12.02.18, Anlezark, Old Testament Narratives

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A. N. Doane

The Medieval Review 12.02.18

Anlezark, Daniel. Old Testament Narratives. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. xxii, 341. ISBN: 978-0-674-05319-9.

Reviewed by:
A. N. Doane
University of Wisconsin, Madison

This is a facing-page presentation of original-language texts and English translations of the Old English Genesis (both 'A' and 'B'), Exodus, Daniel, and Azarias, that is, the three first and older poems in the Junius Manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11) plus the text in the Exeter Book which parallels parts of the Daniel. Anlezark is a young scholar based in Sydney who has already written a major book of distinction on some of these texts, Water and Fire: The Myth of the Flood in Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester, 2006). The price of the book under review is reasonable enough that it could be used in university-level courses on the history of Bible translation, Anglo-Saxon studies, or in second-year Old English literature courses. It would be less useful in Old English courses focusing on language and philology or on the Junius Manuscript itself. The scope and apparatus of the book is limited by the aims of the Dumbarton Oaks series: "to make written achievements of medieval and Byzantine cultures available to English-speaking scholars and general readers." Despite its lowish price, the volume is very handsomely produced, with good paper, excellent binding, page-marking ribbon, and a heavy gold dust cover which suggests the Bible itself.

Within the imitations imposed by the series, Anlezark has done a good job. In the brief introduction he concisely introduces the manuscript setting and then provides summaries of each poem that skillfully indicate their complex exegetical and cultural backgrounds, while emphasizing the rhetorical and emotional highpoints and maintaining a sense of what distinguishes one poem from another. My only complaint is that in discussing Genesis B, the most "different" poem in the Old English corpus due to its origin as a continental low-German, Carolingian text, he does not sufficiently highlight its bizarre narrative features that depart from the biblical Genesis or their theological implications, such as the elaborate heroics of Satan or the double temptation, Adam first and then Eve, or the "angel of light" motif or elaborate penitence rituals. And while he does point out the metrical differences between Genesis B and classical Old English poems, he assumes too much prior knowledge of the "normal" Anglo-Saxon metrical system on the part of the target audience, a subject on which he might well have spent a page or two. The bulk of the book is of course the texts and translation on facing pages, followed by four pages of textual notes and seven pages of "Notes to the Translations," the latter unfortunately quite hit-and-miss. There is a very brief bibliography, providing little guide to further reading, which seems to consist solely of books Anlezark refers to elsewhere in the book.

The text seems especially responsibly done for a simple facing page apparatus. Having carefully checked the texts of Genesis A and B, I saw only one discrepancy between text and noted variants (2255 ece). The text essentially agrees with that of G. P. Krapp in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records 1 (New York, 1931), which is natural since most of Krapp's interventions are inevitable and involve emendations that were already or have since become traditional to the texts. In more than 160 cases Anlezark agrees with Krapp's deviations from the manuscript and in 21 cases disagrees and retains the manuscript reading. In so disagreeing he eliminates most of the unnecessary or damaging emendations Krapp allowed. But at least twice Anlezark maintains an emendation that seems clearly wrong: 65 sceof for MS sceop (the latter has the sense "condemn" and occurs in this sense at line 903 where both Krapp and Anlezark retain the MS reading); and at 2211 they intrude for MS wendeð sæ the anachronistic Wendelsæ (Mediterranean Sea), a word from King Alfred's vocabulary, that simply cuts through the difficulties of the passage without elucidating them and loses the verb of the clause to boot. At the locus desperatus of 1400-01, wæs nan to gedale, / nymþe heo wæs ahafen, Anlezark keeps the old emendation heof = "lament" (invented by Sievers in 1894 to supply a noun with no coherent explanation offered) and ventures in his translation "Soon there was no one among them to be killed, nor was a lament raised," which says exactly the opposite of what the (emended) text seems to be saying: "there was nothing for the gedale except a lament was raised"; perhaps the emendation should be to hof ("the ark was raised up"). At any rate this crux amusingly illustrates how a "canonical" emendation is the dickens to get rid of even when it makes matters worse for the editor-translator. The only original readings I noticed were spelling changes to the name Sarra/Sarran/Sarrai.

Anlezark does not discuss his philosophy or method of translation. It seems to me that when a translation is facing its text there is an obligation that it be either practical, that is, consistently and rigorously literal, with a line-for-line correspondence to the original; or that it be evocative, that is, consistently so free as to discourage verbal/syntactical comparisons. Here there is no attempt to reflect or represent the verse rhythms or lineation and the syntax and wording is usually of the ad hoc variety that responds to the local textual stimuli and encourages comparison of text and translation, in short the unremarkable purely practical prose translation that we produce whenever explaining an Old English text. In the process, most of the time, Anlazark is pleasantly readable, sometimes even eloquent, and one can generally see how his words arise from the original. But to one who knows the original well there are frequent unpleasant jolts, either because of some loose choice of words (e.g. 153, folca hrofes / "the people's roof"), or because of a sudden lurch into Heaneyisms (929 "a naked drifter" / nacod nied-wædla; 1010-11, God to Cain, "you've tucked the faithful man ... into a bed of slaughter", mistranslating, deliberately I suppose, befealdest / "killed", for its sound ("befold"?) and meretricious relation to "(slaughter-)bed". The bad angels "hung about darkly in exile," maybe like juvenile delinquents, but the original is better than that, seomodon swearte (72), they are unsecured to anything, they "hovered darkly," like bats or ghosts. There are frequent dubious choices, e.g.: lastas lecgan (2851) / "make tracks"; bælc forbigde (54) "humbled their babbling"; bælc might be extended to mean "prideful speech" but "babbling" sounds more like Piers Plowman than like OE. More importantly, as an explanation of the exact meaning, the words often do not bear down on the implications of the Old English: under roderas feng (98) is given as "under the skies" but this expression refers to God's first motions towards the visible creation and clearly means "under the sphere (or enclosure) of the firmament", the firm barrier between the visible and invisible heavens; the mark of Cain, freoðo-beacen (1045), is called "peace-token," but it is a "sign of protection"; in fact "peace-token" (-tacen) is the term given to the rite of circumcision at 2371 (translated "sign of peace"). Considering that students do not have the Bible at their fingertips these days, it would have been helpful if the corresponding biblical texts, perhaps the Douai-Rheims version as representing the Vulgate, had been appended to the bottom of the recto pages, where there is plenty of room left.

So, though far from perfect, the translations are readable and broadly useful, especially considering that the existing complete and partial translations of these texts are few and far between and not particularly good. It will not, however, replace Charles Kennedy's delightful and accurate translations of all the Junius texts (The Caedmon Poems [London, 1916, repr. Gloucester, MA, 1965]).

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A. N. Doane

University of Wisconsin, Madison