18.10.04, Birkett/March-Lyons (eds.), Translating Early Medieval Poetry

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Judith Kaup

The Medieval Review 18.10.04

Birkett,Tom, and Kirsty March-Lyons, eds. Translating Early Medieval Poetry: Transformation, Reception, Interpretation . Medievalism. Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017. pp. ix, 239. ISBN: 978-1-84384-473-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Judith Kaup
University of Cologne

This volume contains a collection of papers that were first presented at an international conference on translating early medieval poetry at University College Cork in 2014. Though the breadth of the topics relating to the translation, adaptation and interpretation of medieval poetry, its continuing appeal and capacity to be transported into modern times and media is wide, and contributions deal with Old English, Old Norse, and medieval Irish material, the edition presents the various chapters as a unified whole with the skilful arrangement contributing to the dialogue between them. The editors' introduction positions the volume within the context of translation studies and introduces the major topics of the following essays. Creative engagement by modern, not necessarily linguistically trained poets, the role of translations in shaping students' first encounters with medieval literatures, and the influence of political agendas and cultural appropriations on translations are some of the concerns of the introduction. Birkett and March-Lyons contend that "[t]he essays chosen for inclusion in this collection together present a series of informed and at times provocative perspectives on the translation and reception of medieval poetry in the present academic, literary and cultural climate that speak to one another across traditional disciplinary boundaries"(7). Their selection certainly lives up to this aim and offers intriguing food for thought about the various issues pertaining to both the translation of poetry in general and the particular challenges medieval poetry poses.

Chris Jones' chapter "From Eald Old to New Old: Translating Old English Poetry in(to) the Twenty-first Century" is aptly placed at the beginning of the collection since it raises questions relevant for all medieval literatures and their translations, even though it focusses solely on Old English poetry. Jones starts by calling into question the traditional corpus of what is considered to be Old English poetry and the "dominant theory of Old English poetic form" (18) deduced from these preselected texts. He criticises the dominance of the four great poetic codices and predicts "[...] that our category of 'Old English poetry' will widen over the next few decades, both through recognition of forms of verse other than the Beowulfian line, and through more widespread acceptance of the extension of the historical period into the twelfth century" (19). Jones observes how especially the engagement of contemporary poets with the Old English material has undergone a significant change from the twentieth to the twenty-first century and hails the beginning of a new era in which "English poetry is [...] engaged in translating its own origins, and its origin myths, into radically different new forms" (28).

In the following chapter, "Edwin Morgan's Translations of Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Turning Eald into New in English and Scots", Hugh Magennis highlights the achievements of this Scottish poet as "[...] the first translator who set out to render Beowulf in an authentically modern poetic idiom, in a version written specifically for readers of poetry" (29). He points out how matters of national and linguistic identity in post-war Scotland are reflected in Morgan's and other contemporary Scottish poets' treatment of Old English poetry. The period saw the emergence of the 'Scottish Renaissance' movement, which propagated the use of a highly stylised literary language known as " 'synthetic Scots' or 'Lallans'" (30). Magennis contrasts Morgan's attitude towards writing in Scots to his contemporaries Alexander Scott and Tom Scott to whom "[...] writing in Scots was a key of expressing their nationalist principles" (35). While the former produced a stand-alone reworking of the Old English lament of the bereaved father from Beowulf which uses a literary form of Scots, his engagement with the medieval poetry is reflected in a more general influence on his poetic output and in freer appropriations. These are predominantly in Standard English with few Scots elements. Magennis concludes that Morgen was guided by considerations of the most appropriate linguistic expression of a subject rather than ideological concerns in his occasional use of Scots and that Morgan's decision to "...translate [Old English poetry] mainly into English reflected an outward-looking appreciation of his literary context and a recognition of English as providing an adaptive and enabling literary language in a way that Scots, whether vernacular or 'synthetic', for Morgan, did not" (45).

Inna Matyushina's chapter "Gains and Losses in Translating Old English Poetry into Modern English and Russian" also discusses questions of the best possible choice of target language for translation from the Old English. She challenges the idea that "...translations of Old English poetry into Modern English belong to the sphere of diachronic translation..."(46) since the two stages of the English language are far removed and follow distinctly different patterns of poetic expression in form as well as lexical inventory. Matyushina proposes that the translation of Old English verse into a seemingly more remote language such as Russian can indeed produce closer and less artificially constructed results. She convincingly illustrates her point with excerpts from Vladimir Tikhomirov's translations of Old English poetry.

