1 February, 2016Issue 30.1PoetryTranslation

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Translators Be Warned

Jenny Messenger


Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles
Translated by A. M. Juster
University of Toronto Press, 2015
200 pages
ISBN 978-1-442628-92-2





“My name’s a hybrid since antiquity.
I’m called a “lion,” then an “ant” in Greek,
A blended metaphor, a sign that’s bleak;
I can’t defend birds’ beaks with my own beak.
May scholars probe my name’s duplicity!”

The solution to this riddle composed by the seventh-century bishop Saint Aldhelm is ‘Myrmicoleon’, or ‘Ant-lion’, a mysterious creature that came into being as a result of a mis-translation. In his new verse translation of Aldhelm’s one hundred Aenigmata, or riddles, A. M. Juster tells us that, according to legend, around seventy experts working on turning the Old Testament into what would become the Septuagint mistranslated the Hebrew term lajisch, a rare word for ‘lion’, as the Greek myrmicoleon – the ant-lion. The creation lived on, making its way into medieval bestiaries, but it was ultimately ill-fated. Depending on accounts, the hybrid form would starve to death due to incompatibilities of digestion – the ant could not digest meat, and the lion could not digest grain. It is a cautionary tale for a translator, as Juster is well aware. In his commentary, he wryly remarks: “Translators are duly warned about the enduring consequences of their mistakes.” However, there is a twist. The ant-lion has now become a scientifically legitimate entity as the popular name for the ant-eating larvae of the insect family Myrmeleontidae. Translators be warned indeed – mistakes can take on a life of their own.

As a poet, Juster seems well-equipped for the task of translating Aldhelm. He is known for his association with New Formalism, a movement based around a return to metre and rhyme in verse poetry. Current trends in poetry and the overall attitude to rhyme must therefore have been at the forefront of Juster’s mind throughout this project: as he states in the translator’s note, although “contemporary poets tend to sneer at the riddle as a genre, riddles continue to be a guilty pleasure for the public.” Juster is something of an enigma himself. A lawyer by training, he has held senior positions in the US federal government, including Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. He has also published books of poetry and translations of Horace, Petrarch, and Tibullus, using an anagrammatic pseudonym assembled from his name, M. J. Astrue. His identity was only revealed in 2010 by Paul Mariani in First Things, the journal of the Institute of Religion and Public Life, eight years after the publication of his first book of original poetry, The Secret Language of Women.

Examples of the riddle genre can be found in ancient and modern cultures the world over. In Ancient Greece, for instance, riddles were attributed to Hesiod and Theognis, and reading poetry allegorically was a technique that flourished during classical antiquity, particularly in the Platonic and later Neoplatonic traditions, as a means of accessing ultimate truths concealed within texts. As Juster points out, for Aldhelm, riddles were tools of allegory and of religious instruction, and Juster is strongly convinced by Aldhelm’s conception that the mysteries found in everyday life could help Christians get closer to the mysteries of God. The riddles in the collection are at times overtly Christian, such as the juxtaposition of ‘Corbus’, or ‘Raven’, and ‘Columba’, or ‘Dove’, to emphasise the difference in the roles of the two birds after the biblical Flood. The one hundredth riddle is much lengthier, and masterfully encapsulates the overall theme of the collection (the solution is ‘Creation’). Others speak directly to the poetic imagination. For example, the following lines from ‘Nycticorax’, or ‘Night-Raven’, are rendered beautifully by Juster:

“My nature rightly copies my twin name
Since birds and shadows each retain a claim.
I’m rarely seen by people in clear light
For I will hide in star-borne nests at night.”

Aldhelm incorporated references to other sources like Virgil and Saint Augustine in his riddles, and borrowed the title and structure of his work from Symphosius’ Aenigmata, an earlier anthology of one hundred riddles from the fourth or fifth century A.D. Over his lifetime, Aldhelm turned out an extensive and much-imitated body of work composed in Latin prose and verse. His Aenigmata were particularly influential, helping to popularise the genre and probably acting as an important model for the Old English Exeter Book, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poems including riddles. Aldhelm’s interest in allegorical mysteries is also evident in his prose works. His Epistola ad Acircium, a letter addressed to Aldfrith, king of Northumbria, contains a treatise on metre as well as a discussion of numerous examples of the mystical properties of the number seven, drawing on areas of learning as diverse as Biblical scripture, Greek philosophy, and astronomy. The Aenigmata appear in the midst of this treatise, but it is likely that they circulated separately as well.

