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.

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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.

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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

OETG #3 – 8 November: intertextual suggestions

Upon the third OETG meeting, we tackled a passage of The Panther which presented us with a rather striking image of the ‘striking animal’. Lines 38 – 39, in fact, go as follows:

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These ‘three nights’ of the þeodwiga’s sleep cannot but prompt a parallel with Christ, and indeed the following lines do everything to encourage it:

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The panther’s rise from slumber is associated with Jesus’ resurrection, consecrating this ‘marvellous beast’ to godly grace. However, the use of ellenrof complicates this understanding; here a substantive, it is translatable, according to Bosworth-Toller [http://www.bosworthtoller.com/009244], as ‘remarkably strong, powerful, daring, brave’, but it is its intertextual significance that really is worthy of attention. It is used, for instance, in Beowulf, in reference to Beowulf himself and to Wulfgar, both warriors renowned for their valour, thus evoking a prototypical warlike figure whose pluck and might seem hardly in accord with meekness, a feature which most would nowadays associate with Jesus Christ. The characterisation of the panther in this sense is suggestive of a superimposition, whether conscious or not, of different hues of meaning which may make a modern reader uneasy.

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Detail from f. 139v of Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, where line 358 of Beowulf can be read. Note ellenrof, spelt as ellen rof, in the middle.
 This tendency to attribute to a same object seemingly discordant features is proper of other examples of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which share The Panther’s somewhat conflicting imagery, from The Dream of the Rood to Beowulf itself. This curbs a translator’s usual struggle for fluency and uniformity.

Perhaps, however, it is not really a question of reconciling two spirits, or of seamlessly weaving these suggestions in a coherent text. Rather, it is a challenge, in translating Old English poetry, to be able to acknowledge and integrate the disparate echoes which give depth and complexity to a text. It is a matter of discussing it in a dialogic, or dialectic, manner. What do you think? Will you discuss the text with us?

Antonio Lenzo – OETG 2016-17