Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Dream of the Rood

Franks Casket (7th Century)

Many of you will know of my long-standing obsession with Anglo-Saxon and that I have already published various translations of Old English poetry.

Yesterday, I decided, quite out of the blue, that I would translate the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood into a modern English poem.

The Dream is one of the oldest poems in Old English in existence, possibly dating from around or before the 7th century.

I say 'out of the blue', but actually I have been considering it for some years. Over a decade, in fact. And lately the idea has been slipping in and out of my head more frequently. But not with any real seriousness until late yesterday evening, when I leapt off the sofa, snatched up a copy of the Anglo-Saxon text from the bookshelf, and started making notes in the margins.

I have often found, throughout my writing life, that spontaneous, bolt-from-the-blue decisions like this are highly propitious and nearly always end in a finished, successful publication.

This translation may take several months. The Dream of the Rood is longer than my previous OE translation, The Wanderer, which took about 6-8 weeks in all.

First, I translate the poem myself.

Then I look at other translations and compare them with my own and each other.

Then I begin to write my own version in poem-form.

(Version, please note, rather than translation, because I believe only a prose version of a poem can be called a translation. Once you attempt poetry in a second language, it can never be considered a straight translation, but only a version; however close you come to the original, the new poem will always try to assert itself over the old one, in one way or another.)

I tend to work very slowly with these versions from the Old English, writing only a few lines of the poem per day, feeling my way through it.

Wish me luck. I'll let you know how it's progressing. At least the initial own-translation shouldn't take too long, as I first translated the poem in 1998. But my OE is a trifle rusty!

For those interested in poetic translations, my rather controversial version of The Wanderer appears in my latest poetry collection, Camper Van Blues, newly available in paperback from Salt.


Marisa Birns said...

What a fascinating obsession. Can understand the distinction between version and translation. Never thought about it that way. So, thanks for that :)

So, good luck, though I'm sure you'll do very well with your work.

Oh! I've spent some time feeding the fish. Talk about addictive. :D


Rachel Lyndhurst said...

Sounds like quite a challenge, Jane! Good luck with it!


Lorna F said...

This is a brilliant idea, Jane, and I look forward to reading it. My OE is even rustier - I studied it at university in the Seventies!

Morton S Gray said...

Most definitely good luck. It sounds very complex. Mx

Jane Holland said...

Thanks, Rachel!

Marisa, the fish are addictive, aren't they? Sometimes I just sit and click for ages ...

Lorna, so glad to have someone about who has also undergone the complicated pleasures of learning OE.

Morton, it is a complex thing, but at the same time, it's simpler, to my mind, than writing something entirely new. After all, with a translation/version, you have an uncomplicated place to start - a template for your ideas, and a frame on which to hang your writing.

I haven't been writing poetry in any serious way for some time now - well over a year, really, maybe even two years - so 'translating' someone else's work is a kind of cheat, a back door into the dark labyrinth that is the composition of poetry.

And when the poet whose work you're translating is not only long dead, but unknown ... well, there are very few people about who can complain how you treat their work. ;-)