When translation goes wrong: the Finnesburg Fragment

My translations are ok. Competent but not, y’know, sensational. I aim to have them be akin to the sort of thing an undergraduate might read: relatively ‘faithful’ to what the text says, roughly approximating some stylistic aspects of the originals, and perhaps even occasionally offering something aesthetically pleasing. For me, translation was an obvious, if nerve-wracking, thing to do as part of my public outreach: I find the process both fun and intellectually stimulating, which means it’s always something I’ll be happy to do more of. It’s also been an important process in just putting stuff out there regardless of how bad I think it is or how badly it might be received. Often, though, my translations aren’t ok: they’re simply rubbish.

My abandoned rendering of the Old English Fight at Finnesburg is one such disaster, and I reproduce the first twelve lines of it in full below. The poem is a fragment of what is probably a much longer text: it starts mid-sentence and seems to recount an event that is alluded to in Beowulf, with the figure Hnæf and his men being attacked at a place called Finnesburg (Finn’s stronghold). Unless handled carefully, the very incompleteness of the text will only make a bad translation worse.

There are a number of problems with mine. First, the Old English contains the repetition of verbs with the third-person present ending -eþ (think of archaic English thinketh, maketh etc.), which gives each line a falling cadence, something I tried to replicate with -ing. In the sort of poetry many modern English speakers might be used to, having a weak, unstressed syllable at the end of the line elicits a strange sense of ‘incompleteness’, the uneasy feeling that we’re not quite done with a particular thought or image. Here it means the poem loses any sense of momentum in what should be a build up to a stirring crescendo.

Elsewhere, the lines ‘shield echoes spear – now shines the moon / as it drifts under clouds, now deeds of woe loom’ has too many monosyllables, which only exacerbates the slightly halting quality of our preceding series of -ings. There’s also some poor word choice – Hnæf as child doesn’t quite elicit the right sense of inexperience and was picked purely for alliterative purposes, showing the pitfalls of attempting to slavishly render stylistic features. The only lines I quite like are ‘so wake now my warriors – / grip your shields, have some guts’, where the monosyllables work to my advantage in rendering a rousing command.

Honestly, this post is a bit of a place-holder because I’m still working on my next “proper” piece, but I thought it’d be fun(?) to look at something that is a bit crap.

The Fight at Finnesburg

 … gable-ends burning.

Chief Hnæf chanted, a child in battle:

‘There’s no dawning in the east, no dragon above soaring

not here are the hall’s gable-ends burning,

but here they come forth, the carrion calling

the grey-coat yowling and the war-wood resounding,

shield echoes spear – now shines the moon

as it drifts under clouds, now deeds of woe loom

to wreak disaster on this people.

So wake now my warriors –

grip your shields, have some guts,

think on winning while you fight in the throng.


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