A Review of Andy Orchard's The Elder Edda
A Review of Andy Orchard's
The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore  

by Haukur Þorgeirsson

Published in
The Saga-Book for
Viking Society for Northern Research
XXXVI, 2012

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The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore  Translated and edited by Andy Orchard. Penguin Classics. London, 2011. xliv + 384 pp. ISBN 978-0-140-43585-6.
 
There will never be one English translation of the Poetic Edda which satisfies every reader and every purpose. Some readers will want a poetic translation with an aesthetically pleasing and evocative choice of words. Such readers may enjoy the translation by W. H. Auden and Paul B. Taylor (1981), and not be overly concerned with the liberties it takes. Others will be interested in a poetic translation that attempts to copy the metrical form of the originals to the extent possible in English. Such readers may appreciate Lee M. Hollander’s translation (1962) and forgive—or even delight in—its clunky and archaic style. Readers who prefer a lighter touch but still want an alliterative translation can derive benefit from Henry A. Bellows’s work (1936).In my experience the most common preference expressed by people interested in a translation of the Poetic Edda is that it be accurate. Another common preference is that it be in readable English. The new translation by Andy Orchard is aimed squarely at fulfilling these preferences. It is logical that a translation aiming principally at accuracy will not attempt to reproduce the poetic metre. While Orchard takes advantage of such opportunities for alliteration as present themselves to him, his translation is effectively a prose translation and should be judged as such. It is most closely comparable to the non-alliterative translations of Carolyne Larrington (1996) and Benjamin Thorpe (1866). In my view, Orchard is mostly successful in his effort to produce a readable and accessible book. While remaining a one-volume work, it gives the beginning student a good amount of useful background information to help in understanding and appreciating the poems. The style adopted in the translation is generally clear and flows well. Estimating the accuracy of the translation is a more difficult issue and will be the subject of the remainder of this review. It first needs to be stated that the Poetic Edda  has many verses that are obscure, senseless, defective, displaced, metrically suspicious or otherwise questionable. There are many hapax legomena (a term of which only one instance of use is recorded) and other difficult words. No translator could be expected to handle every problematic verse in a satisfying way and it would be out of place for a reviewer to pick fights over the interpretation of obscure verses. But the Poetic Edda  also has a vast number of clear and straightforward passages over whose meaning no informed disagreement can exist. In such cases, a translation aiming at accuracy can justly be criticised when it fails to deliver. I would like to discuss some examples where it seems to me that Orchard’s translation runs into problems of this kind. In Guðrúnarkviða III 6.3–4 we read hann kann Helga / hver vellanda which Orchard renders as ‘he knows about the sacred boiling pot!’. The existence of such a special pot may well pique a reader’s interest and perhaps invite comparison with the quest for the great cauldron in Hymiskviða. But Orchard’s translation here is inaccurate: the word helga  cannot be the adjective meaning ‘holy’ and must be the verb meaning ‘to sanctify’. It is worth looking at previous translators: Larrington: He knows about the sacred, boiling cauldron. Bellows: For he the boiling / kettle can hallow. Hollander: for he can bless / the boiling kettle. Thorpe: he can hallow / the boiling cauldron. Orchard and Larrington make the same mistake here while the older translations have correct renderings.
  
In Guðrúnarkviða II 39.8 we have the words þótt mér leiðr sér as something Guðrún says to Atli. Orchard renders this, along with its context, as ‘I’ll come and cauterise your wounds, / soothe and heal, though it’s loathsome to me’. This is somewhat ambiguous and we could wonder if Guðrún is squeamish about cauterising wounds—is that, perhaps, inappropriate work for a noble woman? But the original is quite clear; it means, as in Thorpe’s rendering, ‘although to me thou art hateful’. Orchard translates the verb sér  as if it were a third-person form, but it is unambiguously second-person. In the rest of the exchange Guðrún is speaking in riddles, but here she tells Atli to his face that she hates him—an important point which should not be muddled in a translation. Larrington makes the same mistake (‘though it pains me to do it’). In  Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar  42.3–4 we have Sigrún saying þá er mér Helgi/ hringa valði, which Orchard renders as ‘when Helgi picked me with rings’. The use of rings to pick a bride sounds like intriguing anthropological data but all we really have here is a mistranslation. The line means ‘when for me Helgi / rings selected’, as Thorpe translates it. Orchard renders it as if mér were accusative and hringa dative rather than the reverse. Larrington has ‘when Helgi chose me, gave me rings’, which is equally confused. In Grípisspá 33.3–4 we have mundo Grímhildar  / gjalda ráða   which Orchard and Larrington both render as ‘Grímhild’s counsels will prevail’. This would be correct if ráða were nominative rather than genitive, if mundu were third-person plural rather than second-person singular and if gjalda meant ‘prevail’, which it does not. Thorpe’s ‘thou wilt pay the penalty / of Grimhild’s craft’ shows the correct way to parse this. Orchard’s translation frequently renders singular as plural and plural as singular. This is sometimes defensible and often more or less harmless. For example, Orchard translates stóðo geislar í skipin (Helgakviða Hundingsbana II, prose passage) as ‘beams of light hit the ship’. The original has skipin ‘the ships’ but nothing really rides on the plural and the reader is not seriously misled. A more disappointing example is when svárt verða sólskin / of sumor eptir (Völuspá 41.5– 6) is rendered ‘the sun beams turn black the following summer’. All manuscripts of the original have a plural sumor  ‘summers’. This is a mythological detail which there is no reason not to relay correctly. Even simple prose passages have a regrettable number of errors. The following example is from Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar: Þat kvað Helgi, því at hann grunaðium feigð sína ok þat, at fylgjor hans höfðo vitjat Heðins, þá er hann sá konona ríðavarginom. Orchard offers: ‘Helgi said, that he suspected that he was doomed, and that it was his fetch that had visited Hedin, when he saw the woman riding the wolf.’ But the text isn’t telling us what Helgi is saying but explaining what he has already said. And the plural fylgjor  shouldn’t be rendered with a singular ‘fetch’. It is a significant cultural detail that a person can have more than one  fylgja— the implication seems to be that the rider is a  fylgja  and the wolf is another  fylgja. There is no reason not to relay this accurately. Bellows is much closer to the mark: ‘Helgi spoke thus because he foresaw his death, for his following-spirits had met Hethin when he saw the woman riding on the wolf.’
 
The preceding examples will suffice to show why I cannot without reservation call Orchard’s  Edda an accurate translation. But a relative estimation is also in order. Orchard’s version is certainly more accurate than the poetic translations of Hollander, Bellows and Auden. And while the translation further propagates many of Larrington’s errors, Orchard’s version is, on the whole, somewhat more accurate. In particular, I find that Orchard’s version of Völuspá compares favourably with that of Larrington. Thorpe’s translation is woefully obsolete but tends to have different errors from the modern translations and is a valuable comparative tool. Ursula Dronke’s partial translation (1969–2011) is quite accurate but priced out of the reach of most students. Readers of German have some good options. In summary, I know of no complete English translation of the Poetic Edda  which is more accurate than Orchard’s. I would, therefore, recommend it—but I wish I could do so more wholeheartedly.
 

Haukur Þorgeirsson
Háskóli Íslands

     

 
 
 
 
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