Say Anything; or Translating Fiction

There was an interesting essay in the Atlantic about Beowulf, how it still captures us, translations and graphic treatments of it still being explored, cinematic ones, plays; who knows what’s next, a video game?

Beowulf is, for all its bloody adventurism, its heroic arm-tearing and epic wrestling, essentially nihilistic. Or philosophical in that dust-to-dust way. I vaguely remember reading some of it in high school. I chose the course on the history of languages over the more popular one on 20th century literature, which does not surprise me. I would make the same decision again. Languages and their branching meander fascinate me, and the mystery of the development of language, and the decline of languages, and translation — all stuff I love (even as I often measure my words, hold my tongue) (or err on the other side — when people say, “I admire your frankness,” I know I’ve said too much…which I often do).

The Atlantic author notes that the first word of Beowulf, “Hwaet,” has been variously translated as “Hear me!,” Attend!,” “What ho!,” and “So…” — and we’re still attending, responding to the what ho, awaiting what’s beyond So’s ellipses. An Old English to Modern English online dictionary gives me for “hawed”: anything; brave; brisk; lo; something; what. Taken all together like that, indeed, I’d certainly read on!

Later research has indicated that perhaps it is not intended as an exclamation at all but merely that mild “what” or “how,” as in, “How we have heard of the might of the kings,” as scholar George Walkden has argued, based on his understanding of Old English syntax. (I have to love a guy who has an understanding of Old English syntax.) But it’s just not as compelling a beginning, is it?

On the advice of a friend who loved it, I toiled through part of the enormous Norwegian epic Kristin Lavransdatter. I’m not sure I made it even halfway before I become exhausted by the formal language, the slow pace, the dreary setting and life of Kristin. It wasn’t until I saw a few years ago that I saw reference to a 2005 translation that had been issued that it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t the story itself but the translation that bogged me down. The friend who was happy enough with the old translation asked how the new one could be different — wasn’t a word a word, a story a story? But no, a translation is a reflection of the translator and her times and sensibilities. I have not read it yet, but reviews indicate the newer translation uses modern usages rather than the “methinks” and thees and thous, which may make the long story move faster. I’ll have to see. Critics of the two translations are mixed about which one is closer to the style of the original Norwegian writing. As a translator, one wants to keep close but keep readable. The author, Sigrid Undset, was writing in 1920 but writing about the 1300s — did she made language choices to keep close to an archaic-sounding time? Is the Norwegian of the 1920s different from contemporary usage? I don’t speak Norwegian, so I don’t know, but part of a translator’s job is to find out and then decide how to bring it all forward somehow.

I’m moved to find a version of Beowulf with the Old English presented alongside someone’s translation so I can pore over the garbled cries of hero and monsters alike, in the same way, I guess, that I pore over old family photos of people I’ve never met but who might look vaguely like me. What is there left of the old language in me, the old victories and sacrifices?

The Poetry Foundation obligingly offers the whole of Beowulf in Old English here: But the first page offered up by Wikipedia shows no punctuation after Hwaet.

In the end, spoiler alert: Beowulf dies. The dragon whom Beowulf kills kills Beowulf. His language died, for the most part (or what’s left of it succumbing to tweets and emoticons?). The hero is dead. Long live the hero. The word is dead. Long live the word. Until we speaking monsters cry our last garbled cry, our hands around each other’s necks, and then go mute. Until then, the story is not dead. Long live the story. What?

Hidden Life; or On Living Among the Living a Well Life

From my windows I daily see a neighborhood cat, a mostly-white calico whom I call Whitey Ford, going about his busy life, trotting quickly through the yard next door intent on some task or other, or crouched tail-whippingly on our deck menacing some real or perceived prey under the rhododendron. And watching his trajectories, in secret, as only occasionally does he notice me — if I move in the window, or tap to distract him from being overly attentive to a perched cardinal — makes me think about all the lives lived busily around me. The squirrel brothers chasing each other around the tree, the Loud Family whose conversations blast out from flung-open windows across the street, the ants I noticed rallying around a seemingly random spot on the wall, the lady who lives a few blocks away whom I’ve seen for years walking a series of dogs through the neighborhood with a series of better and worse limps as she’s dealt with what I suspect are hip replacements, the cardinal generations the most recent of whose lives are possibly endangered by Whitey Ford.

I wonder if anyone notices me. Do the squirrels look down on my head as I’m raking the lawn of the catalpa seed pods they strip and leave in shreds and think ha ha? I read recently The Hidden Life of Trees, which at first was fascinating but somehow never held on as an entire book. The author, Peter Wohlleben, whose name means “well life,” a forester turned forest warden in Germany, writes mostly of the beech forest he has come to know intimately and the research that has been done around trees, their ways of communicating to each other through scent and chemicals excreted through leaves and roots systems, their interactions with the old and young among them, and the cozy relationship with a fungus that grows around their roots.

Other tree types don’t seem to act quite so communally, and I wonder, as I look at the maple on the side of the house, whether it’s heard that the maple in front of the house has been executed — taken down by the city after its slow decline turned to a tendency to fling branches on street, sidewalk, my car. It seems unconcerned. But I don’t know. Does it know I’m the one who complained to the city? Is it darkly watching me as I move under its canopy to peruse the incoming bleeding hearts and hostas asserting themselves in the spring warming? Is it quietly loosening a limb to send crashing down?

