Thursday, April 4, 2013

Yo, Anonymous Anglo-Saxon Poet, Imma Let You Finish, but Sega Made One of the Best Genesis of ALL-TIME

This is a translation I did for class of a small excerpt from the Old English poem known as Genesis A, a poetic retelling of the first book of the Bible. This particular passage (which is not actually in Genesis or anywhere in the Bible for that matter, unless you want to count Revelation 12) tells of the war in heaven and the fall of Satan and the rebel angels.

Embarrassment impels me to remind my Anglo-Saxonist friends that I am very new to Old English, and my creative writing friends that I've never written a poem in my life. This is how the original looks.
                                       Elles ne ongunnon
ræran on roderum         nymþe riht and soþ,
ærðon engla weard         for oferhygde
dwæl on gedwilde.         Noldan dreogan leng
heora selfra ræd,         ac hie of siblufan
25     godes ahwurfon.         Hæfdon gielp micel
þæt hie wið drihtne         dælan meahton
wuldorfæstan wic         werodes þrymme,
sid and swegltorht.         Him þær sar gelamp,
æfst and oferhygd,         and þæs engles mod
30     þe þone unræd ongan         ærest fremman,
wefan and weccean,         þa he worde cwæð,
niþes ofþyrsted,         þæt he on norðdæle
ham and heahsetl         heofena rices
agan wolde.         þa wearð yrre god
35     and þam werode wrað         þe he ær wurðode
wlite and wuldre.         Sceop þam werlogan
wræclicne ham         weorce to leane,
helleheafas,         hearde niðas.
Heht þæt witehus         wræcna bidan,
40     deop, dreama leas,         drihten ure,
gasta weardas,         þa he hit geare wiste,
synnihte beseald,         susle geinnod,
geondfolen fyre         and færcyle,
rece and reade lege.         Heht þa geond þæt rædlease hof
45     weaxan witebrogan.         Hæfdon hie wrohtgeteme
grimme wið god gesomnod;         him þæs grim lean becom!
Cwædon þæt heo rice,         reðemode,
agan woldan,         and swa eaðe meahtan.
Him seo wen geleah,         siððan waldend his,
50     heofona heahcining,         honda arærde,
hehste wið þam herge.         Ne mihton hygelease,
mæne wið metode,         mægyn bryttigan,
ac him se mæra         mod getwæfde,
bælc forbigde.         þa he gebolgen wearð,
55     besloh synsceaþan         sigore and gewealde,
dome and dugeðe,         and dreame benam
his feond, friðo         and gefean ealle,
torhte tire,         and his torn gewræc
on gesacum swiðe         selfes mihtum
60     strengum stiepe.         Hæfde styrne mod,
gegremed grymme,         grap on wraðe
faum folmum,         and him on fæðm gebræc
yrre on mode;         æðele bescyrede
his wiðerbrecan         wuldorgestealdum.
65     Sceof þa and scyrede         scyppend ure
oferhidig cyn         engla of heofnum,
wærleas werod.         Waldend sende
laðwendne here         on langne sið,
geomre gastas;         wæs him gylp forod,
70     beot forborsten,         and forbiged þrym,
wlite gewemmed.         Heo on wrace syððan
seomodon swearte,         siðe ne þorfton
hlude hlihhan,         ac heo helltregum
werige wunodon         and wean cuðon,
75     sar and sorge,         susl þrowedon
þystrum beþeahte,         þearl æfterlean
þæs þe heo ongunnon         wið gode winnan.

Well actually that's a transcription of the original. This is how the real deal looks (Caedmon Manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian, MS Junius 11, folio 1):

 And here's me:

