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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful poetry, but not a great translation, 11 Feb. 2004
This review is from: Elder Edda: A Selection (Paperback)
For years this was the only edition of poetry from the Elder (or Poetic) Edda available outside of specialist academic bookshops.
The poetry is sparsely beautiful, and brings something of the feel of the original into the English.
Unfortunately as translation this book leaves a lot to be desired. Old Norse poems - especially the mythological poems - are written like riddles, with layers of meaning built up around double meanings of key words. Not only do the translators fail to bring this across, they take fairly frequent liberties with the text. The worst of these are outlined on page 36, where the translators actually admit 'we have silently rearranged some of the verses and altered, here and there, the order of the strophes - but only when it seemed to us to add to the sense of the poem'.
It should be clear by now that this is not 'translation' in the usual sense of the word, and certainly not in the sense that an undergraduate slaving over Skirnismal in Old Icelandic is going to find useful.
Why should we bother with this book at all, then? Well, it _is_ poetry, although it would be hard to make a case for it as true Eddaic poetry. Rather, this is part of the poetical oeuvre of WH Auden. Published in 1969, it should be seen within the stream of Auden's own remarkable psychological and spiritual journey.
Much in the same way that TS Eliot was trying to reintroduce verse into drama, Auden is here trying to reintroduce Norse alliterative verse. The extensive introduction by Peter H Salus includes an important section on the versification. But, notably, it does not introduce us to the words of the original, but rather gives us examples from the translations of Auden.
There is perhaps something else here. At the back end of the 19th century, the German philologists which included the brothers Grimm and Karl Marx began a project to revive the Germanic traditions, and especially the shared mythology. Auden, who experimented with every political philosophy current in the 20th century, is immersing himself in this stream. Like the Grimms and Wagner, Auden was not in the business of academic translation, but rather of participating in a creative tradition of retelling using established forms.
This volume has a lot to offer the undergraduate studying Auden, but little to offer the undergraduate or general reader who wants to encounter the Eddaic poems. Fortunately, there are now several other (proper) translations of the poems which can be ordered through Amazon, as well as Ursula Dronke's masterful texts with translation.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 24 Sep 2009 09:45:58 BDT
M. McCartney says:
Thank you for your very helpful review. Can you name the 'several other (proper) translations of the poems which can be ordered through Amazon'? It would be good to have some recommendations.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Sep 2009 14:55:52 BDT
Ursula Dronke's is my favourite: The Poetic Edda, Vol. 1: Heroic Poems
This and its companion volumes are critical editions with English text alongside the Icelandic. Ursula Dronke's translations are absolutely riveting, and get away from over-familiar phrases. So, for example, in Hamthismal, she has 'mist-drenching mountains' for 'urig fjoll', rather than the more obvious 'misty mountains' which, while evocative, remind most modern readers to readily of The Hobbit.

If this is a bit price heavy (and you don't want the Icelandic alongside the English, though the sound of it is gorgeous), then there are a few translations on the market including a recent one in Penguin. I had a quick look at this one, The Poetic Edda (Oxford World's Classics) . The English which is available on Amazon's 'look inside' feature looks ok, though I haven't got a text to hand to compare it with.
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