I want to be comforted knowing I’m another being in a community of beings going about our businesses, that we’re all companionably coexisting. The more we know about biology the more we know we don’t know a lot. Sometimes trees will support the life still churning in the stump of a fallen comrade. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes a cat will kill a bird. I just saw a video of an acquaintance’s cat walking companionably alongside one of the family’s chickens. Sometimes a neighbor will kill a neighbor. Sometimes a neighbor will kill himself. Sometimes a casual interaction with a neighbor will unaccountably cheer me. I’m still laughing over how a squirrel teased Whitey Ford for half an hour one day, finally luring him up onto a tree branch then skipping away. I went out to make sure Whitey could get down again. He didn’t appreciate my concern and glared at me even as he was racing down the tree and away.

Being a being among beings is complicated. Even beech trees can fail each other. Some days I want to help, to be the fungus living rootedly, symbioting with my fellow beings. Some days I just want to be left alone in peace. Most days I’m like Whitey Ford catting through the world, leaving poop in the Garden, eating the bird. There’s something useful about being aware of it, though. Something that feeds my writing somehow, that feeds my living well.

Phoenix; or How Poetry Helps

I’ve been indulging one of my greatest pleasures again: rereading. Harry Potter. What a fine, satisfying read these are. I started at the end, having forgotten how things all ended up. Then backed up to books 5 and 6. There’s nothing better than reading about the battle of good and evil — so much better than living it, as in real life, it’s far more nuanced, subtle, confusing, layered, annoying. In Book 6, Someone Very Important dies (in case you’re the one person left in the world who has not read it because of some ridiculous “I don’t read fantasy” bullshit or something). Then this small thing happens: “Somewhere out in the darkness, a phoenix was singing in a way that Harry had never heard before: a stricken lament of terrible beauty. And Harry felt…that the music was inside him, not without: It was his own grief turned magically to song…How long they all stood there, listening, he did not know, nor why it seemed to ease their pain a little to listen to the sound of their mourning…” Music does something to us. Carries us, takes us, holds us. But I also thought about the calls over the internet I see not infrequently: people asking for recommendations for poems to offer someone in need — can anyone think of a poem for a friend who lost a child, for someone who is dying, someone who needs a way to feel better about the wounded world. Poetry too eases our pain as we listen to the sound of it in someone else’s words. In the initial stranglehold of deep emotion, we are wordless. Our sounds are more like music, albeit unmusical. But quickly we tend to reach for words. Often “why” or “no” or “but…” or, in my case usually, a good old monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon curse word. But it’s not long before people often seek words of ritual or of talisman or succor, and this is often found in poetry. And I guess this is a fine ambition I can have for my own work, that someone, sometime, somewhere finds in my words their own emotion, and that it somehow helps or delights or makes them for a moment feel connected. Kind of sappy? I know, but hey, I just stopped crying over the ending of Book 6. Give me a break.


On Reading On

I am, again, trying fiction — reading it, that is, not writing it. I am generally impatient with fiction, hard to please, difficult to lure, short-tempered with sentiment and many kinds of subject matter. I’m more than halfway through the book, and at this point, I, the reader, now know more than the main protagonist. I know the answer to the question he is asking. I wonder about a possible surprise twist — and if I wonder, then it is no longer a surprise. I am not particularly attached to any of the four main characters, and already have a sense of their fates. Yet I want to read on. Why is that?

How has the author created a world that has, in many ways, been painful to read about — Turkey during the Armenian genocide — with characters who are not lovable, particularly, and a plot whose greater trajectory is pretty clear, and yet I linger for the details? The writing itself has not intruded on my consciousness as being either particularly good or not good. But I guess the author has made it interesting enough that I want to see the entire weave, to see how the whole fabric of the story lines come together. And I am interested to know what the main character will do once he discovers what I already know.

This was an interesting tactic, to be so obvious with the plot, and yet create enough tangle of warp and weft that the whole weave is not yet entirely evident, the pattern not fully exposed. So kudos to you, Aline Ohanesian, for deftly wrapping me in the story, snug, a bug in a rug.

On Poetry Craft: A Megablog

I’ve been keeping this blog for several years now, and decided to combine all of my posts thus far that have dealt specifically with issues of poetry craft, as I’ve wrangled over the years with my own poems.

In the document linked below, you’ll find general observations, notes on some specific poems, and, most importantly, my thoughts on the guts of poems and editing considerations. I hope you will find something in there of use. Write on.


All the Noise Noise Noise; or, on Paying Attention

Donald Revell’s trippy The Art of Attention is making me impatient, but he offers this quote from John Cage: “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” I’m curious at his use of the word “noise” (etymologically linked to nausea, interestingly enough, which comes from seasickness) and what he means by “mostly noise.” What is the rest of what we hear?

This morning the tinkle of what was either water dripping or the far song of red-winged blackbirds was the first sound I was conscious of. A lovely way to start the conscious day. Now the humph, clatter, and mumble of clumps of snow sliding off the new metal roof. Sometimes alarming, startling, confusing, nevertheless, as I know what the noise is, I find it mostly amusing, that the slick roof boots its snow piles so readily and with seeming vigor.

My husband and I clash about noise — he likes to thoughtlessly click on the radio just to have noise. I am forced to listen — there is no such thing as background noise for me. I always listen. (I don’t always find it fascinating.) I have a love/hate relationship with noise — appreciate some of it, detest others, and that often I’m unable to control noise’s access to me makes me anxious.

I believe my mother began truly aging when she began losing her hearing but refused to wear a hearing aid. Conversations became difficult, birds turned silent. (But the good part is, she is rarely disturbed now by noise. Which is good, as she is living in community and the place is rarely quiet.)

I can close my eyes, hold my nose, refuse to taste, but I can’t not hear. My work is to make the best of the noise, to pay it attention. Revell writes, “A musician is inclined to listen, and when he listens, the sounds are music.” He advises, “Incline our senses…toward…the noise becoming music.”