Else in Heaven
they raised up** nothing      but right and truth,
until the angel prince         with proud high-mindedness,*
strayed into sin.         Then they ceased to work
for their own gain,         but on God’s kin-love
(25) they turned their backs,         boasting oft
that by the might of their masses         they could share with the Maker
that glorious home,         huge and heaven-bright.
                                    Then sorrow beset them,
envy and pride,         and the arrogance of that angel   
(30) who first put forth     the foolish plot,
weaved it and thought it up.     Thirsting for war
the angel proclaimed***        that in the northern parts       
a home and high throne    and heavenly kingdom
would be his.         Then God was enraged,   
(35) and wroth at the rabble      which he had raised up before
in radiance and renown.    To reward the work
of the rebels he wrought    a wretched refuge
of Hell-howling    and hard affliction.
Our Creator       commanded that torture-house,
(40) deep and doleful       to await the exiled,
angel wards.        When he knew the place well,
He enveloped it in endless-night        enwrapped it in misery,
filled it with fire         and fearsome cold,
with smoke and smothering flame.         He commanded the torture-fear to spread
(45) throughout those wretched halls.         They had heaped sins****
grievous against God;       grievous was their reward!
Fierce-hearted,        They proclaimed that the kingdom
would be theirs,    and they could take it easily.   
This hope belied them    when their***** High Lord
(50) heaven’s High Ruler        raised his hand
high against the horde.    Headless and wicked
their might was useless     against the maker,
for the Splendid One        sapped them of courage
hewed down their haughtiness.     Then he grew angry
(55) He deprived the transgressors         of triumph and power
of might and majesty,        and bereft them of mirth,
His foes, and of peace    and favor and joy,
and gleaming glory,        and with his great might
He avenged his anger        on his vile adversaries,
(60) with harsh ruin.    His heart was hardened,
severely enraged,    he seized his enemies
with cruel hands,     crushing them in his grasp.
His heart incensed,       The Highest bereft
His gloating foes    of their glory-mansions.
(65) Our Judge    then adjudged to exile
the haughty race    of angels from heaven,
that faithless flock.        The Father sent
the loathsome band        on a long journey
those sorrowful spirits;    their pride was shattered
(70) their boasting crushed,    their beauty corrupted.
Their glory dimmed.       Henceforth they dwelt
in horrible exile.    They had no cause
to laugh aloud,    but in hell-griefs they lived
accursed and weary.    They grew accustomed to woe
(75) sadness and sorrow,    they suffered misery
shrouded in darkness       a severe reward
Because they strove            to struggle against God.

* “Raised up” translates ongunnon ræran. Here, as in lines 30 and 77, I have assumed that onginnan is being used periphrastically with the infinitive, and have translated the compound as the historical aorist of the latter.

** “Proud high-mindedness” translates oferhygd. Elsewhere in the poem (29, 66) I have rendered oferhygd simply as “pride,” but here I have attached the more literal “high-mindedness” to emphasize its relation with ræran. Earlier, the angels had exalted only right and truth; now they lift up their own minds.

*** "Proclaimed" translates I take worde cwæð, which I take as a pleonasm.

**** No dictionary seems quite sure what wrohtgeteme meant. The idea seems to be that of several sins.

***** I have construed his as plural for the sake of consistency.

As poetry, Genesis A doubtlessly belongs in the “expressive” corner of the translation triangle; as sacred scripture, it tempts us to identify an “operative” function as well, and we would not be entirely mistaken in doing so. But Genesis A is not really sacred scripture, not even a translation of scripture, but a imaginative retelling with manifest aesthetic ambitions. Indeed, if we were to evaluate Genesis A as a translation, foraging the Bible for passages even remotely similar, our enterprise would come to a screeching halt around line nineteen with the entirely extra-Biblical story of the war in heaven and fall of the rebel angels. As I focused on this lively narrative, I gave priority to the expressive function in both my prose and verse translations. Nevertheless, I strove to remain alert to theologically significant points, handling with care difficult terms with possible doctrinal implications. This endeavor quickly presented me with a stumbling block: how can one produce a translation that is consistent with the theological principles of an anonymous poet whom we scarcely know anything about? Perhaps the best we can do is to avoid saying the sort of thing that a typical, orthodox Christian in Anglo-Saxon England would strongly object to.  I by no means wish to domesticate the poem by imposing a tepid, homogenized Weltanschauung on what may be the work of a highly atypical imagination. Still, I felt safe in assuming a sort of minimal level of orthodox sensibility, a poet who, in the end, was not “of the Devil’s party,” knowingly or unknowingly.

Old English poetry has structure-- this was the modest observation at the root of my poetic translation. Dismissing as unsuitable both free verse as well as any form whose structure was only visually (and not aurally) apparent, I opted to retain the original form of two-stress half-lines. Finding Sievers’ five patterns far too restrictive, I embraced what Judith translator and aspiring scop Richard M. Trask denounced as capricious alliteration. Still, I made certain that at least one stressed syllable in the first half-line alliterated with at least one stressed syllable in the second half-line, allowing, as did the poet, for a few inevitable exceptions (34, 40, 44, 48). Squeezing three alliterating words into one AAAX line, although a noble goal, often required me to dig deep into my wordhoard, emerging with a term that either distorted meaning or just sounded silly, jarring, malapropos-- in other words, unpoetic. Meaning and poetic quality-- with these two additional criteria, I balanced my adherence to structure, attempting to weigh each of the three equally. For most readers, I suspect the most ambiguous of these principles will be “poetic quality,” or aesthetics. What I mean by this murky term is best illustrated through example. For the sake of space I will confine myself primarily to two.

