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The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation Hardcover – December 6, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Hefty and easy to like, fit at once for the classroom and the kitchen table, this anthology is a rare beast, a commercial opportunity that also fulfills a real literary need. Most of the corpus of surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry--though it has been translated before--has had no recent, high-profile rendering until this capacious book. Most of the short poems and passages from all the long ones are rendered into modern English, sometimes (but only sometimes) in Anglo-Saxon alliterative metrical form, by several dozen British, Irish, and American poets of some repute, and the results are consistently good and sometimes stunning. The editors (one Irish but resident in Vermont, one American) do well to mix famous Americans such as Robert Hass with talented poets known mostly across the Atlantic, such as Paul Farley and David Constantine. Delanty and Matto divide their selections by genre--accounts of historical events (mostly battles), charms and recipes, proverbs and advice, lyrical laments, and the famous riddles, broken up into seven œhoards throughout the book. Anglo-Saxon culture was stark and practical, deeply Christian once converted, and with few illusions about life on Earth: œHolly must be burned, says a maxim translated by Brigit Kelly, œand the goods of a dead man divided./ God's judgment will be just. The riddles are sometimes easy, sometimes hard to solve, and many are double entendres: riddle 45 ( œI saw in a corner something swelling, in Richard Wilbur's version) might be bread dough, or something else. To these light moments--and there are plenty of them--such poems as œThe Damned Soul Address the Body (in Maurice Riordan's choice words) add force and gravity. The editors have produced a book the many fans of Heaney's Beowulf might take home and dip into, almost at random, for years.
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During the ostensibly Dark Ages, the Anglo-Saxons created one of the first bodies of vernacular literature in Western Europe. The star in this corpus is unquestionably Beowulf, but there is much more, including quite a trove of poetry. This anthology is probably the most generous one ever published for general readership. Rather than corralling extent translations, its editors asked a host of contemporary poets—many experienced translators from other tongues, classical and modern—to make new renderings. So here are versions by Billy Collins, Eavan Boland, Paul Muldoon, Yusef Komunyakaa, Richard Wilbur, Jane Hirschfield, Molly Peacock, Robert Pinsky, and their peers. Refreshingly, a preponderance choose to echo the alliteration characteristic of Old English verse. Rewardingly, the explanatory prefatory matter is clear as a boy soprano, and the back matter includes 12 of the translators’ observations about their work. Best for some, this is a bilingual edition, providing irresistible temptation to crack the originals on their own; just give them an Old-to-modern English dictionary. --Ray Olson
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The editors took what might seem like a sensible approach. Find some modern poets, see what they make of the poems in the old language. The problem is ... modern poets are rotten. There are no modern poets worth a tinker's cuss word. Modern "poets" are a sewing circle of self-regarding award winners, decanted into academic sinecures; no actual human beings read their output. English language poetry is as dead an art as sculpture, painting and projecting an image of female purity and wholesomeness. People used to publish poems in newspapers and popular magazines; people used to memorize poems and recite them to one another. No longer: the Anglo poetic tradition is as dead as Rudyard Kipling. I'm going to venture a guess that the translations of the poems which give me hives were done by people who have never made a serious study of the Anglo Saxon language; something which used to be standard in a high school education. The editor admits many of the invited poets were of this description: a horrible travesty. The language is rich with allusion, alliteration, poetic metaphor and kennings which will be completely lost by an award wining maroon who isn't aware of these things.
The upside; it is an excellent collection of Anglo Saxon poems. If you can read Anglo Saxon, or, like me, puzzle through it with a lexicon, there is much here to amuse. I particularly enjoyed the riddle hoards. You'd probably be better off with the raw poetry and a lexicon, or perhaps literal translations; something one can obtain buying or downloading old books on the subject. Some of the translations (the translations of the least interesting poems, mind you) seem to have been done in workmanlike fashion; I can't fault them all. Probably those poems were translated by people who could actually read the language they were translating.
There is a lot of interesting poetry in this book, though I suspect that most readers will find the earlier, heroic poetry the most compelling. I found the quality of translations somewhat uneven. Most of translators do not know Anglo-Saxon and were encouraged to experiment. This is technically interesting but I found some of the translations used too much modern language and a bit gimmicky. Similarly, while the editors' desire to present a broad survey is admirable, I think this anthology would have benefited from a more stringent selection of poems.