Giving Thanks for the English language

Hi friends.  I’ve been scarce, I admit, mostly because of my Thanksgiving jaunt to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to spend some time with my lovely, talented, long-lost wife!

Meggy enjoys fine words and plush brunch upholstery.

Me, I am content with simple, frothy juice.

You’ll be glad to know that while I wasn’t posting, I was still hard at work on the translation project.  Meggy and I stopped by the University library, where I was finally able to get my hands on a book that I’ve been meaning to examine for years, to wit, Ursula Dronke’s magisterial edition, translation, and, most importantly for my purposes, extensive commentary on the Poetic Edda.  I’ve been spending some time as well reading through the rest of the Poetic Edda, looking for inspiration both on the poetical and artistic fronts.  I also snuck from Meggy’s shelf a beautiful little edition of Gerard Manley Hopkins which she’s too busy to read.  I’ve been meaning to write a longer post about Hopkins, and it is still simmering, but I couldn’t say enough about him the other day while lazing on an over-hard yellow loveseat and wolfing down Trader Joe’s chocolate orange sticks.

Anyway, I’m still working through Dronke’s lucid stanza-by-stanza interpretation of the poem’s structure, which can be pretty darn obscure.  It’s had a very positive effect already.  For example, you’ll hopefully recall my last post about the world’s creation out of the torn body of Ymir the giant.  It’s interesting, though, that while Ymir is mentioned, Völuspá doesn’t emphasize that particular myth, focusing on the more sedate image of Odin and his brothers lifting the land of of some primordial sea.  Here’s what the verse literally says:

Before Bur’s sons (Odin + brothers) lifted up lands

They who shaped glorious Middle-Earth

Sun shone from the south on the stones of their hall

Then was the plain grown with green leeks.

Of course, the poem doesn’t need to dwell on the Ymir-story, as the original audience would have known it inside and out, whereas the modern audience likely doesn’t.  So I made a decision to bring the violent destruction of the giant in, partially because it’s more vivid and interesting imagery, and partially because I want to make sure my readers know about it — otherwise why mention Ymir at all?  However, Dronke made me realize that the image of the land being raised from the sea is structurally more important than its construction out of the giant’s corpse, as that rising from the waters is mirrored in an apocalyptic and then a redemptive scene.  Literally rendered:

Sun grows dark; earth sinks into sea

Bright stars vanish from heaven

Vapor rages against fire

High heat licks against the sky itself.

She sees come up a second time

Earth from the evergreen sea

After spending twenty minutes feeling foolish and tawdry, like the Jerry Bruckheimer of Old Norse translators, all going for the splashy violence rather than the careful poetics, I decided that synthesis was possible.  After all, the original poet himself had merged two myths that didn’t map onto each other quite right; in the verse just prior to Odin’s lifting the land, he’d said that in those primordial days, there was no ocean!

All I needed was a word that implies both a tremendous flow of blood as well as a turbulent, chaotic sea.  No problem; the English language has my back.  I love you, English language; let’s always be friends.

From the OED Online:

welter, n.

2. The rolling, tossing, or tumbling (of the sea or waves).

welter, v.

c. To roll or lie prostrate (in one’s blood); hence (hyperbolically) to be soaked with blood or gore; also fig. of a nation, etc. Now only poet.

For heaven’s sake, it doesn’t get any better than that!  It’s like I went to the word-tailor and came back with a lovely tweed!  So I made an adjustment to one line, changing

You [Odin] and your brothers   broke his body


You broke his body  — brimless welter —

and I am feeling pretty good about life.



  1. mordicai said,

    December 2, 2009 at 5:35 am

    What about sort of stealing from Greek Choruses? Throw in some extra stanzas, a la foot note– insert a bunch of clarifications?

    • December 2, 2009 at 9:33 am

      That’s well asked. I kinda feel that somehow adding a new stanza entirely would be taboo somehow. I already worry that what I’m doing may deserve the name of adaptation rather than translation, as it certainly takes more liberties than I was trained to do. At least right now each stanza maps onto an original in terms of intent, even if it’s not line-by-line literal.

      Maybe it’s odd to have such compunctions. That dwarf-list I mentioned in the Tolkien post was almost certainly added later by some interpolator. But, if I held myself to a medieval standard all the time…well, I guess I’d have a better hat and jewelry collection, but worse teeth.

      But Dronke’s work also reminded me that the poet, who is talented, to be sure, does have intent and structure even when I don’t see it, and the closer I stay to what he did, the less chance I gum up the works.

      The other, really ambitious way to look at it is that I’ll tell those other stories eventually when I translate other poems?

  2. mordicai said,

    December 2, 2009 at 5:35 am

    Also– go English! It is pretty okay.

  3. ihatedanger said,

    December 2, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    I love you, English language; let’s always be friends.

    This is adorable.

    Miss miss miss miss miss you see you in NOLA.

  4. Andy said,

    December 9, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    Like “welter and waste.” Had to look it up but now I remember it was Robert Alter. Nice.

  5. December 23, 2009 at 11:42 pm

    This is a really swell post. ‘You broke his body — brimless welter –’ I have to show my boyfriend this post, he’s going to have a word boner for sure.

    • December 23, 2009 at 11:47 pm

      we’re so reading each other’s blogs at the same time! now, back to johnnyryan.

      • December 24, 2009 at 12:09 am

        Wow, it makes me feel really great to give a fellow a word-boner! Please don’t be jealous.

        Also, have you heard about how it’s a thing that every time I go by Max and Andy’s, as soon as people aren’t looking, I dig out K.K.K. and start re-reading it until they find me and scold me and call me a terrible person and Max shakes his head and furrows his brow grimly? I thought you would like to know.

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