January 28, 2010

On Translation

Some people say that poetry is untranslatable.  I've found myself thinking along those lines before, and yet I'm really quite happy with the way my Bertran de Born translation came out.  What makes that poem great is the cadence and the imagery - flowing from the gay springtime to the gay and bloody mele at a galloping pace evokes the mad, perverse glee that's what I love about the piece.  And I think that's more or less preserved in my translation.

Then there's verse that I just can't bring myself to translate.  Take, for example, Mikhail Lermontov's "Выхожу один я на дорогу"  The link leads to a page with the poem in both English and Russian, and includes further links to audio of the poem read aloud, in Russian.  Surf around for more classic Russian poetry.

What I love about this piece is the sounds of the words.  These words are not just arbitrary markers of abstract concepts, rather the very sounds that Lermontov chooses express the images and ideas they stand for.  "Сквозь туман" (skvohz tum-an) in the second line evokes a darker, thicker, warmer feeling than "through the mist," and recalls the rich, full "oo"s and "oh"s in the first line.  The poem is full of that, and I can't render English that preserves what I love about this poem.  I've yet to see a satisfactory translation - the one included in the link is a good and valiant effort, but it doesn't make much effort to preserve the music of the poetry.  What you're reading is not the poem I love.

To take an example relevant to the SCA, let's return to the troubadours.  The only song by a trobaritz (female troubadour) that survives with a melody is "Ah chantar," by the Comtessa de Dia.  Here is the third verse, in Old Occitan:

Be.m meravill com vostre cors s'orguoilla,
amics, vas me, per qu'ai razon qu'iem. duoilla;
non es ges dreitz c'autr' amors vos mi tuoilla
per nuilla ren que.us diga ni acuoilla;
e membre vos cals fo.l comenssamens
de nostr'amor!  ja Dompnedieus non vuoilla
qu'en ma colpa sia.l departimens.

This verse speaks of the author's confusion at her lover's sudden coldness, and fear of losing him to some other woman.  Most of the lines end on the feminine rhyme "way-lia" (or-gway-lia, dway-lia, etc), and to me it sounds like a wail or a plea, like an expression of confused hopelessness.  She breaks from this rhyme scheme in ordering him to remember the beginning of their love.  This expression of strength is accompanied by a masculine rhyme, strong, unusual enjambment and "oh"s and "r"s which provide a powerful foundation for the melodic high point of the verse.  Without understanding a word, you can tell by listening that she goes from helpless to angry and back to helpless during this verse.

I love singing this piece because when I do, it seems that my mouth and my mind are one, that the disconnect between what I'm thinking and the sounds I can use to represent that is gone.  I've given translating this piece a shot, but I've yet to produce a single line in English that preserves that seamless marriage of sound and thought.  What I love about this piece is not really what she says - she was neither the first nor the last to write a "My man done gone and left me" song.  But I'm in love with how she says it.  I haven't given up completely, but I'm not sure I can bring myself to tamper with that.

January 27, 2010

Sonnet #1

I’ll not call these the best days of my life,
Though I am young and fair for all to see.
The blush of youth still colors your new wife,
But well I know that won’t forever be.

As I adore the silver in your hair,
I’ll have my beauty deepen in your eyes.
As my love grows for you with growing care,
I’ll have you see my beauty grow more wise.

With silver hair cascading down my back,
My face a relic of a million smiles,
I think for beauty I will never lack.
It’s only fools that youth alone beguiles.

Together we will greet still better days,
As we grow better in each others’ gaze.

January 26, 2010


Two frowns of father and son                 each one reflecting
The other’s quiet concentration.             Hoping to catch traces
Or hints or handfuls                                of that which they hunt.

From the bushes a butterfly                    finally bursts.
At that scalding-bright sky-jewel           their scowls quickly vanish,
Two happy grins exploding.                   What great pleasure to see
These two mirrors of mirth,                    one who made the other,

Your mother, she took you                     when you were tiny still
To be fostered afar                                  by strange-mannered friends.
She longed that others might love you   as others have loved her,
So a different tribe teaches you.             But though you’ve been taken
Far from the hall of your father,             his heart is never far.
So readily it reaches for you                  it cannot rest without you,
His boy. He is by you                             for his heart beats within you.

Learn from his life,                                he was like you when young,
He was wiggly and wild.                       It’s no wonder you are
As long and as lanky                             and loving as he.
He can tell you what treasures              and talents you’ll find.
Answers he’ll offer                               when others cannot.
He will guide you in growing               into a good man.

Look on the face of your father,            you’ll see your future.
Look on the smile of your son,              you’ll see your past self.
Look on your father’s stature,              you’ll learn to stand.

Notes:   "Sunufatarungo" is an Old High German (OHG) word that means "father and son."  While reading "The Hildebrandslied," it really struck me how some deep, irreplaceable bond between father and son is expressed by combining them into one word.  I found it very compelling.  I'm always a little afraid someone will read this piece and get the wrong idea.  Yes, I'm drawing a link between the medieval practice of fostering and the modern reality of children going to live with far-away stepparents.  But as a stepchild and now a stepparent myself, I know that just like fostering, it can be a very good thing, it's not inherently tragic.  But there's pain involved nonetheless.

