16.05.13, Andersson, trans., et al., Theodulf of Orléans

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Joseph Pucci

The Medieval Review 16.05.13

Andersson, Theodore M., trans. and intro, in collaboration with Åslaug Ommundsen and Leslie S. B. MacCoull. Theodulf of Orléans: The Verse. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 450. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2015. pp. x, 220. ISBN: 978-0-86698-501-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Joseph Pucci
Brown University

It seems incredible that, excepting Alexandrenko's 1971 Tulane dissertation, there exists no English translation of Theodulf's poetry. Yet such is the case. That Andersson's welcome and impressive volume fills a gap thus goes without saying. While Theodulf's status as "the most distinguished poet in Charlemagne's court circle " (xi) is likely debatable, the inimitability of his verse is not. No Carolingian poet is as consistently wily, subtle, complicated, or difficult and any translator of his verse must confront both the creative and the interpretive obstacles that obtrude as a result.

To these qualities can be added the sometimes obscure contexts in which Theodulf's poems were written, or to which they speak, or both. Theodulf's translator must therefore also bring to his or her task the skills of an historian and sometimes perhaps even those of a sleuth. This is true no less in terms of gaining control of the secondary literature. One who would contextualize Theodulf's verse does not have a lot to go on and what there is often is to be had in difficult-of-access books or journals written in Europe in the last century (and sometimes earlier). Little wonder Andersson had help from his collaborators especially in this regard, and their collective work, as the eight-page bibliography attests, is impressive. Those who read Theodulf's poetry cannot fail to be excited at the substance of such a list and this, too, goes to an aspect of the strength of Andersson'ss volume.

Wisely for a translation, Andersson has forgone the confection of a new Latin text. Instead, he accepts the poems printed in Duemmler's 1881 MGH edition, including those of doubtful authenticity and the several that indubitably are spurious. Andersson also retains Duemmler's ordering/numbering, making the translation easy to use for those who wish to work with Latin and English simultaneously, but imposes categories (e.g., "Religious and Moral Poems," "The Exile Poems," etc.) that allow readers to orient themselves thematically across the seventy-nine poems of the collection with helpful ease.

Andersson's is not a "literal, word-by-word translation," but rather "attempts to catch something of the flavor" of Theodulf's Latin by rendering his verses through an "even flow of stressed and unstressed syllables" (xi). This is achieved by ending odd and even verses with, respectively, trochaic and iambic rhythms. The result tugs the reader toward a sense that s/he is reading poetry, even if content often pulls the reader away from a sustained poetic experience. At the least, such a strategy has the effect of sometimes allowing the reader to forget that s/he is reading a translation, an effect that cannot be praised enough.

The pleasures and successes of Andersson's renderings can be seen throughout his volume but, as much as any passage might, this difficult, laden excerpt from carm. 25, a panegyric written to Charlemagne, communicates the sensitivity to sound and sense that Andersson brings to his project (72):

As a comparandum, here is Godman's rendering (Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance, p. 161):

I do not mean to challenge the accuracy, or impugn the quality, of Godman's rendering, but the differences between the two excerpts point up the poetic sensibilities that commend Andersson's volume. For example, take the first line of the excerpt: Stet Scottellus ibi, res sine lege furens. For Scottellus, Godman has "miserable Irishman," which neatly reads into the diminutive a sense of wretchedness, but Andersson's "Irish midget" is much more vivid, not least in exploiting the ambiguity of this word (is it a real midget, an awful person, one diminished spiritually, all of these and/or more? etc.). The rest of the line in Andersson's rendering has a fine rhythm, aided by the compression he brings to bear on Theodulf's Latin, suppressing the word res and phrase sine lege that Godman includes ("a lawless . . . thing").

For the better, concision also marks Andersson's renderings of vv. 215-218. Whereas Godman faithfully renders Theodulf's insistent repetition of the word res, "thing," in his translation, Andersson opts for concision, exploiting adjectives and adjectival phrases that also afford him more metrical flexibility in shaping the conclusions of alternating lines according to trochaic or iambic patterns. Other choices point to different poetic sensibilities, but, though both versions communicate the wild, disruptive, diatribe against this poor Irishman, Andersson's renderings exploit concision, alliteration, rhyme, and vividness of diction in order to create a poetry in the English that more than gestures us toward Theodulf's original, though never to the exclusion of sense. To greater or lesser degrees, all of Andersson's carefully wrought lines invite this kind of parsing of their poetic qualities. Suffice it to say that Andersson has brought a full arsenal of poetic sensibilities to his project.

Equally helpful are the brief contextualizing essays that introduce each of the poems (or, sometimes, small groups of poems). Andersson modestly suggests that he offers these "headnotes" in order to avoid asking non-specialists to undertake what he calls "cold" readings. But these are more than headnotes: in effect they are essays that gather together summaries of scholarship, interpretive issues, and contextualizing and historicizing details that bring the reader into the spaces of the poems quickly, modestly, and concisely. These essays alone render Andersson's volume a fine accomplishment.

The book includes a brief preface; a general introduction that manages to say in fifteen pages most of what can be said about Theodulf's life and poetic habits; the essays and translations of the poetry; four pages of textual notes that strike me as reflecting something substantially larger that presumably was cut down for purposes of publication and in token of an audience that will be predominately Latin-less; a translation of Duemmler's "Appendix ad Theodulfum" (by Leslie MacCoull); the bibliography; a thoroughly useful general index; an index of countries and regions mentioned in carm. 7; and, finally, a brief index of prominent themes in Theodulf's verse.

The book is hardbound, though I gather it will be printed in paper in due course. It is beautifully produced, sturdy in construction, and without misprints or errors (at least none caught my eye). Every academic library, no matter how small, should have this volume in its collection and once it appears in paper those of us who teach Carolingian history, literature, poetry, vel sim. will have an exemplary resource by which to expose our students, Latin-less or not, to the beauties, foibles, intricacies, and rhythms of one of the more powerful poets of the western Latin tradition.

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