Thursday 5 June 2014

Poetry in translation... why it is bad (and an explanation for not appreciating Beowulf)


Poetry in translation is like an opera performed as a play without music; or the summary plot in the programme describing a play - it misses the point.

And, yes, this applies even to Tolkien, and therefore (probably) even to Beowulf.

It is not Beowulf I don't respond to; it is the lack of poetry.


I can illustrate with an example: I can read Middle English (Medieval English) since I studied Chaucer intensively aged 14-16, and have been reading the stuff ever since. So I can appreciate Chaucer as poetry - and the same applies (although it is more difficult) to many small Medieval lyrics, to William Langland's Piers Plowman, and the Gawain poet - indeed his Pearl I find almost unbearably moving, in parts.

But I have also read Nevill Coghill's Canterbury Tales and Troilus by Chaucer, and his excerpts from Piers Plowman - and I have read Tolkien's translations of the Gawain Poet; and qua poetry they left me cold - they were interesting in other way, but not as poetry.

So, I responded to the original - to the actual poetry - but 'not really' to the translations. And yet I would rate Coghill and Tolkien as among the very best of literary scholars and editors in their fields, as well as gifted writers and superbly well motivated to boot.

Poetry just does not translate.


Another example: the Psalms in the Bible. In the Authorized Version and in Coverdale's version in the Book of Common Prayer these are... well, beyond words as to their literary quality and Christian value.

But in modern translation... well, they are pretty worthless at best (eminently disposable) and at worst actively-misleading from a devotional perspective. The only thing which makes modern translations of the Psalms at all bearable is their echoes of the AV or Coverdale.

(This applies generally to the Bible - modern translations are more-or-less effective when reporting the life of Jesus - but unbearable, and probably wicked, when pulverising and regurgitating the poetic and mythic parts such as Genesis, the Song of Solomon, Isaiah's prophecies, Revelations.)


So to Beowulf.

You see, I can't read Anglo-Saxon, although I have made some efforts I this direction once or twice for a few weeks at a time - but it is too hard, too alien. I can just rise to a kind of pseudo Old English accent which might fool someone who knew nothing about it.

Therefore I cannot appreciate Beowulf as poetry, therefore I cannot appreciate it.

Not even when Tolkien is doing the translating (and I have read some other versions too - I found Michael Alexander's excerpts the most tolerable). I can get something else from Beowulf - but this is of the nature of a report on Beowulf - it is not the thing in itself.


The question then boils down to whether I appreciate a prose- or poeticized-summary of what happens in Beowulf - and the answer is: not much.

I don't find that Anglo Saxon world either comprehensible or especially likeable - when it is not expressed poetically. It is just like Cole's Notes (or as Americans have it - CliffNotes) I mean a study guide or crib.

I remember reading Cole's Notes for The Lord of the Rings back in the 1970s - not only were they laughably inaccurate, but the synopsis style made the book sound just silly and boring.

Yet that was just prose-to-prose translation - poetry-to-prose is even worse; even more destructive.

So, no; I don't really respond to Beowulf; and now you know why.



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Well, the AV Psalms are a translation, so it would appear that poetry can be translated in some cases. Luther's German translation of the Bible is also considered first-rate German poetry. FitzGerald's translation of Omar Khayyam is another possible example, as is the Russian Hamlet.

stephen c said...

I was lucky enough to read Beowulf in translation as a teenager, so every(translated) line has the benefit of distilled time for me now, a generation later... I wouldn't say that poetry is always and everywhere untranslatable. Assuming the Beowulf poet was only good as an example of what Anglo-Saxons could do every once in a while, a few generations after invading Britain, and that the Beowulf poet was not a super-rare Shakespeare or Isaiah-like talent who happened to live in England across the water from Denmark thirty generations ago (which he may have been - lacking Anglo-Saxon fluency, I can't begin to judge), it seems unlikely that the combined forces of several hundred years worth of Norwegian, Swedish, French, Gaelic, modern English etc, wordlovers could not come up with one single translator with sufficient passion and skill to effectively translate his finite number of verses. Of course, not knowing Norwegian, Swedish, and Gaelic, etc., I cannot prove that point ...

jgress said...

I suppose it would be churlish to point out that the Psalms were not originally composed in any variety of English, and the fact that you find the Coverdale version so worthy contradicts your assertion that poetry is untranslatable. :)

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas and jgress -My point is confined to literary translation - not to divine inspiration. The AV Bible (and to some extent the BCP) I regard as divinely inspired for the use of English speaking Christians - as was indeed their function for a long time in the Reformed and Restored churches, and perhaps others I do not know of.

The same seems to apply to the Latin Vulgate Bible - and perhaps to Luther's.

I agree that Fitzgerald's Omar Khayyam is first rate - the question is whether it is a translation.

My understanding is that it was 'inspired by' the Persian original but is extremely different from it in most ways - even in its main point and character.

Nonetheless, it is a good example of the closest thing to a good (literary) translation of poetry.