Monday, 13 February 2012

Hermit Crab Poetry

Poetry translation requires taking forward not just the content but also the form of the original - in the same way that the body of many a creature is just a lot of rotting mush if it does not have its exoskeleton.

This was the case put by the poet Ian Crockatt in a lecture at Nottingham University which I went over for last week. He is working at a much more professional level than me on the poems of Earl Rognvald in the Orkenyinga Saga, and he shared some striking examples of versions which he has produced which reproduced the same skaldic form as the originals (right down to the place and nature of rhymes and half-rhymes in alternate lines); I'll be glad when some are in the public domain to explore further here.

Nevertheless, it was hermit crabs I thought about on my way home. This may just be a defensive reaction, a self justification for the more amateur attempts I have made to give the poems both new words (not the Icelandic originals) and new structures (not the skaldic originals, which I admit would have been a much more difficult task). It seemed to me that to take new language and to borrow a structure / shell from somewhere else might be equally legitimate things to do.

The first of Rognvald’s poems in the Saga is the Grimsby poem which was the first I attempted to translate (and which I posted on 11th September):

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.

This has seven beats to each of the eight lines (rather than the skaldic six beats), and where there are internal rhymes they are accidental products of a very English verse approach to alliteration (rather than any deliberate use of the skaldic pattern). And none of the three later poems I posted on 29th December follow even this form - only one even has eight lines - so are several steps further away from the skaldic form.
He has made me think. Perhaps the very elusive quality for which I look is not content (although a quite accurate correspondence to the original seems important), nor form (although a poetic structure which means the poem can be proclaimed aloud seems important), but character (catching something of what the original might have been meant to make one feel).
In this case, the original has the word megingrimmar (which the critical edition gives as mightily grim) in the second line and meginkaliga (mightily merry) in the sixth, so I’d venture that one essential feature of any new version must be the transition from being depressingly stuck to being joyfully free. If so, even a quite prosaic translation which captures this might be a good poetic translation. And even a skilled skaldic form which doesn’t convey this (perhaps because the search for rhyming words has allowed different pictures to infiltrate) might not be. At least, that is where I’ve got to at the moment.


icrockatt said...

greetings Peter, fellow Old Norse poet!
For a different approach have you checked out george mackay brown's free verse versions of 6 of Rognvaldr's poems - in his book 'Winterfold'?

i think you're right about the megingrimmar and meginkaliga; I regret missing that repetition.. Ian

Peter Mullins said...

Thanks, Ian, for your lecture and for this message (including its generous salutation). I actually have the Collected George Mackay Brown by my bed at the moment(I keep returning to his 'Hawk' in particular at the moment, with which I'm entranced) but I simply hadn't noticed there were versions of Rognvaldr not that many pages earlier, so thank you particularly for pointing them out. If I ever find time, I may write with some material.