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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. …
Update 3/5/2015: The book is now available.
My translation of the Poetic Edda is now available for pre-order on Amazon. The book will be released on March 15th. This is the first translation of the Poetic Edda – our main source for the stories of the Norse gods and heroes – to appear in contemporary, approachable American English, and is meant both for classroom use and for the private reader. The translations are based on those that I used in my own Norse Mythology class I taught at UCLA during my years there. This book also contains my infamous Cowboy Havamal, which first appeared on this blog.
“The Cowboy Havamal,” from The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes, translated by Jackson Crawford, Copyright © 2015, Hackett Publishing Co. Reproduced by permission.
The text called Hávamál (literally “Words of the One-Eyed,” or “Words of the High One,” either way a reference to Odin) might be considered a Norse equivalent of the Book of Proverbs, containing as it does a series of disconnected stanzas encouraging wisdom and moderation in living one’s life.
“The Cowboy Hávamál” is a condensation of the wisdom of the first, most down-to-earth part of Hávamál (often called the Gestatháttr, it includes stanzas 1-79, give or take a few) into mostly five-line stanzas of a Western American English dialect. I have not endeavored to render this dialect phonetically in a thoroughly consistent way, but only to present an “eye dialect” of sorts, to suggest the dry tones of the accent behind the words.
While my other translation of Hávamál (in my translation of the Poetic Edda) is more complete, the tone of this one seems more authentic to me. The voice is that of my grandfather, sad with wisdom and cynical with experience, which I have always heard when reading this poem in the original.
1. Use yer eyes,
and never walk blind.
There ain’t no tellin’
where there’s someone waitin’
to put one over on you.
2. Don’t be unkind to a wanderer.
You know the type: Waiting,
proud, outside your doorstep.
Give ‘im a break,
and let ‘im in.
3. Let ‘im get close to the fire,
and have a chance
to dry his clothes.
He’s been walkin’ in the mountains,
and that wears a man down.
4. You know what he’s lookin’ for:
Some clothes to change into,
a few kind words, not too many,
a chance to tell his story,
a chance to hear what you’ll say.
5. You ought to have
a damn sight of learnin’,
before you step outside that door.
It’s a lot easier to stay at home,
but no one’ll listen to you if you stay there.
6. Now, that ain’t to say
that you ought to be showy
about your learnin’.
Don’t say too much
and you’ll say more o’ the right things.
7. And don’t ever think
that other folks
have nothin’ to teach you, either.
You only stand to gain
by keeping yer ears open, too.
8. People’s approval ain’t nothin’ you need.
Half the time it ain’t true.
Just be sure you think you’re right;
and that you’re comfortable in your own skin;
you’re all you can count on.
9. And while you should listen
to people’s advice,
don’t just do whatever they say.
You’ve got a head on your own shoulders;
use it, boy.
10. That head on your shoulders
is the best thing you’ll ever have.
And no amount o’ money
can make up for not havin’ it.
Keep it in good shape.
11. The worst way to make yourself
into a goddamned fool
is to drink too much.
Stay out o’ the liquor,
except you know yer limits.
12. Oh, folks’ll say this and that,
how much fun it is to drink and all.
But the more you drink,
the less you know,
and that’s a poor exchange.
13. I’ve been drunk, I’m not sayin’ otherwise.
Let me tell you what it’s like:
It’s as if a bird hovered over your head,
drinking more of your wits,
the more you drink.
14. Lord a’mighty, I was drunk,
I was shamefaced drunk.
And I didn’t have myself
near as good a time
as if I’d gone home sober.
15. So keep quiet,
keep your head clear,
and don’t back off from a fight.
You’ll be happier that way–
and you’ll die soon enough.
16. You’re a goddamned fool
if you think you’ll live forever
just because you won’t fight.
Say nobody ever kills you–
old age is no peach, either.
17. I’ll say another thing about drinkin’–
I swear I’m nearly done:
But just you think how much dumber
a dumb man is after a few drinks:
Who ever heard more awful bullshit?
18. Travel, see the country,
never miss a chance to get outdoors.
You’ll only get smarter
by knowin’ more people, more places,
more ways to be a man.
19. Accept hospitality, but don’t be a jackass.
Folk can only offer so much.
And if you want to talk,
just consider whether what you want to say
matters to anybody else.
20. A belly’s a sure sign
that a man’s not in control of himself.
Folks’ll laugh if you’re eatin’ too much.
Yer stomach’s not yer head–
you can put too much in it.
21. You ever seen a fat cow?
I mean, they’re all fat, but only to a point:
They don’t eat so much they hurt themselves.
