Of gods know how many.
This will be an ongoing series discussing and illustrating the challenges of translation. Not only a translation of language but a translation of verse. I decided that since I am doing this crazy thing I may as well show other aspiring translator/poets just how much work goes into a project like this.
This being part one most of what we’ll be talking about (rather, I’ll be writing you’ll be reading about) are the challenges inherent in doing this as well as my plan of attack as it were. But first: Why? Why on this green earth would anyone want to do this? This is bats in the attic crazy if you aren’t getting either A. Money or B. a degree for this kind of work. And those two reasons generally aim for a more academic prose translation which is both easier to do and more accessible to an unfamiliar audience (read: sells better).
I have two reasons. One far outweighs the other but I’d be falsely modest if I didn’t at least mention reason two.
Reason One: Soul.
I am doing this because (in my opinion) prose translations take the heartbeat out of the work. It slaps words on the page, ripped of their feel and impact, and sets heartrending cultural work firmly in the realm of academia. That’s not what these pieces were. These are the battle cries of our forefathers, the catchy pop songs of our ancestors. What prose translation with no poetic attempt does is take something like Take Me to Church by Hosier and describes it thusly:
“The one I love is dark humor, she laughs at funerals. Though others disprove [of her] I feel I should have paid her tribute sooner. She is the last true voice of the divine, every Sunday becomes darker with new poisonous words [from false holy men]. Others tell us that we’ve been sick since we were born, traditional churches offer no comfort or forgiveness. She tells me to worship privately. The only heaven I expect to see is when we are alone. Amen.”
Compare that to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYSVMgRr6pw
One, while it gives an idea of what the words say, is flat. It’s a textbook. It’s dry unless you know where the gut of the original are. That is what I see in text books. That’s what I see as the biggest challenge to falling in love (or at least awe) with old poetry.
What I am attempting to do by translating Battle of Maldon from Old English into modern English then into the closest I can get to it’s original verse is to put that heartbeat back. Give us not only the words but the feel. Put the soul back.
This is not to say that academic translation is wrong.
Not at all! Without academic translation we’d have nothing but poems that are impenetrable to anyone but a dedicated scholar of whichever culture the poem is from. We’d have work, gorgeous, moving, inspiring work, that would be even more inaccessible to people with a passing interest. Academic translation is a gateway drug. Without it we’d never have the level of interest ancient pieces deserve.
Reason two: To say I did it.
This one is the lesser reason and pretty self explanatory. There’s just something very fulfilling (I imagine, this is my first attempt) about taking on a project of this size and finishing it. I imagine I’ll be running around my teeny apartment, notebook raised above my head in victory, when I actually finish this. I may in fact shove that self same notebook under the nose of anyone who holds still long enough, shouting “LOOK AT IT! I DID A THING!”
Now then. On to the challenges in doing something like this.
Let me make this clear: Unless you already speak the proper dialogue of the language, are proficient in the verse form in question, and have 3 or 4 reference translations lying around (preferably at least one with the original text facing), this is not a weekend project. Even if you have all those things? Edits take time. With all of that you might be able to get a short sonnet done. And if this is a weekend project? I love, hate, and am in awe of you and this series is not for you. I mean I’ll welcome your advice and whatever black magic you work to get verse translations done so fast, but this is mostly intended for people making the same poor life choice I have.
Challenge one: Language.
This is obvious. You wouldn’t need to translate it if the piece was already in the language you wanted it to be. So hopefully you’re choosing a language you either speak, read or are otherwise proficient in.
I did not.
I am learning Old English while translating Maldon.
Don’t be like me. Be smart. Pick a language you already have a background in.
If you are being like me and choosing a brand new language find other people who know it. Find people who are willing to proof read. Find people who will tell you what that weird ass word is. Then ask them what their favorite sources are. Study those sources. Get a good dictionary and understand that if you’re translating a specific dialect one word may mean something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than what your dictionary says it does. We do this in modern English. Example: “That bites.” Does it mean that is a creature that will bite you? Is it an object that will cut/pinch you? Or does it mean “that is terrible and I sympathize with your unhappiness in this situation”? Context is the only way to know. Good luck.
Challenge two: Verse.
The poem you are translating was written in a verse form designed for the original language. It was not designed for modern English and modern English sentence structure is crap at verse forms it wasn’t intended for. The sooner you accept and become zen about this the less likely you will be to set your sources on fire, delete any mention of this project, and deny your source poem ever existed.
Your best bet is to study your verse form first. Figure out how to bend modern English into it. Write a few original poems in your chosen form before attempting a translation. Make sure you have a very solid grasp on how this style works, what makes the heart beat in the metric form, how you can fudge grammar to play nicely, and when to just accept that modern English sucks for this and throw words on the page and trust your audience will follow your meaning.
Again, I did not.
I have written exactly one poem in Saxon verse (upon further study I also did that wrong) and am using this opportunity to conduct an in depth study of Old English poetry while translating this piece.
Don’t be like me. Be smart. Learn your verse form first.
Challenge three: Sources.
Unless you are a well known scholar/conduct dark rites to the gods of access/have lots of money you will not get your hands on the original piece. This means you need to trust other people who have seen the original that they copied it correctly. If you’re using a transliteration from the original alphabet to the language in English characters that is another layer of trust. For example: Elder futhark has nothing for the letter Y. Therefore if a Y is needed you have to substitute something else. Joy is different from Joe.
Therefore it is best to use multiple sources. Not just for the translations but for the original text itself. This can also be hairpullingly frustrating if you’re working with a lesser known piece that not very many people have taken a crack at. If you’re translating Beowulf, 1. Congrats you have a plethora of sources (stay away from Tolkein’s prose. I’m still bitter), 2. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! *ahem* right. Moving on. Make sure to consider availability of translations from different scholars, grab as many verse translations as you can, and stock up on your tasty beverage of choice. Trust me, you’ll need it when you find out translator A threw away a perfectly good kenning because he didn’t get that bonehouse is more evocative than body and that modern audiences would be able to figure out that wave steed means ship.
I am doing this. I am smart. Be like me. Perhaps with less beer and swearing. At least pretend you cursed at your sources less.
Challenge 4: Audience.
All of this means nothing if you keep this to yourself. Who is your audience? Are you doing this in hopes of getting published? In which case I applaud your hope and wish you the best. Are you doing this for performance?
If so remember that your audience will more than likely not be made up of people who know the verse form. You’re dealing with a modern audience who, while most of us will be deeply impressed with the amount of work and time you put into this, won’t be in a position to give feed back beyond entertaining or boring. Keep this in mind. Your original source piece is amazing, you are in love with it, otherwise you would have lit it on fire back in month two, take us with you. Let us love it nearly as much as you do.
This? This is the challenge with any piece destined for performance. And that will only be solved with practice and time.
I’m working on this. And if I can do it, you can too.
We got this.