Author Topic: A Trip Through English Lit  (Read 2445 times)

Junior

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #20 on: May 16, 2014, 12:41:25 PM »
I remember reading Beowulf in one of my early English classes in college. You know the one, you were forced to take it even if you weren't going to be an English major because it does a body good to read some incomprehensible old English crap, right? Well, because of the interdisciplinary nature of the class, we had quite a few interesting discussions. I am of the belief that anybody can talk about literature as long as they actually take the time to read and consider what they're talking about, and it's fascinating to see what people from other backgrounds (academically and otherwise) bring to a conversation about a specific thing. We read Seamus Heaney's translation (the same used in this Norton Anthology) and after the teacher explained to us just how much leeway he took when he translated the poem from Old English to modern English, some people in the class were outraged. How could he change the text so much? Doesn't it mess with the author's intentions if you don't keep yourself out of it when you're translating? There are a few instances where Heaney uses some Irish words in his translations and it takes a second to process what's happening. I understand the initial shock some of my fellow classmates had, because they (like I) have probably not read too many translations, and at first blush to change the meanings of things would seem like blasphemy.

Now, on the third read of this translation, I have grown into just looking at it like a Hollywood remake of a foreign film. Of course, some might see that example as a bad thing, but I've never been one to automatically write off a film just because it was already made in another language. I think there is great value in retelling a story to fit an audience, as long as that audience knows that it is being catered/pandered to. Heaney is obviously a great poet, and the themes of Beowulf shine through in his translation quite nicely.

He also kept the interesting metaphorical composition of words that was apparently a big deal in Old English (which makes sense since it was heavily influenced by the German language). Whale-road for ocean is a favorite example, but stuff like treasure-seat for throne is cool, too. We need more of this in our modern writing! I also learned a new literary term: litote. A litote is an ironic understatement for rhetorical effect. A common example is "not bad" for "good". In Beowulf, Grendel's lair is described as "not a pretty place." Uh, yeah, duh. Litotes! Use them for fun!

I also always thought that Beowulf was one of those oral tradition poems, like Homer. Turns out, probably not. Still, I like to use that oral tradition stuff as a justification for loose translations and remakes. We've been doing this for forever, taking a story and adding something that is interesting to us, or putting it in our own context. We are a race not only of storytellers, but of storyretellers. Embrace it!

I think some Gawain and the Green Knight or The Faerie Queen will be up next.
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oldkid

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #21 on: May 16, 2014, 09:26:24 PM »
In translation, there is a spectrum between a "literal" (word for word) and a "dynamic" (idea-for-idea) translation.  If you are a scholar of a particular work, you want to read as precisely what the author said as possible.  Of course, the best way to do that is to understand the original language and read it in that.  A step away from that is a word for word translation, even if the translation doesn't always make a lot of sense.

But as an introduction to a text, we often want to read a dynamic translation.  In reading a translation, we are already putting ourselves in the hands of a translator, that she will be accurate and clear.  We are also entrusting ourselves to her interpretation because every translation has interpretation in it.  A literal interpretation has less interpretation.  But if we are being introduced to a work, then a dynamic translation is exactly the way we want to go. 

The translator is the medium between the original work and us.  The translator understands the impact and meaning of the work in its original context and her job is to create a state in which we, in our culture and language and norms, can meet that text and understand it in the best way possible.

Now, I know the Bible better than Bewolf, so I'm going to give an example from there, the first line of the Lord's Prayer:

Literal: Our Father who are in heaven, hallowed be your name.

Dynamic: Heavenly Father, may your name be made holy.

Very dynamic: Papa in Heaven, clean up your reputation.

The first is literal and good for scholars to pick apart and argue about, but isn't very well understood.  The second makes us think about the text because it is something we aren't used to, and is more common language.  The third actually changes the words of the translation, but a modern reader of English can more easily understand what is being meant.  You can see why it takes more trust to have a deeply dynamic translation because it restricts the meaning to only a couple interpretations.  However, it prevents the common misinterpretations of the literal translation.  The first line of the Lord's prayer is often misunderstood as being a line of praise, when it is actually a request. 

