Translation and the Travel of Language
The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, Greg Delanty and Michael Matto, eds.
by Lytton Smith
from Gulf Coast, Winter / Spring 2012
"It is written in scriptures that this / creature appears plainly to us": so begins Saskia Hamilton's translation of Riddle 39, one of roughly a hundred extant Old English riddles, 70 of which occur in the Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, an anthology of 123 Anglo-Saxon poems with facing-page versions by 74 contemporary poets. Riddle 39 considers the elusiveness of prophetic language, how "[i]t has no soul, no life, but travels / widely among us." Written down, it speaks—and yet it has "no mouth to speak of." Writing excited and troubled Anglo-Saxon poets, and Hamilton's poem deftly puts a forgotten poetry in conversation with today's verse to show that language "confounds our knowing" even as it is the foundation of knowledge. Lower-case, "scripture" suggests both religious works and the manual act of writing, conveying the original's fascination with language as spoken and written, with what gewritu secgað ("Scriptures say"). Hamilton's translation also records today's ambivalence about technology: ancient words like "consoles" and "animate" take on new meanings in our digital age, where Anglo-Saxon fires kindle differently.
The idea of language as a foundation that also confounds is an idea that occupied Anglo-Saxon poetry. In Riddle 47, translated by Jane Hirshfield, a (book)worm can "thieve a man's fine riddle / swallow his song, / sip eloquence and feast on its foundation" yet "leave no wiser." The Anglo-Saxon riddles had no solutions, as though resolution was not their aim. They ask readers to believe many interpretations at once. What's black and white and red all over? A sunburnt penguin. A sunburnt nun. A newspaper. Riddles work because language keeps moving, won't sit still. Anglo-Saxon poetry, even at its most devotional, engages language's propensity to travel.
Michael Schmidt brings this itinerant quality of language to his translation of "The Husband's Message," which is spoken by a piece of wood carved with runes. Schmidt expands these runes into a study on silence and communication: "The sealing silences he made and you made / A letter, a syllable nothing is lost / What seem erasures are kisses and praying / Are runes that keep counsel." For the Anglo-Saxons, runes, like other written forms, could lead to forgetting or concealing as well as remembering, and Schmidt makes visible for a contemporary reader the erasures of the original poem's cryptic epistle. The worm swallows words, and they're gone for good. Good for nothing.
In the original manuscripts, Anglo-Saxon poetry resembles prose blocks, with hard-to-spot markers noting the ends of lines and poems. Modern convention lineates Anglo-Saxon poetry, placing a visual caesura in each line. Schmidt keeps the caesurae but uses them in unconventional ways to dramatize the Anglo-Saxon notion that language can resist a settled meaning. Lines such as "Hiss... in a hull I sought and I sought you / Where would I find you my lord despatched me / Over fathomless seas I've come, here I am" surround words in white space. Unanchored, these words shape new meanings as they attach differently to adjacent phrases. Schmidt thus alludes to the Anglo-Saxon technique of apo koinou, in which phrases qualify what comes before and after, a device that, as Anglo-Saxonist Bruce Mitchell has noted, is often obscured by editorial uses of modern punctuation.
The ways the poem can appear on the page have become excitingly varied by the twenty-first century, thanks to the ideas of such poets as Charles Olson, who used white space to record breath; Kamau Brathwaite, whose "history of the voice" explores the relationship between written poetry and poetry performed; and Denise Levertov, whose "organic form" concerns how we are "brought to speech." Whereas we often see form before we hear it, Anglo-Saxon poetry would have been heard first, and perhaps never seen. The translator of Anglo-Saxon poetry must, then, carry a mainly sonic line over to today's visual reading practices. Drawing on the Anglo-Saxon line as two halves balanced and bound by a thread of alliteration, Eavan Boland innovates in "The Wife's Lament" with stepped couplets:
My lord and master made his will
Plain to me: He said, be still ...
Her enjambment riffs on the idea of making a will as well as imposing one's will; we form both meanings as the line break teases us with resolution only for the next line, back on the left margin, to unsettle sense. The rhyme treads sonic waters as the speaker is positioned by her husband, whose will compels stillness. In Boland's translation, the aural play of the Anglo-Saxon harmonizes with the visual elements of the twenty-first-century page to keep us making meaning.
In one of a dozen illuminating notes on translating Old English poetry included in The Word Exchange, Boland describes how she "wanted to emphasize the hypnosis of music, protest, and lament." Her translation honors Anglo-Saxon poetry's formal and thematic staging of the need to speak, to name, to bear witness. "The Seafarer," which begins this anthology in Mary Jo Salter's elegiac translation, opens: "I can sing my own true story / of journeys through this world, / how often I was tried / by troubles." This speaker wants to tell us something, but as that recurrent "tr" sound of trial and trouble records, we can get stuck amid the telling, broken records. The beautiful Anglo-Saxon compound soðgied means "true tale" but gied also hints at "riddle," a less sure story. How true is this tale; to whom is it told? The Anglo-Saxon trope of the solitary speaker often imagines an anhaga, a lone dweller, addressing absent listeners who might not get the speaker's language. David Curzon's subtle translation of anhaga as "monad," an anagrammatic play on nomad, reminds us that words, like people, are restless—have wanderlust.
