The Dispensing of Synesthesia

In one way, this project is more translation than poem. “Translation” here would mean the process of producing the best possible faithful representation of all aspects of the text, though I have given more faith to narrative than form. Nothing, for example, has been overtly deleted from from the text. A better understanding of the text overrules the need for artistic smoothness or easy reading. It deviates from conventional interpretations of its elements only in ways that can find a path back to the original text. Elision, while hidden, felt too much like a disconnect. Were I to remove parts, at the point of absence, I believe, I would cease to translate.

Cotton Vitellius A.xv is not made of stone, of course. From what we have learned from Albert Lord and company in The Singer of Tales, improvisational changes may be expected in long oral poems, and those changes are not seen as a deviation from the poem in the way a literate culture likely would. Translators are not to be scolded out of hand for deviant changes, but they are usually asked to address them. I assume the Beowulf-poet is better than I am. I am not the scop; I am his apprentice. If I can find ways to make my own sense of the difficult parts, then I believe I have contributed to the text. Pedagogy, I suppose, was preferred to aesthetics.

Heaney is more willing to elide moments where I would think a creative solution to the direct problem would be a better answer. A moment in Heaney deviates from the text after the mention of “dryhtsele dynede” at line 767. He calls the din (dynede) a “hall-session.” A translator’s note in the Norton critical edition explains: “In Hiberno-English the word ‘session’ (seissiún in Irish) can mean a gathering where musicians and singer perform for their own enjoyment” (Heaney, Norton 21). The effect is ironic, even comic; the parts that make up Heorot become beautifully personified a fighters clash, making the building seem to come alive.

Still, while Beowulf packs plenty of irony (e.g. foreshadow of Heorot burning under betrayal), the text at this passage does not too clearly support it. The passage has four major parts: mention of the noise in the hall, a communal subject (i.e. all the Danes), an expression of mutual hate, and a troublesome word ealuscerwen. A musical interpretation of the first major part is fine, but Heaney rolls over these elements. His version little resembles the original.

He skips ealuscerwen entirely. No one assuredly knows what the word means. It appears nowhere else in recorded literature, and although hapax legomena are common in Beowulf, few vex linguists quite as much as this one. Some things are fairly certain. According to Alfred Bammesberger, it is very likely formed from a compound of ealu and scerwen. Citing Bruce Mitchell, he lists as many as four different theoretical meanings, but immediately rejects the two which take scerwen in the negative, or as “deprivation.” Klaeber tentatively offers “the dispensing of ale (bitter drink),” but Bammesberger rejects that too. Klaeber’s gloss assumes that ealu means ‘ale,’ and “since ‘ale’ is better, ealuscerwen could have been perceived as ‘dispensing of bitterness,’ and then perhaps ‘terror’ might have resulted” (Bammesberger 471). Bammesberger thinks that approach is too complex. He would have it translated as ‘a dispensation of good luck.’

In Klaeber’s defense, “dispensing of ale” may play on the antagonymous meanings of “dispense,” which here can mean that ale was rid of or received. Though Bammesberger thinks his reading of ealu as ‘ale’ may be faulty, Klaeber the ambiguity that might be necessary to encompass the conflicting interpretations. A willingness to embrace an ambiguous translation over elision or even logic seems to me a more interesting choice, and the point at which I cannot agree with Heaney or Bammesberger.

If we can imagine living in the moment, tasting terror may be more probable than Bammesberger believes. Extra-ordinary stress produces a number of physiological responses in the body, including acid-reflux. A re-imagining can turn what would otherwise be a strange idiomatic metaphor into a fair description of the taste of fear: a bitter or acidic fluid burning the back of the throat, the taste of ale.

The imagined translation has two effects. First, a kind of synesthesia is introduced. The reader will become connected to the experience of witnessing fight though taste. Sounds make up so much of description of the fight that a taste, rarely used in Beowulf, renews the weight of what is at stake and what is remembered. I imagine the Danes and the reader sharing in some post-traumatic stress disorder. Second, though the relief that Bammesberger recommends, ambiguity remains. The people are only reacting, not judging.

The values of good story-telling have likely changed over the years. It is uncertain whether methods then resemble methods today. Most would now agree that good narration keeps up suspense, and might begrudge earlier foretelling of Beowulf’s success and Grendel’s failure. They would say it “ruins the story.” Yet many of us will still attend a tale we have heard before, so long as the path to the outcome holds our imagination. Hence, I have bent my translation away from a judgemental reading with the belief that narrative is better sustained.

Bammesberger argues rightly that ‘there occurred a dispensation of good luck’ does not conflict with the moment; a fair turn can easily turn back sour, instantly—good luck does not mean a win. Sadly, those words lack beauty. In poetic language, logic is not the point. What is felt comes from associations we have that make no sense.

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One Response to The Dispensing of Synesthesia

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