Why did I write all this?  I don't know.  But, Junior, I like your thought that a very dynamic translation is like a Hollywood film.  Certainly Noah is a VERY dynamic translation of that ancient text. 
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smirnoff

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #22 on: May 16, 2014, 09:47:51 PM »
Before we talk about the second battle, let's talk a bit about the gift giving thing. It's another cultural touchstone that I find interesting in the general sense but gets very repetitive in practice. Here, have this kind of armor. Also this other kind, and this sword, and this other sword, and this shield, and this horse, and this horse armor, and some rings, and my eternal friendship. But each of those gets like five lines to cover just how great and generous Hrothgar is. And then it happens again when Beowulf defeats Grendel's mom.

:))

It must've made you think of Monty Python!

"And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, "O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy." And the Lord did grin. And the people did feast upon the lambs, and sloths, and carp, and anchovies, and orangutans, and breakfast cereals, and fruit bats, and large chu..."

"Skip a bit, Brother... "

Reading those parts you must've felt a bit like Brother Maynard. Lets just get through this already! The bible is one thing, but why such rigorous detailing in a story like Beowulf? I know I felt that way a couple time reading Tolkien. I would think to myself, "damn, this is like reading those endless genealogies in genesis" or wherever. So painful. :))

In other news, I'm on the hunt for a bible. I want the oldkid very dynamic version.

Oh and hey, did you ever see this film version of the Beowulf story? It's the only one I've seen but going by your description of the story, which I've never been forced to read, it sounds very close. It's got a great style. :)
« Last Edit: May 16, 2014, 09:50:26 PM by smirnoff »

oldkid

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #23 on: May 16, 2014, 09:58:10 PM »
Actually, I have done a number of very dynamic translations of passages.  I'd love to do the book of Luke, which I've done long sections of.  Here's a selection:

http://radicaljesusfollowers.blogspot.com/2011/09/good-muslim-luke-10.html
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smirnoff

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #24 on: May 16, 2014, 10:20:39 PM »
Jesus laid the smack down on those money changes, I'm surprised he's okay with credit cards. ;)

Seriously though, I give that translation an unironic "jesus, man".  reference
« Last Edit: May 16, 2014, 10:24:25 PM by smirnoff »

Junior

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #25 on: May 16, 2014, 10:48:18 PM »
Yeah, I like everything that's happening here, guys. Love the more technical terms for translations, and I hadn't thought of the Bible in this context, but of course it's there. It's fascinating to see the shaping of a religion throughout literary history. I'm sure you know more about that than I, and I'm glad to read that pretty righteous (heh) translation. Awesome.

And yes, 'noff, there was some skipping. More in the histories of the people, and what happened between Beowulf returning to his land and him becoming king, which isn't even told in order, and has part of the cup-theft that awakens the dragon stuck in the middle of it. Here's where the oral tradition make a lot of sense to me. Those passages in the Odyssey and the like were, if my memory is correct, there mostly to give the speaker/author some time to get the next part prepared in his head while he was just listing a bunch of stuff. They formed transitions, basically, and reinforced the traditions which bound one clan to another. It's all ceremony, and there's more to come in Sir Gawain, too.
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smirnoff

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #26 on: May 16, 2014, 11:02:59 PM »
Aha, so there was a practical purpose to it all. :)

Junior

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #27 on: May 16, 2014, 11:06:49 PM »
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by "The Pearl Poet" (Late 1300s).

This should have been the second time I was reading this, but I skipped it in my Early English lit class. Bad Junior! Cuz this is kind of awesome. It is an Arthur story, though that's mostly indirect. Sir Gawain is one of the Knights of the Round Table, and the first scene takes place during the Christmas celebrations at Camelot. A guy bursts into the feast riding an all green horse and wearing all green himself (oh, and his skin and hair is green, too. I wonder where they got the name?) and challenges King Arthur to a beheading game! This was aparently kind of a trope. There would be a challenge where one guy has one go at another dude's neck with a sword or axe or whatever, and if he fails to behead the guy, the roles are reversed. Sounds fun, right? Of course, King Arthur can't risk his very important head for such a silly game, so Sir Gawain steps up and volunteers to take the first swipe at the Green Knight's neck. Before all of this goes down, the Green Knight lays out when he will have his opportunity (basically, the first day after the next New Year's) and pretty much implies that Sir Gawain won't be able to kill him. He's right, of course, because even though Sir Gawain does disconnect Mr. Green's head from his body, that doesn't faze him much, as Mr. Green proceeds to pick up his head and ride off, cackling and saying things like, "I'll see you in a year or so!" What a jerk. Everybody is suitably impressed, though, at Sir Gawain's head chopping ability, and they party even harder.

