OETG #5 — 4 December: one of three beasts

On our fifth session, we approached the poem’s last ten lines. We attempted a different modus operandi on them: each of us had their way with all lines beforehand, and then we tried to assemble a cohesive translation.

It was hard to ease the panther into silence, quite literally: a throng of men and beasts gathers around the heavenly cat after the singing of a few lines earlier. As the poem swirls to its conclusion, however, smell emerges as its sense of choice. It ends, in fact, with an interjection of grave, if somewhat funny, olfactory appeal: þæt is æþele stencOne does not quite know what to do with such a half-line. The hardest part of the session was perhaps reconciling our differing takes on it: it is tempting to go for ‘that was a noble stench’, but apparently ‘stench’ in nowadays’ English easily has more unpleasant connotations than Old English stenc, for which Bosworth-Toller has ‘smell’, ‘scent’ and ‘odour’.

The poem therefore closes on a synaesthetic note: the sense given most importance is definitely smell, but the reader, following the lines on the page, is asked to exercise sight — as much as the gathering crowd exercises hearing.

royal-ms-12-c-xix-f-16-r-panther-illumination-from-bl-uk-screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-10-55-05
Illumination of a panther surrounded by a throng of beasts from an early 13th century Latin physiologus, now Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 16r. The serpent, beneath the panther, looks much like a dragon in this representation.

Being our last session for the term, however, we tried to draw some conclusions on what our translation’s aims were; in short, on what is it that we looked at for these past few months. Despite the fragmentary character of the Old English literary tradition, one always works within a context. The Panther belongs in a group of three poems, clustered together in the Exeter Book; each of these three poems tells of a different animal, respectively the panther, the whale and the partridge, or phoenix. They have parallels in the tradition of the Latin physiologus, a late antique predecessor of the medieval bestiary: in fact, they appear to be renditions of these late antique Latin texts themselves.

The relation between these ‘originals’ and The Panther, as well as its sister texts poses a number of questions. The Latin physiologus, in fact, although far from being a stable text, is usually composed by a sequence of over twenty units detailing as many creatures, legendary or uncanny, or less so. Are these three poems in the Exeter Book therefore to be taken as a fragment of this archetypal longer sequence, or do they brush a self-sufficient image as a triptych? The fact that in the Latin the three poems generally appear in the same disposition would encourage the former understanding, but surely we cannot answer with any certainty, nor, perhaps, do we need to.

e-codices_bbb-0318_015r_max-copy
Illumination of a panther from the  Physiologus Bernensis, Cod. 318 at Burgerbibliothek Bern, f. 15r, from around the year 830. The prancing deer and wolves make for a jubilant picture.

It seems impossible to rid Old English literature of its fragmentary character. Moreover, this exchange between the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon raises a number of questions for us as translators. What is the value of our action of translation and remediation of an already-translated text? Perhaps, translations have a significance, literary and otherwise, in and of themselves. Is Old English The Panther a lesser text because of its being a translation from another source? It seems that, after a term’s work, we are left with more questions than answers, and with more fragments than wholes.

Get ready for our 2017 translation of the Maxims. Maybe more answers will come our way.

Antonio Lenzo, OETG

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