Crimsoning the Eagle's Claws: Review

In 2014, a scholar named Ian Crockatt translated a series of poems by a Viking Crusader named Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson. The poems are well known, coming from the Orkneyinga saga. Nevertheless they reward new translations, for reasons the author ably explains in his translator's introduction.

Likening the extremely strict poetic form to the shell of a crab, Crockatt points out that what it is 'to be a crab' is to have that precise form. (This is a highly Aristotelian point, form as structure that defines being). It is not possible to directly translate the poems into English without losing the form. One will get a sense of the poem's subject matter, but nothing of the sense of the poem; Crockatt likens this to knowing crabs only from encountering plates of cooked and mashed crab, but never knowing a thing with shell or claws.

Of course, in order to capture the form, you'll have to swap some things around. The version of Norse spoken by Rognvaldr is effectively a dead language, and while numerous loan words and other influences exist in English, the basic vocabulary of the language is different. You can craft an English version by preferring Old English words to ones derived from Latin or French, and then precisely applying the form of stressed-and-unstressed syllables, alliterative near-rhymes versus full-rhymes (alternating by line, so that 1/3/5... are near-rhymes and 2/4/6... full ones). But now you have an English poem in the Old Norse form, and it's going to be meaningfully different from the original. Content may be shifted from one line to another, so that the images get disrupted; or the word that fits the form may have a different connotation in English than was intended in the Norse.

As a very ordinary example to clarify, he gives:

"tið mér bók ok smíðir."


"well-read, a red-hot smith -"

You can see that the full-rhyme alliteration and stress patterns are right, but the content is changed subtly. There's nothing about being 'red hot' in the original. The line does not end but is continued into the next thought with a dash. You lose the sense that he is proclaiming mastery of books and smithing in exactly parallel terms, which is an interesting juxtaposition that a modern English speaker would never arrive at because reading is so ordinary for us, and smithing so arcane. To be 'well-read' means something quite different than the Viking intended. All the same, you get a much more lyrically proper sense of the poetics by reading it this way. A straight translation would deny encountering a poem with rhythm and flow.

Scholars who want to understand the poems thus wisely grapple with them first by direct translation, then by seeing if they can translate them poetically as Crockatt does. It is a useful exercise for him for another reason. The poetic form shapes the word, but learning to use the form shapes the mind. Habituating the mind to the creation of poems in just this form is going to alter the way one thinks, slightly but definitely. In learning the compose poems in this strict form, you are learning to think just a bit more like the Viking who is your historical subject.

Some of the translations are beautiful and evocative even though alliterative poetry is rarely used in Modern English. Here is his rendering of a love poem, which I find especially striking.

Who else hoards such yellow
hair, bright lady -- fair as
your milk-mild shoulders,
where milled barley-gold falls?
Chuck the cowled hawk, harry
him with sweets. Crimsoner
of eagle's claws, I covet
cool downpours of silk; yours.

George Mackay Brown gave this same poem without the erotic final thrust:

Golden one, Tall one
Moving in perfume and onyx
Witty one, You with the shoulders
Lapped in long silken hair/Listen: because of me
The eagle has a red claw.

The "silk" mentioned in the original is her hair, not her clothes, the downpouring of which might also be coveted; it is a love poem, after all. The erotic is lost in the strict translations; admiration of beauty is there, but not the tension. Yet I suspect Crockatt is right to find a way to include it.

The book is recommended. You may wish to pick up a copy of the saga to go with it, as the book is devoted to only the poems themselves.


Lars Walker said...

Intriguing. I concur entirely. However, the Amazon link doesn't seem to exist anymore.

Grim said...

Hm. Try this link to the search results page.

Tom said...

Well, the Amazon link is working again.

Grim, do you have a preferred version of the saga?

Wikipedia has an 1873 translation (available as a free PDF at a more recent 1981 version available on Amazon.

Tom said...

Well, that didn't come out as expected.

Link to free PDF of 1873 version

The Amazon link above works for the 1981 version.

Grim said...

In general, very recent translations will be technically better and more honest to the source material; 19th century translations are more artistic, and often carry the author’s Romanticism or desire to shade things into a Christian worldview.

The 19th Century translations are nevertheless fantastic pieces of literature on their own terms. Often they end up being my favorite in spite of their eccentricities.

Tom said...