And a cow is just about the dumbest thing
on this damn earth.
22. Nothin’ to learn from a fella
who won’t but laugh at everybody else.
What he ain’t learned
would do him some good:
He’s got his own faults.
23. You should lie down to sleep
and not think about tomorrow;
you’ll take care of it then.
If you worry at night, you get nothing done,
and you’re in worse shape for the day.
24. Not everybody
who laughs with you
is yer friend.
Someone who won’t but laugh
hasn’t thought about much.
25. Not everybody
who laughs with you
is yer friend.
It’s one thing if a fella’ll laugh with you,
it’s another if you can count on ‘im.
26. You’re a damn fool
if you think you can just figure out
a way out of any problem.
It’s good to think ahead,
but sometimes things go wrong.
27. I wish more damn fools
would just keep their mouths shut.
If they did, we might not realize
just how many goddamned fools
there are in this old world.
28. Ain’t ever been a single person
who can keep his mouth shut
when it comes to other people.
But try not to gossip,
even if it makes you look smarter.
29. You will talk yourself into trouble
if you don’t think before you speak:
Hold that tongue, and think a little,
or you’ll find out that it’s a long whip,
and it’s gonna hit you from behind.
30. Don’t make fun of someone else,
even if he owes you money,
and don’t pester people with questions.
31. Sarcastic people sound smart
when they make fun of someone else.
But making fun dudn’t make you smart,
and that’s time you could be putting
into somethin’ more worthwhile.
32. A fella might be nice enough;
there’s still something
that’ll make ‘im want to fight.
Where there’s more than one man,
you’ll eventually have a fight.
33. You shouldn’t sit around
and wait to eat all day.
Go ahead and eat,
unless you’re eatin’ later with a friend,
otherwise you’ll just be useless.
34. Don’t concern yerself
who won’t repay yer friendship in kind.
Better to walk a long way to a friend,
than a short way to some ornery jackass.
35. Don’t overstay yer welcome.
Folks like company, but not too much,
and start to resent a guest ‘fore long.
So git goin’ after a while,
or you’ll git on people’s nerves.
36. It dudn’t matter where you live,
long as you have a roof over you.
Better to call some place home,
even if it ain’t much to look at,
than to beg for ever’thing.
37. It dudn’t matter where you live,
long as you have a place.
Better to call a place home,
or you’ll feel worse and worse,
as you beg for more and more.
38. Keep yer guns close.
I don’t care what they say,
there ain’t no tellin’
when there’ll be call for ’em.
An armed man has a shot.
39. Don’t think a generous host
wouldn’t gladly take something
in return for yer room and board.
Never seen a man so nice
he wouldn’t like a little in return.
40. Don’t save so much money
that you don’t use any of it.
You’ll die, after all,
and it might not go to people you like.
The world ain’t aimin’ to please you.
41. Give yer friend
a gift that’ll matter to ‘im:
Weapons, clothes, you know the kind.
This kind of giving, if he gits you back,
will mean he’ll have yer back when it counts.
42. Be friendly
to anybody friendly to you,
and repay their gifts.
Repay good with good,
and bad with bad.
43. Be friendly
to anybody friendly to you;
and to his friends, too.
But be careful not to make friends
with your friends’ enemies.
44. If you have a good friend,
and really trust ‘im,
you should share yer mind with ‘im,
exchange gifts with ‘im,
visit ‘im often.
45. If you have another friend
and don’t trust him worth a spit,
but want somethin’ from ‘im,
speak kindly, but don’t be surprised
if you find yerself betrayin’ that kindness.
46. Now this fella you don’t trust:
That’s not to say you shouldn’t talk to ‘im,
laugh with ‘im, even–
hell, who can you trust?
But repay ‘im just what he gives you.
47. I was young once, I walked alone,
and I got lost on my way.
It wasn’t alone that I found happiness,
but in good company, good friends;
there’s no joy in loneliness.
48. Be friendly, be brave if you’re challenged,
and don’t nurture a grudge for too long.
That’s the way to spend yer life–
not on worrying,
not on shirking yer responsibilities.
49. Once I was walkin’, I saw two scarecrows,
and that gave me the damnedest funny thought:
They were naked, so I’d give ’em clothes.
They looked a damned sight better in ’em, too;
a naked man just feels ashamed of himself.
50. Think about a pine on the edge o’ town–
once a part o’ the forest, but the forest is gone,
and now it’s surrounded by pasture.
Puts me in mind of a man no one loves–
what’s he got to live for?
51. You might think you have a new friend,
but just you wait five days, that’ll test ‘im.
They say that a bad friendship
burns for only five days,
but on the sixth one it goes out.