Seasons change, and as the next Christmas approaches Sir Gawain realizes it's probably best that he get a move on, or else his knightly reputation would be majorly tarnished, which would in turn tarnish that of King Arthur. Not a good thing to do to your king. So he leaves and has adventures that are mostly just alluded to on his way to a castle that is supposedly close to the Green Chapel where the Green Knight hangs out. The lord of the castle invites him in for Christmas celebrations and Sir Gawain can't refuse. He is reassured that the Green Chapel is so close that he could leave on New Year's Day and get there with time to spare. So there is much partying again. At one point, the lord of the castle makes a proposition to Sir Gawain: He'll go out hunting and Sir Gawain will stay in bed, and whatever one gets, he'll give to the other at that night's feast. Sounds like a good deal to me. So as the lord rides out to hunt things, Sir Gawain sleeps in. The lord's wife shows up - seen for the first time without the old crone who almost always attends to her -, though, and tempts him to have an affair with her. Sir Gawain will have none of it, and leaves her with a kiss so as to not insult her own reputation. When the hunting party returns they share the meat and Sir Gawain kisses the lord of the castle as they promised they would do. The cycle repeats again the next day, and again the day after that, though in the third day, Sir Gawain does take a girdle offered by the lord's wife because she says it will protect the wearer from harm. And when the lord returns that night, Sir Gawain kisses him three times, but does not tell him of the girdle. Big mistake!

The next day Sir Gawain and a guide set off for the Green Chapel, which turns out to just be a big mound in the woods with an entrance on either end. Probably not the coolest of places (litote!). He enters and finds the Green Knight there, sharpening his axe for the chopping of Sir Gawain's head. Little does the Green Knight know of Gawain's magic girdle! Sir Gawain gets into the head chopping position and is about to test the strength of the magic girdle (can you tell that I kind of love the idea of a magic girdle?) but he flinches as the Green Knight raises the axe in the air. Mr. Green Knight is not impressed, and admonishes Sir Gawain for being a coward. So, like any good knight, Sir Gawain girds his loins for the chop but the Green Knight misses and barely nicks Sir Gawain's neck. A bit of blood spurts out and Sir Gawain quickly stands up, ready to fight the Green Knight in MORTAL KOMBAT, since each has gotten their one strike in and neither is dead yet. It is at this point that "The Pearl Poet" reveals he is the great great great... great great grandfather (or mother) of M. Night Shyamalan as the Green Knight reveals himself to be the lord from the castle at which Sir Gawain recently stayed! WHAT!?!?! And the old crone who hangs around his wife is none other than Morgan le Fay, sister to King Arthur, apprentice of Merlin, and all around evil lady! SHOCK! AWE! DEUS EX MACHINA! The whole thing was a plan to embarrass King Arthur and scare Guenevere to DEATH! It doesn't work, of course, but now Sir Gawain has been outed as a bit of a coward, and a liar, and a cheat, so he declares that he will wear the magic girdle around his chest like a sash as a sign to the world that he was un-knightly. Luckily, his friends at the round table are totally cool with him, and even adopt his magical green girdle in a show of solidarity. The end.

Ok, that was fun. I'm enjoying re-translating these works into a bit of my own voice. It helps me keep track of what happened and I hope it's kind of fun to read. Anyways, come back soon for some actual literary analysis, including pagan symbolism, the cycles of our lives, and some awesome poetry. 
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oldkid

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #28 on: May 17, 2014, 12:06:14 AM »
Gawain and the Green Knight is one of my favorite old English stories, possibly my very favorite.  This story is older than the whole Morte d'Arthur tradition, and it is more raw, more naughty than most of that tradition.  The older Arthur stories had Gawain as the main heroic knight, because the French romantic tradition (which is where Lancelot develops from) hadn't yet been developed.  Gawain is a man's man, but is open to being humbled.  Kinda the John Wayne of English Literature.
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verbALs

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Re: A Trip Through English Lit
« Reply #29 on: May 17, 2014, 01:51:12 AM »
Oh and hey, did you ever see this film version of the Beowulf story? It's the only one I've seen but going by your description of the story, which I've never been forced to read, it sounds very close. It's got a great style. :)

If a modern/sci-fi reworking of the Beowulf/Grendel story is of interest; then Larry Niven's 'The Legacy of Heorot' is very good. It's a planet colonisation story crossed with Alien. Beautiful action. The wikipedia page is very well written if you don't want to read the book, but it spoils the surprises.
« Last Edit: May 17, 2014, 02:13:35 AM by verbALs »
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