 In line thirty-one, Satan (specified only as engla weard (l.20)) delivers his most temerarious boast (worde cwæð). But what the devil is the Devil claiming here? The poem holds us in suspense. The adverbial clause beginning in line 32 (þæt he) proceeds in a series of increasingly impressive nouns: first on norðdæle, next ham, then heahsetl, and lastly heofena rices. Yet only after this sequence has concluded does the poet provide with the compound verb integral to its meaning: agan wolde. In order to mimic this effect, I closely followed the syntax, only switching the first two-half lines for the sake of clarity. The climactic moment-- agan wolde-- yielded the most difficulty. A literal and syntactically faithful translation might read: “He said in a speech, thirsting for war, that in the northern parts, a home, a high throne and heavenly kingdom he wished to own.” Such a “Subject-Object-Verb” construction will likely sound forced and archaic, and rather Miltonic (an effect that should be all the more avoided given the subject matter of the passage). So while I did save the verb for the final half-line in order to evoke suspense, I avoided grammatical awkwardness by rendering agan wolde as “would be his” and changing the series of nouns from objects to subjects. Unlike the more literal “he wished to own,” “would be his” can occupy the final place in the sentence without sounding cumbersome and confusing the reader.

 Terse and powerful, the half-line agan wolde reappears shortly after in line 48, this time in the plural, referring to the entire host of rebel angels. While the element of suspense is somewhat diminished, a mere line separating cwædon þæt from agan woldan, the syntax is identical to lines 31-34. As the construction “cwæð þæt he . . . agan wolde” appears to be some sort of a formula, I also construed it here as “would be theirs.” By stressing the parallel structure between lines 34 and 48, I sought to convey the contagious character of Satan’s overweening ambition. Evil, encapsulated in the phrase “agan wolde,” has swollen, and the singular has morphed into the plural: cwæð into cwædon, he into heo (I preserve these as possessive pronouns in the final half-line), and wolde into woldan. The repetition of the half-line agan wolde impelled me to adhere to the general rule of translating the same word in the same way throughout the poem. Similarly, since God’s commanding of the torture-house in line 39 (Heht þæt witehus) is echoed in lines 44-45 (Heht . . . witebrogan), I remained consistent in both my translation of heht as “commanded” and wite as “torture.” However, when a certain repeated word did not occur in the context of such perspicuous parallels, I believed myself more at liberty to disregard this law of correspondence. A word as rich and varied as niþ, for example, may quite obviously signify two disparate concepts in two different places, as it seems to in lines 32 (“strife” or “war”) and 38 (“affliction” or “pain”). Furthermore, as the poet’s own choice among synonyms was doubtlessly influenced in part by his determination to alliterate, I also allowed the demands of alliteration to impact my translations of common words such as werod (27, 35, 67).

The difficulties of replicating alliteration is nowhere so obvious as in lines 34-37. After the skillful depiction of Satan’s ambitions in lines 31-34 is a brilliant understatement composed of four of the most dreadful words in the narrative: þa wearð yrre god. God is angry, and the poem expresses this terrible alteration by erupting into an alliterative frenzy. A torrent of “w-words,” eleven in four lines (34-37), drives home the awfulness of the passage. For the first time in the poem God has begun to take action against the rebel angels. While lines 19-34a focused entirely on the fallen angels, the poem now grants complete agency to the Lord, the subject of every verb from 34b-45a. The poet clearly wishes to emphasize something with the ostentatious alliteration pervading the first four lines of this passage, and any translation with the slightest concern for his artistic ability cannot neglect to consider this. In keeping with the general spirit of my translation, I decided to follow the poet in achieving emphasis through excessive alliteration. Working in a language less abounding in “w-words,” I settled on “r-sounds” (including “wr”) for the simple reason that it seemed to provide me with the most opportunities to alliterate without sacrificing too much of the literal sense. Taking only a few liberties (werode as “rabble,” wuldre as “renown,” ham as “refuge”), I managed to achieve, coincidentally, eleven “r-words.” Moreover, I felt it important to bring this alliterative promiscuity to a halt at line 38. Although the passage seems to describe the creation of Hell (wræclicne ham), the word hell itself does not occur until this line, where it is one of three “h-words” (an effect I found easy to replicate).

      While these techniques, the delaying of the verb and repeated alliteration, may provide the most salient examples of what I mean by “poetic quality,” there are several others as well. When describing the banishment of the rebel angels, the poet alliterates twice with the root-verb (scippan): sceop þa and scyrede scyppend ure. Because it depends on a double-meaning of scippan both as “create or shape” (in scyppend) and “destine or adjudge” (in sceop), the clever wordplay stubbornly resists translation into Modern English. Still, impelled by the belief that this device was more essential than the exact epithet being assigned to God, I allowed “poetic quality” (here coincident with alliteration) to trump literal meaning and preserved the repeated use of scippan by freely rendering scyppend as “Judge.” Like the original poem, my translation invites the audience to identify with God as he banishes Satan and his followers from heaven by linking us both with the Judge (ure scyppend) and, through repetition, his actions (sceop). In balancing the claims of structure (alliterative half-lines), meaning, and poetic quality, I assumed the three to be of equal importance, but, as the above examples make clear, various points in the poem imply the priority of one area above another. Although careful not to arrantly disregard any of the three, I allowed my priorities to shift on a case-by-case basis.

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