This was my first stab at alliterative poetry, and I'm not completely happy with it.  If it looks a bit different (looser maybe?) than Anglo Saxon poetry, it's because I was following the OHG model.  I usually like to arrange fairly (probably unduly) complicated accompaniment, and I was a little embarrassed by the simple drones I played when I performed this for the first time (very shortly after finishing the melody).  It's grown on me though.  I still feel compelled to beef up the harp part, but probably not by much (actually, now that I see the video, it definitely needs some hard-core beefing up...louder harp wouldn't hurt either...).  Big thanks to Teleri the Well-Prepared, of Atlantia, for many excellent pointers on setting Germanic tonic poetry to music!  Anyway, the details are in my documentation, which you'll find in this here PDF.

January 25, 2010

"Beer is for Girls"

Aint that the truth.

Notes:  I entered this piece in the A&S competition at Nordskogen's 12th Night, and again won without suspecting I was in any danger of doing that.  In order to enter this competition, entrants had to associate their project with a quote from Shakespeare.  I found the following quote from Henry IV Part 2:  "I will make it a felony to drink small beer!"  And I swear to God, if one more drunk, well-meaning bozo at an event suggests I might prefer a Smirnoff Ice to a beer, I will go as ballistic as Jack Cade.

The song takes its stylistic cues from the drinking songs of Thomas Ravenscroft and is displayed in the manner of a 16th century English broadside.  Yes, I play oompahs on the harp when I sing this.  Yes, the harp can do drinking songs.  For the full documentation, download this here PDF.

January 24, 2010

"Oh how I love the springtime gay..."

This is a song by Bertran de Born, that I translated from Old Occitan for a the combat-themed A&S competition at "It's Only a Flesh Wound."  Video of that performance can be found here, compliments of Mistress Elashava bas Riva.  If I ever get a video of me singing it, I'll post it here.

Oh how I love the springtime gay
That brings the leaves and flowers out.
As much to hear the merry way
Of birds who throw their song about
To echo through the glen.
So much I love a meadow fair
Festooned with tents whose banners flare.
And oh! what rapture then
When ranks upon that field prepare,
Each armored knight upon his mare.

I love it when the scouts compel
The landed gentry there to flee,
A multitude of knights will swell
In hot pursuit and mounting glee.
And how I love it when
I see a crumbling castle tall
Besieged, with broken, tumbling wall,
The host advances then
Through sharpened staves contrived to maul
And ditches where the dead men fall.

So too I love the brave seignor
Who mounted, fearless, armored bright
Rides first into the fray and gore
For thus does he inspire with might
And valor all his men.
And when the battles escalate
Each man must cheerfully await
To follow him again.
For ‘till a foe you desecrate,
Your manhood’s only second-rate.

Club and sword and colored helm
Perforated, crumpled shield
Immediately overwhelm
The vassals fighting on the field.
Bewildered horses then
Run frantically, their riders bled.
And when they’re charging full ahead,
All brave and worthy men
Must look to hacking arm and head –
A coward’s worth less than the dead.

I tell you – sleeping, food nor drink,
Holds half the savor as the time
I hear both sides cry, “Too the brink!”
And when the panicked horses whine
And flee without their men.
I hear the cries of “Help!” in vain
And see them tumble, knight and thane,
in ditches on the fen.
Their splintered lances still remain
Upon the meadow, in the slain.

Go pawn your castle baron,
Your town, your city, all your store,
‘Ere ever you stop making war!

Notes: ISN'T THAT FREAKING AWESOME??? So like, I go up to the judging panel full of knights, and I'm all, "So I know the theme is combat, use your imagination," and then I'm all small and young and female and start talking about the gay springtime and the birds and crap, and the next thing you know, there's BLOOD AND DEATH AND SPEARS AND STUFF!!! I love that. And I love that this was written by a troubadour. The artistic movement that brought the world "courtly love." That's right. BEGONE, ye prevailing stereotypes! BEGONE!!!

Anyway. I tried to stick as closely as possible to the Old Occitan original in terms of meter and rhyme, so that I can match this translation up with Bertran de Born's melody. I could not have done this without William D. Paden Jr's volume on Bertran de Born, with literal prose translations and a big, honkin' glossary (the link will take you to a Google Books page that contains a generous preview of said volume). For the full documentation, download this here PDF.

January 23, 2010

Enter the Well-Tempered Harpy

When I first started getting interested in SCA bardic, lo those 4 or so months ago, I scoured the internet for examples.  I wanted videos, lyrics, sheet music, research, anything I could get my hands on to tell me what on earth I'd be getting into if I took my new harp to an event, with the intention of playing the thing for like people and maybe singing too.  What I found was helpful, but I didn't find nearly as much as I'd hoped.

Hence this.  I've decided to add my voice to the web.  Over the next few whatevers, I'll be adding songs I've written or translated, oodles of geektastic documentation and the occasional rant, musing or "OMG LOOK AT THIS CRAZY SONG I FOUND" moment.  Starting out, the blogs, websites and online nooks I found of other SCA bards really helped me get my bearings.  So if some n00b to SCA bardic ever runs across this site and goes, "huh," then I'll have repaid my virtual karmic debt.

On the one hand, I feel like a bit of a tool putting my work and thoughts on the internet like I know what I'm talking about, being somewhat new to the bardic arena.  On the other hand, what the hell?  At worst, it'll be an amusing chronicle of my progress from suck to non-suck.  :-)  Stay tuned for songs.