The Poetic Edda (the medieval Icelandic manuscript that is our source for most of what we know about Norse mythology) has been translated into English about a dozen times. Why did I choose to make a new one?


There are already translations of the Edda that suit the needs of detailed textual scholars, after all, or of enthusiasts who enjoy the experience of reading an English translation that sounds about as archaic as the original Old Norse poem (Larrington’s is the best of the first group, Bellows’ and Hollander’s are in the second). The important distinction between previous translations and mine is the audience it is intended for.

In teaching Norse mythology to undergraduate students at UCLA, what I needed was an uncluttered translation that used clear, contemporary language to communicate the stories in the poems, so that students could come away from reading them with a sense for what the text said. For a reader who is primarily focused on myths rather than poetry, a translation that puts too much emphasis on how the text says it, or on the details called for by extensive footnotes, detracts so much from the message that the message simply never gets to the reader. But the poems certainly do tell stories that could be represented in clear English in such a way as to excite the reader, as exemplified by the numerous successful adaptations of these stories in recent popular culture. To do that, not only the content of the poems needed to be translated into English, but the structure of the poems also needed to be translated into a style that was not unduly distracting. To that end, I modeled my free verse translation after the work of 20th-century poets I enjoyed, using roughly the same style as I’ve employed in my original published poetry in English and Norwegian.

The fashions of literature change over the decades and centuries, and the modern English-speaking world is not generally fond of very stylized poetry–rhyme sounds too sing-song, a lot of alliteration sounds too forced, and rigid meter means little to an audience that’s used to reading prose. That doesn’t mean that poetry doesn’t exist any longer or that poetry should just be translated as prose, but it does mean that to translate poetry for the enjoyment of a large 21st-century audience is an exercise in rhythm that should be undertaken by someone who is used to writing original poetry in modern idiom and who has experience with explaining the content of the texts to members of the same audience. As both a teacher of Old Norse and a published poet, I made my translation in an attempt to meet these criteria.

John Murrell articulated the differences between my translation’s goals and the goals of translations that already exist in the foreword to his translation of Cyrano de Bergerac, where what he says about translating plays can be applied just as well to medieval poetry:

After all these years of playwriting, translating/adapting, directing, acting, watching, and listening, I am convinced that every foreign language play deserves and needs at least two outstanding translations into English: one that is scholarly, and as literal as possible without abandoning good sense; and another that is “playable” by contemporary actors for a contemporary audience, with all jokes and sentiments and crises of the right kinds in the right places, but with free play granted to the translator/adaptor’s dramatic imagination and linguistic personality–always within the bounds of the original author’s concept, but not timidly or worshipfully a slave to it.

This latter kind of translation/adaptation is meant to be heard and seen and felt in a theatre space, and must, I think, be the work of a theatre writer, a playwright with a good working knowledge of the original language, the original author and ‘the world of the play,’ but also with ample originality and audacity of his or her own. What should be avoided in this sort of translation/adaptation for the theatre is any sense of the translator as ‘tourist,’ wandering awestruck and intimidated through the antique splendour of the text. A playwright/translator/adaptor must be bolder than that. This job is really more like high-level espionage. You must so thoroughly infiltrate and acclimatize to the play you are translating that you sound like a native of that foreign place. Even when you cross back over into your own language and time, you bring with you a look and a smell and a taste that seem complete and authentic to that other world, but also perfectly, instantly understandable to the rest of us.

A solid case could be presented, I believe, for poets as the best translators of poetry, novelists as the best translators of novels, etc. …