Friday, January 11, 2013

Great Rainy Day Books: "Beowulf"

If you're like me you don't read enough poetry. You think you can live without it and then you fall in love or you get married or somebody dies and suddenly nothing else will do. Why wait for a life-changing event to turn to poetry? Start with this smash hit from the tenth century.

Ezra Pound: “Literature is news that stays news.” 

from page 15:

"These were hard times, heart breaking
 for the prince of the Shieldings; powerful counselors, 
the highest in the land, would lend advice,
plotting how best the bold defenders
 might resist and beat off sudden attacks. 
Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
 offerings to idols, swore oaths
 that the killer of souls might come to their aid
 and save the people. That was their way, 
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts 
they remembered hell."

Sound familiar? The original Old English (included on facing pages) is so distant that Seamus Heaney had to almost rewrite the poem based on the original. Poetry translators know the problem well: as the linguistic gap widens, say, Japanese or Finnish to English, the roles of translator and poet begin to merge. Here the result should be good for another thousand years at which point somebody will have to translate Beowulf again.