poetry, a task with which I was as inexperienced as actual metal-forging.

Beyond the simple act of figuring out what the Norse meant, I set a few other fairly idiosyncratic goals for myself.  I wanted to avoid intentional archaism — no “speaketh”!  I wanted my version to stay true to the sound of the original verse by alliterating more than other attempts I’d seen (hence the title of this post).  And finally, inspired by my History of the English Language class, I wanted to capture some of the original by using Germanic-rooted words as exclusively as possible.

Eddic poems like Voluspa (as opposed to more complex skaldic poems) are composed of four-beat lines divided in half.  Two or three of those stressed syllables, including the first stress of the second half-line, must alliterate.  Some of the other translations I studied mimicked this effect, but because English, not being an inflected language, naturally uses more words per line than Norse, the sound effect is easily diluted if the alliteration is employed only twice in a line.  So, in a certain sense, for better or worse, I was employing a stricter standard than the original in order to get a similar end result.

The impulse for using Germanic roots grew out of learning that — thanks in part to the Norman Conquest and, later on, guys like Chaucer inventing Latinate words — French and Latinate words became used for not only many words relating to power and government, but also more prestigious and falutin’ ways of saying things.  Compare “viscera” or “intestines” or “entrails” to “guts,” and tell me which one you’d rather hear your highly-educated doctor refer to.  It’s why knowing Latin roots helps so much on the SAT!  Yet there’s almost always a simpler, earthier way of saying it, and it’s almost always going to be an English or Norse root.  Try it and see, then comment!  I found myself yanked out of the milieu of the poem to see words like “complexion,” “divination,” or “sibyl” used in the translations when perfectly good words like “hue,” “spell,” and “witch” are just sitting around.

ANYWAY.  This project has haunted me for years.  I didn’t work on it in grad school, as Old Norse, as my dad will point out, isn’t very marketable, even in academia.  But it always stuck with me as the most fun I’d had at school, the time I felt most focused, most engaged, most…intellectually alive, even if it was with an amateur’s glee more than a specialist’s precision.  And it’s this glee that I want to try to share, both in this blog and through this project.  One of my dearest friends Ryan, who’s a trained illustrator, and I have talked for years about turning this into an illustrated project that would appeal to and edify the casual mythology enthusiast or reader of fantasy novels without turning into this:

I have this!  Ryan gave it to me! is not very accurate.

I have this! Ryan gave it to me! is not very accurate.

We are really going to do this.  I am hoping maintaining this blog will help me stay dedicated and let me talk my way through the problems of revision as they arise.  In fact, it’s a bit of my translation that provides the title for the blog.

Upon looking back at the product of six years ago, I find some of it still gives me shivers (in a good way), while some remains immature or uninspiring.  [I would still like to maximize alliteration.  I’ve grown more flexible on the Germanic thing; I think that was borne of intellectual pride and a love for wading in the OED Online.]  Still, at its best, it has a music and a power to it, and I think it is different from what has come before, and there is a place for it in the world.

I have a little notebook now that my wife bought for me.  It has a map of the North Atlantic on the cover.  It is beginning to fill with snatches of phrases — world’s white shirt, lith and limb, crimsoncrust corpses — and soon they will begin to clot together.

By the way, that last one, about the corpses, is absolutely inspired by the crusty, sweating, delicious At Swim-Two-Birds pies.  It’s a strange transformation from meat pie to carrion, I admit, but it’s the whole reason I quoted you that massive passage way back when.  I hope it is a reasonable payoff.



  1. mordicai said,

    October 19, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Age of Bronze is sort of that “hard history” approach to comics; then there are the Northlanders, stuff like that. Plenty of reason to think that would be marketable! I’d read it!

    • fleitasactual said,

      October 19, 2009 at 11:20 pm

      I like both of those books a whole lot! I don’t know that it’d be exactly the same, because it’s not precisely what you’d call sequential storytelling in a traditional way. Plus, it’s not really all that long…

  2. ihatedanger said,

    October 19, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    You will totally do this! Did you set up your Google Wave yet?


    • fleitasactual said,

      October 19, 2009 at 7:00 pm

      What a good wife!

      If by set it up, you mean open it and look confused, then I set the hell up out of it.

  3. mordicai said,

    October 26, 2009 at 3:54 am

    I sent both of you a Wave & you never replied! …I think. It is sort of confusing.

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