In editing The Word Exchange, Michael Matto and Greg Delanty aimed at "allowing those who cannot read Old English to experience the poems as a collection of diverse authorial viewpoints." There is inventiveness aplenty in the result. Peter Campion's "[t]he sawtooth waves fly back. The foam swipes round" gives a jagged quality to the sea, that vital Anglo-Saxon image-set, while Gary Soto's Riddle 21 features a plow with gruff, throaty voice: "I snuffle, I grub that you may grub." Differences in tone and dialect allow English its global scope, from Paddy Bushe's "I saw this creature, his belly arseways, / Bloated to bejasus" via Patricia McCarthy's "I karaoke the latest pop songs" to Major Jackson's "One is a connoisseur of fine wines."
Such variety achieves tonal difference but does not guarantee diverse authorial viewpoints. Matto and Delanty believe that only "poets—rather than translators who were not poets—could lift the poems from mere translations to poems in themselves." In asking poets to render these works, the editors counter our contemporary "illusion of a uniform voice," but the decision to set translation apart from and secondary to poetry leads to a different homogeneity, an organizing uniformity at odds with the weird adjacencies of Old English texts. Since many of the contributors did not know Anglo-Saxon, they worked from "cribs, glossaries, and interpretive direction" provided by Matto. Michael Collier's translator's note explains how this helped resolve problems: "Trouble, corruption, disagreement, and uncertainty were the anti-muses […] contending forces I tried as best I could to charm into readable versions." Yet what happens when uncertainty is necessary for readability, not opposed to it? What happens when the originals aim not for interpretive finality but to describe and perform the difficulties of communication?
For instance, readers of this anthology will find Anglo-Saxon poetry uncomplicatedly Christian, though many Anglo-Saxon poems struggled to come to terms with Christianity as a new belief system. Matto casts Ezra Pound's "boldly unfaithful and brilliant" 1912 translation of "The Seafarer" as a misreading primarily because it excises "overtly Christian sentiments," including the last fifth of the poem. For Matto, "Christianity is the sea Anglo-Saxon poetry swims in," but we need to see where Anglo-Saxon poetry is paddling blissfully and where it thrashes, trying to get out. The lines Pound lopped off were not just "overtly Christian": their speaker described heaven in words that also depicted the warriors' mead-hall. He stretched familiar secular terms to cover an alternative way of seeing the world. His poem saw language as multiply readable, a shifting foundation.
David Slavitt, who gratefully acknowledges Michael Matto's provision of a literal translation, offers a fine rendering of the war poem "The Battle of Maldon" that draws on Biblical formulas like "O King of Kings." That choice, though, neccessarily mutes secular elements in the original phrase, ðeoda waldend, which also means "ruler of the people." Translations make difficult choices and always lose elements of their source—we cannot carry everything across—but translators tend to be adept at preserving uncertainty and difficulty in ways that resonate with contemporary readers. Translators have the craft of working in two or more languages at once, a skill particularly suited to Anglo-Saxon poetry, with its striations of cultures and epochs. Translation is never just an exchange of words; it is a kinetic activity, language as its most wondering and wandering.
Having decided to forgo the skills of translators for those of poets, this anthology's work became to recognize a "panoply of voices," a range of poetic gestures in contemporary as well as Anglo-Saxon poetry. Its contributors, chosen by serendipity as much as intention, often British, Irish, and Irish-American, typically engage a lyric tradition of well-wrought verse. Alongside this mode, the other voices contemporary poetry speaks might have caught the poetic range of the Anglo-Saxons. From Myung Mi Kim's errant fragmentation to Rae Armantrout's disjunctive fissures, Patrick Rosal's headlong headstrong headspin, and Eleanor Johnson's eloquent raptures, there is more to Old English poetry for today's readers beyond The Word Exchange.A very readable volume, The Word Exchange "fulfills a literary need" (Publishers Weekly). That need, though, may be the need to offer stable, resolved visions of poetry rather than a willingness to allow language to trouble us. This anthology's arrangement of Anglo-Saxon poems into thematic sections such as "Poems of Exile and Longing" suggests a desire to compartmentalize poetry, to fix it in its place. Anglo-Saxon culture, so intrigued by objects that could transform into other objects—branch to rune staff, animal to vellum skin, language to just about anything—knew that words travel, changing in the telling. Like that poetry, the most successful translations here remain a little unsettled, even if that's unsettling to us. "[A]t times I keep my tracks concealed from all": in the last words of the anthology, Jane Hirshfield's, writing reveals itself by eluding us. In its wake we reply: Language, we keep on tracking you.
About the Author
Lytton Smith is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at University of Plymouth. His translation of Krístin Ómarsdóttir's novel, Children In Reindeer Woods, is forthcoming from Open Letter. His second book of poems, While You Were Approaching the Spectacle and Before You Were Transformed by It, is forthcoming from Nightboat Books.
University of Houston
Faculty Editor: Nick Flynn
Editor: Ian Stansel
Managing Editor: Rebecca Wadlinger