Each of 25 well-known modernist American poems receives a facing page translation into Old English. By Old English is meant the language not of Chaucer and his contemporaries but of Beowulf and King Alfred, used by the Anglo-Saxons in England from the 5th to the 12th century. This book has piqued the interest of many; I have heard about it from friends across the country--Boston, Berkeley and Eugene.
What possessed a 46-year-old literary editor to want to translate these poems into a dead language known mainly to Anglo-Saxonists and their (sometimes reluctant) graduate students? Peter Glassgold did these "back" translations because, as he states in the foreword: "Free verse ought to be free from the bounds of traditional forms and language . . . Let the sense of the poem be carried purely in its words. Theoretically, poems with such purity of language should be easily translatable." So he set about to translate them, "in the English of a thousand years ago." The result is the most egregious validation I know of Robert Frost's dictum "Poetry is what gets lost in translation."
Some assumptions in Glassgold's remarks about "purity of language" are troubling and need more explanation than he gives in the foreword. He seems to share Ezra Pound's repugnance for romantic Latinate diction and preference for concrete nouns, especially compounds. He also quotes Pound's watchword for modernism "Make it new," which he gives in Old English as Maca hit niew . (Since, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, macian "is not very frequent in Old English," an Anglo-Saxon would probably have said Gewyrce hit niew , or simply, Niwe hit .) There is much to be said for modeling modern verse on the concrete language and four-stress alliterative versification of Old English. Poets such as Bridges, Hopkins, and Pound rediscovered the power of the native form for English verse. Witness Pound's famous translation and reading of "The Seafarer" (available on tape in "The Poet's Voice" series from Harvard), and Richard Wilbur's funny and serious poem "Junk," which has such lines about discards as:
Tossed from a tailgate
Where the dump displays its random dolmens,
In black barrows and blazing valleys.
They shall waste in the weather toward what they are.
But the translations in his collection, Glassgold says, "do not draw on the Old English poetic tradition, which was highly stylized--it was never my intention to re-create modern poems in the ancient alliterative manner, perfectly intelligible to King Alfred's court." What he does do is give flat, word-for-word translation of the modern English poem, inventing an old English word if he can't find one in the original language. What ensues in Old English is neither poetry nor prose. It is not poetry because he uses little of the Old English poetic vocabulary and, as he disclaims, none of its rhythmic structure. But neither is it Old English prose, because it fails as prose in rhythm, structure, syntax, and idiom--particularly in the use of prepositions. I would not expect the translator to have mastered Bruce Mitchell's "Old English Syntax" or Alistair Campbell's "Old English Grammar." But if he wants to make this fine choice of American poems new to us, then simple transliteration is not going to do the trick.
I admire how resourceful he has been in finding or inventing the Old English equivalents to modern English words. But what he gives us is a kind of pig-Latin Old English or, put more gently, a glossed text. If we were Anglo-Saxon school boys trying to understand modern American poems, the transliterated words would often be helpful, though occasionally comical. But I fail to see what a modern American reader would learn about these often explicated poems from the facing Old English here. The poems certainly do not become "purer." How does engel slid bine hand/on mine sacc do anything for Jerome Rothenberg's lines, "angel slide your hand into my basket"? I tried to read some of the translations first, before the modern English, to see if that would show me something. Nothing. I tried reading them simultaneously line by line. Nothing. I tried reading the Old English after the modern English. Nothing. I tried them out on a number of colleagues and friends. Nothing.
The poems that come off best as translation (or transliterations) are those closest to prose and simplest in diction, such as Denise Levertov's "Illustrious Ancestors," William Carlos Williams' three poems, or the first stanza of Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar":
Ic sette crocc on Tennessee,
And sinewealt he waes, uppan hylle.
He macode ba receleasan wildeornesse
Yambhringan bone hyll.
(I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
He made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.)
The notes, though a bit stuffy and occasionally wrong, are informative.
Am I taking this all too seriously? After all, Glassgold warns us, "My own approach, however, is more in the spirit of Dada than Germanic philology, and what began part joke, part mad game, grew in the delighted response of friends." I wish I shared his friends' delight. Instead, in the words he uses to translate Marianne Moore's "Poetry," Ic, eac, hatie hit .