hatstuck snarl

theoretically, a hairstyling salon


Peter Glassgold’s 1983 anthology Hwæt! A Little Old English Anthology of American Modernist Poetry is a collection of 25 modernist poems, by writers as diverse as George Oppen, Gary Snyder, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams, among others, which have been “back translated” from modern English into Old English. Glassgold himself, in the forward to this work, describes the collection as “what began [as] part joke, part mad game,” and which eventually “grew in the delighted response of friends” (9). His aim is not to render the poems in a way that would honor or reflect Old English style, but to convert the modern English originals into Old English while maintaining the modern English appearance of the poems, “These translations, for the most part, do not draw on the Old English poetic tradition which was highly stylized—it was never my intention to recreate modern poems in the ancient alliterative manner, perfectly intelligible to King Alfred’s court” (Glassgold 10). Indeed, if Glassgold’s text and the original poem were lined up inter-linearly, it would be possible for a reader not familiar with Old English to gloss that text. Although Glassgold states that his purpose is mostly aligned with pleasure, and indeed there is a certain satisfaction in seeing poems such as those by Williams in Old English alongside the modern English text, there is also much to be learned about both Old English as well as modern English from this collection.

As a new student in the study of Old English, and as a writer of poems who is also interested in modernist poetry, translation, and language, my fascination with this project began with sheer excitement in the seemingly novelty and also the uselessness of translating into a dead language. This novelty also seems to catch the attention of Glassgold who playfully claims that his “approach is more in the spirit of Dada than Germanic philology” (Glassgold Hwæt 9). Although Glassgold maintains a playful attitude towards his texts and their purpose, on closer examination of this anthology, I became interested in what Glassgold’s text teaches us. Despite the fact that Glassgold maintains the word order and diction of the original poems, often by inventing words in order to makeup for the limits of Old English vocabulary, Glassgold’s poems, like any translated texts, produce moments in which the texts fail to correlate to the originals once they are translated back into modern English. Further, when I myself translated poems, such as those by William Carlos Williams, into Old English, using several dictionaries and my own limited knowledge of Old English vocabulary, other divergences and issues arose.

For purposes of this essay, I will examine three texts by Williams, “This is Just to Say,” “The Red Wheelbarrow,” and “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” as my core texts. I will rely upon the original text, Glassgold’s translation into Old English, my own translation of the text in Old English, which I have completed without consulting Glassgold’s text, as well as translations of both my own Old English version of the poem as well as Glassgold’s into modern English. I have chosen to focus on Williams because Glassgold himself admits that the poems by Williams are the most readily translatable into Old English[1]. I plan to come back to this claim later in the essay. By examining the gaps that occur between the modern English poem, Glassgold’s translations, and my own, I will begin to formulate an understanding of what Old English cannot do that modern English is able to accomplish.

Before introducing Glassgold’s superior Old English translation of several texts, allow me to offer my own translation of William Carols Williams’ “This is Just to Say,” a poem which I plan to use as the core example from Glassgold’s text[2]:

Þes Is Swa To Secgenne

Ic æt
Þa wæstmas
Þæt wæron on
Þæm ciele

and Þe
Þu wære
for brecanfæst

Forgief me
hi wæron wundorful
swa swete
and swa cald

When put back into modern English, Williams’ poem reads:

This is thus/so[3] to say

I ate
the fruits
which were in
the chill/cold

and which
thou might be
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were wonderful
so sweet and so cold

[1] I will return to this claim later: “Of all the poems in this collection, those by Williams translate most readily into OE” (Glassgold 85).
[2] I am also offering all of these translations as appendices, to ease the manner by which the reader of this essay will be able to consult the translations without consistently flipping pages.
[3] When the dictionaries and glossaries that I am consulting, which include the glossary in the back of Mitchell and Robinson’s A Guide to Old English as well as J.R. Clark Hall’s 1931 A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, offer two or more definitions that I find relevant, I have indicated both possibilities in my translation by marking them with a /. This occurs in the case of thus/so and chill/cold. This also occurs in my translation back into modern English of Glassgold’s translation of the text into Old English.


Post a Comment

<< Home