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.