While Matyushina's chapter thus argues for the merits of linguistically informed close translations of source texts, the next chapter breaks a lance for the passionate engagement of one particular poet with the Old English tradition. M.J. Toswell seeks to rescue Jorge Luis Borges' lifelong passion for Old English poetry from relative obscurity in "Borges, Old English Poetry and Translation Studies." Toswell points out how Borges' frequent references to his interest in Old English (and also Old Norse) poetry are hardly ever taken up by interview partners and biographers. He shows how Borges' engagement with medieval Germanic literatures remains a constant throughout his life and has exercised considerable influence on his work. This manifests itself not only in his translations but also in more subtle references to the tradition in his Spanish literary works. Toswell is well aware that Borges' linguistic competence and scholarly knowledge regarding Old English may be questioned but defends the value of this kind of enthusiastic treatment of the literature. He concludes by proposing that "...since we should be grateful to him, in the same way we should be grateful to Seamus Heaney for his treatment of Beowulf, perhaps we should open a new category of literary-scholarly translation and put Heaney, Eco and Borges all in that slot of our translational skopos" (74).

Rory McTurk's chapter "'Let Beowulf now be a book from Ireland': What Would Henryson or Tolkien Say?" stands in stark contrast to a positive evaluation of the poet's freedom in engaging with medieval poetry. McTurk criticises both Heaney's translation of the Middle Scots poem The Testament of Cresseid and his translation of Beowulf for their perceived failure to correctly present the syntactic and metrical workings of the original. McTurk closely dissects passages of these translations, comparing them with Tolkien's and his own literal translations to show how Heaney failed to reproduce essential features of the medieval texts and to reflect their style appropriately. After this meticulous discussion of Heaney's deviations from the originals, McTurk's concluding thoughts about the desideratum of an Irish translation and even a graphic novel version employing speech balloons comes as a surprise. Surely a graphic novel will have to take poetic freedom as well as freedom of interpretation to transport the medieval text into a new medium?

Elizabeth Boyle's "The Forms and Functions of Medieval Irish Poetry and the Limitations of Modern Aesthetics" sets out to "...demonstrate that the corpus of medieval Irish poetry is broader, more challenging, and more imbued with poetic possibility than the relatively narrow range of oft-anthologised, oft-adapted poems would suggest" (92). This criticism echoes Jones's earlier observation of the distorting representation of Old English poetry and shows how well the interdisciplinary approach of this volume works to highlight the common ground of the disciplines. Boyle shows how medieval Irish poetry is often reduced to a tradition of nature verse and lyric poetry which is held to be typically Irish and often also seen as only superficially Christian. She argues that these preconceptions are not even true for the small selected canon of medieval Irish poetry and reflect much less the far greater richness of the tradition in both style and topical range. Again, the influence of political agendas and cultural appropriations are clearly reflected here. Boyle introduces three examples of lesser known types of medieval Irish poetry and calls for a recognition of and engagement with the rich textual tradition available.

Lahney Preston-Matto focusses on her experience as the translator of a Middle Irish narrative poem in her chapter "Aislinge Meic Conglinne: Challenges for Translator and Audience." This "food-filled fantasy" (109) adds the difficulty of rendering unfamiliar or obscure foods into Modern English to the recurring challenges of poetry translation. She also discusses her engagement with the metrical form and the choices that had often to be made between lexical or metrical closeness to the original. She concludes with thoughts on the audience she imagines for her translation (especially American undergraduates) and how this target audience influenced her choices, specifying that "...I kept the 'strangeness' of the time period and the culture, and tried to make the language slightly easier for them" (121).