52. You may not have much,
so don’t give much.
But I’ve won friends
with just a bowl o’ soup
and half a loaf o’ bread.
53. A small ocean
has small beaches,
and small brains
have damned little to give.
But the world takes all types.
54. Don’t git too goddamned smart, now,
there’s a measure for ever’thing.
And don’t think it’s for nothing
that the stupid people
tend to be the happier ones, too.
55. Don’t git too goddamned smart, now,
there’s a measure for ever’thing.
You’ll know you’re gone too far
when you can’t find a thing to smile about:
That’s what wisdom’s like.
56. Don’t git too goddamned smart, now,
there’s a measure for ever’thing.
And if you think you can learn the future,
you’re a damned fool, not a wise man.
You’ll be happier not knowing anyway.
57. You won’t learn a thing
if you never talk to folks,
and nobody will learn anything from you.
If you keep yer thoughts to yerself,
you’ll never turn the lead in yer head to gold.
58. Don’t sleep too late,
that’s no way to get things done.
If you mean to do business, get goin’–
a lazy wolf never caught a sheep,
a sleeping man never earned a dime.
59. Don’t sleep too late,
that’s no way to get things done.
If you’re still sleepin’ at sunrise,
you’re losin’ the race already–
someone’s got more hours than you.
60. You know how to measure wood
and bark for a roof,
and you know the way to tell the time,
and determine the seasons.
You know this stuff, son.
61. Don’t go to see folks
with your hair a mess and your clothes dirty.
Put a damned shirt on, and some shoes–
there’s no shame in not having the best.
And eat a little first, too.
62. Consider your reputation;
if you go to town, and know nobody,
and nobody has a whit to say about you,
you’ll be like an eagle stretching out its beak,
but never catching a fish.
63. Now here’s a fact I’ve learned:
Tell a secret to one good friend,
and that secret might stay with him;
but tell two people your secret,
and everybody will know pretty soon.
64. Don’t think you’re the goddamned smartest,
or the toughest, or the best at anything,
and don’t let folks think you are, either.
Otherwise you’ll find out the hard way
that someone is always better.
65. Watch what you say, son–
what you say to other people
is often exactly what you git from ’em.
66. There’s bein’ too early,
there’s bein’ too late,
and you can’t always predict folks’ timing.
But try to be on time;
that wins you more favor.
67. People ain’t always sincere
when they say they’ll give you somethin’;
you don’t know it for a fact
till it’s in yer hands.
Don’t take anybody at just his word.
68. A warm home is good for you,
the sunshine is good for you,
and your health, too, of course,
but don’t underestimate how good it is
to live without things to say sorry for.
69. You can never lose ever’thing,
even if yer health looks to give out any minute.
You might still have yer kids, yer family,
yer money, or something else–
or better, a job well done.
70. Better to be alive, no matter what,
only the living enjoy anything.
I’ve seen a rich man’s corpse;
it wadn’t different than a poor man’s.
71. Break yer leg? You can ride a horse still.
Lost a hand? Not yer voice, too, I reckon.
Cain’t hear? Bet you can still fight.
There ain’t a damn way any shot at life
is worse than empty death.
72. It’s good to have a son,
or someone you can call that;
there ain’t too many men remembered
‘cept those as left family behind.
73. If two fight again’ one, two’ll probably win.
And again, son, watch yer damn tongue.
And never trust
that what folks keep hidden from you
is for yer own good.
74. The weather can change a lot in five days,
it can change even more in a month,
and you’re a fool if you think you can predict it.
Never trust to anything
that’s not in yer own power.
75. I’ve said you should listen,
but don’t listen to goddamned idiots.
And remember: You might be poor,
someone else might be rich,
and neither o’ you has the other to blame.
76. Cows die, friends and family die,
you will die just the same way.
But if you have a good reputation,
that might survive you.
77. Cows die, friends and family die,
you will die just the same way.
The only thing that won’t die
is what folks say about you
when you’re dead.
78. I saw a rich man’s sons,
they had a good many head o’ cattle.
Now they’re beggars in the street.
Wealth’s nothin’ to count on;
it’ll leave you as soon as it finds you.
79. Now, a good thing may happen
to a pretty stupid man,
but that dudn’t make him any better.
He’ll be just as arrogant,
and not any smarter.
(81.) Don’t sing the praises
of anything that’s not over.
Not the day’s before the night,
not the work’s before its end,
not the man’s before his death.
You just read The Cowboy Havamal, part of that classic wisdom poem from the Poetic Edda translated into a Western American dialect. This poem is also included as an appendix to my published translation of the Poetic Edda.
More info on the author at my website.