Information about Aldhelm’s life remains scant, but it is generally agreed that he was probably born into the royal family of Wessex, or at least one of its noble families, between 635 and 645. He trained as a monk and became the first abbot of Malmesbury between 670 and 673. What was crucial to his overall development as a man of letters was his penchant for collecting manuscripts, including Lucan’s lost Orpheus. His learning increased with trips to study at Canterbury with the bishop, Theodore of Tarsus, and the North African monk and scholar Hadrian, both of whom imported many Greek and Latin texts.

Yet despite his prestigious reputation and the quality of his writings, until recent decades modern scholarship has largely overlooked Aldhelm in favour of that other learned figure in Anglo-Saxon England, Bede. In producing a new verse translation, Juster’s task is to prompt greater interest in the poetic merit of the riddles, as opposed to the largely philological attention the riddles have received to date. He explains that his edition has been produced primarily with an eye to interested non-specialists who do not read Latin, but with the academic community in mind as well. Indeed, the introduction is succinct (a welcome contrast with the usual introductions to scholarly translations), but the commentary contains a fuller, more academically-minded level of detail. Juster tries to pacify scholars where he alters the usual presentation of the text, such as in the separation of the riddles from their titles in order to allow the reader to try and puzzle them out on their own. This is a welcome move – riddles are fun. That said, some riddles require more context than others, and I, for one, found ‘Pavo’, or ‘Peacock’, particularly impenetrable.

There is always an inherent tension in the task of translation between the literal meaning and the myriad other cultural elements present in a text, but translating these riddles into verse is surely dogged by more potential pitfalls. Juster stresses that his translations, given alongside the original Latin on the facing page, are not “literal” but instead “faithful” to the original text, and that he attempts to capture the sense of each riddle but steers clear of “injecting thought not reasonably present in the text.” By comparison, a 1985 translation by Michael Lapidge and James L. Rosier, which offers literal translations as an introduction for interested students, turns the riddles into short prose paragraphs, lacking the pleasing rhythm and end-rhyme one might associate with riddles. Juster has instead given the riddles an unpredictable rhyme scheme, which he suggests should form part of the surprise and pleasure of reading them. They are in fact enjoyable to read, particularly for anyone who likes cryptic crosswords or, as the blurb states, those who are “lovers of Tolkien, Beowulf, and Harry Potter.” The riddle ‘Ventus’, or ‘Wind’, sounds particularly Tolkienesque:

“No one can hold me in his palms or sight;
I scatter sudden clatter far and wide.
I want to hammer oaks with mournful might;
Yes, I strike sky and scour the countryside.”

In this example, Juster deftly transfers copious alliteration from the Latin (“possunt prendere palmis” and “pulsos polos et rura peragro”) into English, working with sibilants instead of the plosive /p/. Juster’s skill in word wrangling is also apparent in the first riddle, the ‘Praefatio’ (Preface), a remarkably contrived piece involving a double acrostic. The first letters of each line spell out a sentence from beginning to end to create an acrostic, and the last letters of each line spell out the same sentence from the end to the beginning, together forming what is known as a telestich. It is a tricky feat to pull off, and Juster admits defeat in the face of the telestich, but nonetheless manages an acrostic in his version.

In explaining the motivation behind his translation, Juster notes that he found the riddles “fun, fascinating, and deserving of a broader audience.” He has largely succeeded on all three counts, with a translation that makes the riddles both accessible and interesting for a wider readership, while also revivifying such medieval curios as the ant-lion and perhaps even nudging Aldhelm back into the scholarly spotlight.

Jenny Messenger read Classics at Oxford and Bristol. She is currently studying for a PhD in Classics at the University of St Andrews.

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