Tadhg Ó Síocháin's chapter "Translating Find and the Phantoms into Modern Irish" argues for the importance of translations of medieval Irish poetry into Modern Irish rather than English on both linguistic and cultural grounds. Firstly, Ó Síochan proposes that "...an intralingual (or diachronic) rather than an interlingual translation makes it somewhat easier to remain close to the feel and spirit of the original" (125). His main objective for translating the text into Irish is, however, due to "...the capacity of translation and of that of older material in particular to enrich the receiving culture" (126). Ó Síocháin sees a need to create a corpus of Irish translations of medieval Irish literary texts to reinvigorate the Irish language and strengthen its position in a situation of very unequal diglossia which results in a sense of insecurity and a lack of rootedness in modern Irish creative writing. Before finishing the chapter with a full translation of the tale Find and the Phantoms from the early Fiannaíocht, Ó Síocháin explains his translation approach which follows Venuti's recommendations regarding the use of non-normative language and strives to preserve some of the 'strangeness' of the source text. His expressed hope is to lure the reader into the magical world of this story cycle.

Hannah Burrows provides in her "Reawakening Angantýr: English Translations of an Old Norse Poem from the Eigteenth Century to the Twenty-first" a "...full history of the poem's life in English, exploring its versatility through changing literary fashions and the kinds of 'authenticity' that matters in these various contexts" (149). She explains how there is no adequate terminology to describe the type of adaptation most common for Old Norse poetry since many of these works are translated or reworked from Swedish, German or English translations rather than from the Old Norse, thus representing adaptations two or three times removed from the original. Burrows follows the history of the treatment of the text and the ever present indebtedness of each adaptor to their cultural and political era. Far from being overly critical about the various uses and possible abuses, Burrow sees the continuing adaptations as a sign of the vitality of the text and hails the exciting new developments of contemporary engagement with Old Norse poetry.

Caroline Larrington revisits her first translation of the famous Old Norse collection in "Translating and Retranslating the Poetic Edda". Her assessment that a translation can only ever be a work of its time and her apt summary of the perpetual dilemma of any translator as "...how to strike a balance between accuracy and expressiveness" (168) recall questions discussed throughout the volume. Larrington takes the reader through considerations and choices she made in her first translation of the Poetic Edda in 1996 (e.g. canon of texts belonging to the work, lexical choices, questions of audience) and explains how her approach differed in 2014. Her insistence that translators should refrain from too much interpretation and that they need to acknowledge the appropriation of Old Norse literature by various groups and a broad range of readers shows her commitment to letting the text speak for itself.

Heather O'Donoghue's contribution "From Heroic Lay to Victorian Novel: Old Norse Poetry about Brynhildr and Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native argues that Hardy's novel represents a transformation of the Old Norse poetic material into a Victorian work. Her detailed analysis leads her to the conclusion that "[w]e are left, then with a novel which tries, and arguably fails, to present the rural in terms of the heroic" (197). O'Donoghue still appreciates his novel as one of many instances of modern engagement with Old Norse materials that speak for the "…extraordinary artistic vibrancy and literary accomplishment" (198) of this literature which accounts for its lasting appeal, especially to poets.

Gareth Lloyd Evans highlights another type of translation practice in "Michael Hirst's Vikings and Old Norse Poetry." He shows how the TV series invents another mode of translation appropriate to the different medium of visual and oral presentation. The series does not only translate Old Norse in the traditional, literary sense but also employs a technique which overcomes linguistic and cultural barriers by visual clues and performative representation. Thus Lloyd Evans states that sometimes a "...literal translation into a target language intelligible to the audience...seems to have been unnecessary; the context of performance in Vikings enables the audience to infer the valency--if not the precise meaning--of the lyrics" (203). He concludes that "[s]uch a method of translation, which relies on the visual possibilities of this medium, pushes the translation of Old Norse poetry into new territory, while simultaneously making it accessible to a far wider audience than is usually the case" (212).

Bernard O'Donoghue's afterword highlights aspects of the preceding chapters and stresses the continuing value of translations as on the one hand connecting modern readers to cultural history while on the other making medieval poetic texts a living part of the modern poetic corpus.

The volume concludes with a poetic translation of Riddle 15 from the Old English Exeter Book by artist and poet Bertha Rogers, who also supplied the artwork for the book's cover. Thus, the varied and yet intertwined chapters of this excellent volume are framed by what may be the essential value of all poetry throughout the ages, namely its first and foremost role as a work of art.

This volume, best read in its entirety to value the various ways in which its chapters speak to each other, can be highly recommend not only to scholars with a particular interest in translation studies but to anyone who wishes to gain a deeper understanding of essential questions of reception and appropriation of medieval literature. The latter seems especially important at a time when ideologically doubtful appropriations of the medieval abound in popular culture.

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