Poetic Translation

      A page from the Beowulf manuscript


            After having completed a series of small translations you have a better understanding of exactly what a translation entails and how the process works. Continue practicing until you feel completely comfortable with the language and the grammar. Once you feel confident in your skills you can begin to explore more difficult methods of rendering a text. What we have been aiming to achieve in this manual is for students to accurately translate a text in its most basic form with correct grammar and syntax. Many students and scholars, however, choose a more poetic approach to their work. While translating you can, for example, include alliteration. You can try alliterating in the same places as the Old English text or include alliteration where it does not exist in the original passage. Some students have tried translating their pieces into modern forms of poetry like limericks and so on. Although this does not capture what an actual Anglo-Saxon text would look like it performs the meaning in a new way for new readers. Translating, as you can see, can be an extremely artful process that takes a great deal of time and consideration. For the purpose of an introductory aid we have attempted to simply translate Old English words into their Modern English equivalents, focusing solely on correct grammar and accuracy.Once these basic steps are mastered, however, you need to start thinking heavily about word choice. The word ænlic, for example, can be translated excellent, beautiful, unique, peerless or solitary. The translation of this one word could thus alter the entire meaning of the passage. In line two of riddle seventy-four, 'The Siren' or 'Rain,' we see the use of this word:

(1)  Ic wæs fæmne geong, feaxhār cwene, I was [a] young maiden, [a] light-haired woman,
(2)  ond ænlic rinc     on āne tīd ; and at [the] same time an excellent warrior

            The above example translates the word ænlic as excellent. If we were to change this translation to solitary, however, it would alter the meaning of the two lines dramatically. Being a good warrior and one who is frequently alone are two very different things. This single word thus has the ability to affect the mood of the entire piece and can also influence how the solution is perceived by the reader. Because each word carries such influence, as a translator you cannot translate words in isolation. If all the words you chose carry a different tone the piece will seem sloppy and unorganized. This could be done intentionally for a topsy-turvy quality, but generally you want to decide on what kind of vocabulary you are going to use and stick with it. For riddle eight, for example, I intentionally used very gentle language, trying to keep a smooth rhythm throughout the passage so it would seem as if a bird was gliding through the air. I could have drawn attention to certain elements of the passage by combining stark words with gentler ones had I so chosen. Sometimes translators even choose to ignore particular parts of the grammar that they feel are unnecessary or do not contribute well to their finished product. Depending on what kind of approach you are taking this treatment of the grammar can be acceptable. Someone could, for example, try to reinvent a piece for modern readers using language nonexistent in Anglo-Saxon times. Although this type of translation would be more removed from the original text it would be successful because it had achieved its purpose. As far as exam situations are concerned, you should try and stick as close to the grammar as possible without straying too much from the original passage. For testing purposes the teacher needs to ensure that you understand all of the grammatical components.

            When translating the riddles you must also be careful that your choice of words does not lead the reader to only one solution, unless of course you want your audience to come up with a specific answer. I personally believe that it is impossible to know exactly what the puzzles ‘mean’ and thus avoid this approach. I translate in such a way that many different solutions are possible, allowing the text to revel in its own ambiguity. For riddle number twenty-six, for example, I had difficulty translating the piece without implying the more erotic answer. I originally translated Ic eom wunderlīcu wiht as I am a wonderful creature, implying that the subject is animate and alive. By changing the translation from creature to thing, I opened up the possibility for both solutions. This approach allows the riddle to participate in the form of humour known as 'the double entendre,' where both solutions are simultaneously correct.

            So you can see the difference between an exact translation and a more poetic version I have provided examples of both below: a poetic interpretation of 'The Swan' riddle (which you were exposed to earlier), and a literal translation of the text. Although the second translation is grammatically correct it does not flow very well, the vocabulary is varied and the tone inconsistent. Do not worry If your work resembles this, as you are still in the process of learning. Mastering an understanding of the grammar is elemental before you move on to poetic considerations. Even when you are completing a more poetic translation your first attempt is going to be much rougher; a beautiful piece does not flawlessly emerge without conscientious editing. You will need to revise your work many times before you come up with a translation that you are completely satisfied with. With continued practice you will soon be able to translate and edit quickly, giving yourself more time to consider poetic devices and style.

  Old English Text
  Riddle 8
  Hrægl min swigad þonne ic hrusan trede
  oþþe þa wic buge oþþe wado drefe.
  Hwilum mec ahebbad ofer hæleþa byht
(5) hyrste mine ond þeos hea lyft,
  ond mec þonne wide wolcna strengu
  ofer folc byred. Frætwe mine
  swogad hlude ond swinsiad,
  torhte singad, þonne ic getenge ne beom
  flode ond foldan, ferende gæst.
  Poetic Translation of Riddle 8 Literal Translation of Riddle 8
  My covering [is] silent when I tread [the] earth My clothes [are] quite when I trample [the] ground
  and dwell [in the] abode or disturb the waters. and inhabit [the] bay or stir up [the] wading place.
  At times my trappings and this high air sometimes my ornaments lift me and this high atmosphere
  lift me up over [the] dwellings of men, lifts me up over [the] resting place [of] men
(5) and [the] strength [of the] skies then and [the] power [of the] air then
  carries me far over mankind. My trappings carries me far over people. My equipment
  rustle loudly and sound melodiously, [they] moves aloud and makes noise, [it]
  sing splendidly, when I am not touching [the] sound clearly, when I am not in contact with [the]
  seas or soil, [a] mobile spirit. flowing water and [the] ground, [a] moving being.

            Look at the poetic translation in more detail and see what efforts were made to create a smooth sounding piece. The words were carefully chosen in order to convey a sense of calm and alliteration was also considered. The phrase at times my trappings in line three alliterates nicely, and also strength of the skies in line five. In line eight we can see an effort made with sing splendidly, and in line nine with seas or soil. Another way to make passages sound pleasant is to pay attention to how many beats are in a line and either replicate this in Modern English or use different beat patterns. As you become more familiar with translating do not be afraid to try a variety of artistic approaches. Add punctuation where you feel it necessary, alter the meaning of the words slightly, play around with your translation and have fun. You can always go back and change your work or attempt an entirely different approach altogether. I highly suggest finding a passage you like and translating it two or three times using different methods and approaches. This will allow you to engage closely with the grammar, practice your skills and also take into consideration both style and audience. Always keep in mind who you are translating for, why you are translating, what mood you want the piece to convey, how difficult you want the passage to be, what purpose you want your translation to fulfill, and so on. Although these kinds of questions are often difficult to answer, careful consideration of these issues before the process begins will have a remarkable effect on the final result. As you continue in your translation work always remember to maintain a positive attitude and enjoy yourself. Translating allows us not only to engage with the Anglo-Saxon past, but also to participate in an exploration of our own historical moment. In order to translate a text we need to be aware of our audience, our likes and dislikes, our value system and world-view. Because reflection is mandatory before the process even begins, we are forced to come face to face with our inner-most desires, preferences and ideologies. Our prejudices, ignorances and interpretations of texts will thus forever be be imprinted on our work, making translation a unique process that allows us to simultaneously engage with the past, present and future.

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