Sunday, 11 September 2011

Kali's song

We’d wasted five weeks waiting,
our feet festering in filth.

mired in mud in the middle
of Grimsby, grimly grounded.

Now, let loose, we laugh aloud
on the gulls’ moor’s mounds, mounted
on elk-back, bounding breakers,
our bow’s beak set on Bergen.

I’ve come up with this version of the earliest poem to mention Grimsby. It comes from the twelfth century Icelandic Orkneyinga Saga, the history of the Jarls of Orkney. We have been reading everything from this to the contemporary poetry of George Mackay Brown - we take our holidays that seriously! It was fun stumbling on a reference (albeit not a totally complimentary one) to our home town.

The original has what I learn are called ‘kennings’, almost crossword clues. So, instead of ‘sea’ we get something like‘the moor of the gulls’, and, instead of ‘boat’, something like ‘beaked elk’ or ‘prowed elk’. I’ve very kindly been offered part of the £163 critical edition of such poetry to check, and the author of the section has even invited me to a lecture on how to translate them in her department at Nottingham University next year.

The challenge is to have an appropriate level of alliteration without artificial diction, and the kennings without total obscurity. I’m quite pleased with it so far, but we’ll have to see what perspective the critical text and then the lecture have.

The first English version (from the nineteenth century) gave:

Unpleasantly we have been wading
in mud a weary five weeks
dirt we had plenty while we lay
in Grimsby harbour
but now on the moor of the seagulls
ride we oe’er the crest of the billows
gaily as the elk of the bowspirits
eastward plough its way to Bergen.

The Penguin Classics version is:

Five weeks we’d waded through wetness and filth,
mud wasn’t missing in the middle of Grimsby:
now our spirits are soaring as our fine ship skims,
its bow bounds, an elk of the billows, to Bergen.

The picture is pointed roughly at Bergen, but from the Brough of Deerness in Orkney.

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