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Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages

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Vol. I. Poetry for Scandinavian Rulers 1: From Mythological Times to c. 1035 2. General Introduction 2. Character and objectives of the present edition 2.4. Principles of translation

2.4. Principles of translation

Diana Whaley 2012, ‘Principles of translation’ in Diana Whaley (ed.), Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages 1. Turnhout: Brepols, pp. xxxv-xxxvi.

The edited Text of each stanza in this edition is followed by a rearrangement of the Text in prose word order. Although artificial, this aids the reader, for instance by bringing fragmented parts of clauses or elements of kennings together. The prose order and the English translation are in parallel, as far as is compatible with the idiom of the two languages. Where a kenning consists of a base-word and a determinant in the genitive case (as opposed to a single compound word) it has been given in that order (e.g. glóð handa ‘embers of the hands [GOLD]’). This consistency of practice aids readers and facilitates the production of a database of kennings on which future studies can be based.

The English translation is similarly pragmatic in purpose, seeking to remain as close to the original as is compatible with English usage. Where an Old Norse-Icelandic idiom has no equivalent in English, a literal translation may be given in square brackets. There has been no attempt to replicate the metre of the original poetry, but where possible the translation is true to stylistic effects such as repetition, metaphor or litotes.

The celebrated lexical virtuosity of the skalds poses problems for the translator, and the numerous heiti or poetic terms for concepts such as ‘ruler’, ‘sea’ or ‘sword’ listed in the þulur (lists of poetic names) and used widely throughout the corpus demand a flexible approach. Semantic nuances within the heiti for the same generic concept, which are often reinforced by clear etymological links, are represented if possible, e.g. among the ruler-heiti, stillir may be translated ‘controller’ to capture its derivation from stilla ‘to moderate, control’, or among the sea-heiti, it may be appropriate to translate brim, with its focus on the brimming surface of the sea, with words such as ‘surf’ or ‘surge’. Editors have attempted to use the full resources of English vocabulary, though, given that overly obscure, artificial or archaic items are best avoided, the nuance and variety of the original is often lost in translation. Heiti that are proper names are explained using the format ‘Hildr <valkyrie>’ where the named personage is representative of a class, or ‘Yggr <= Óðinn>’ where s/he is unique.

Many heiti enter into the kennings described in §5, and again the aim of the edition is to reflect their individual character as far as is practicable. The base-word and determinant are always translated separately, and the referent given in square brackets and small capital letters, e.g. ‘tree of gold [man]’, ‘stallion of the sea [ship]’. In the case of extended kennings arrows are used and the kenning opens out from the centre, as it were, with the two right-most terms equating to the first, left-most, referent e.g. ‘stave of the icicle of the tumult of axes [battle > sword > warrior]’. Here ‘the tumult of axes’ is battle, the ‘icicle’ of battle is a sword, and the upright ‘stave’ of the sword, a warrior. Where possible the specific sense of the elements is also captured. Thus names of tree-species are not reduced to ‘tree’ but are translated with ‘fir’, ‘ash(-tree)’ etc., and a kenning for ‘generous ruler’ such as hringstríðir will be translated ‘ring-harmer’ not ‘ring-giver’, although within the kenning system the ‘harming’ of rings is that of a generous man or ruler dispensing them to his followers. In a similar way the full sense of adjectival compounds is retained where possible without extreme artificiality, e.g. flugstyggr ‘flight-shunning’, not merely ‘brave’ or ‘valiant’. Indigenous technical terms for which there is no English equivalent, e.g. drápa (a long encomiastic poem with refrain(s)) and hersir (a Norwegian district chieftain), are left untranslated but are indexed in each volume as appropriate and in a combined index in SkP IX; they are discussed in the Notes where necessary.

Turning to proper names, the following conventions are used within the Translation. Names of peoples such as Sygnir (the people of Sogn, Norway) are again left untranslated and are indexed, as well as being mentioned in the Notes as appropriate. Place-names which have established English counterparts, e.g. Danmǫrk ‘Denmark’ or Dyflinn ‘Dublin’, take those English forms in the translation, while those definitely identifiable with modern places are given in the language of the country in which they are located, e.g. ‘Fyn’ for the Danish island Fjón, and ‘Romerike’ for the Norwegian region Raumaríki. Other names remain in the same form as the Text, and any difficulties are mentioned in the Notes. Personal names, including names of gods, are given in their Old Norse forms, except where a form in the likely non-Norse language of origin of the person concerned is more appropriate, e.g. Jaroslav for Jarizleifr. Place- and personal names are also indexed.


  1. Bibliography
  2. SkP I = Poetry from the Kings’ Sagas 1: From Mythical Times to c. 1035. Ed. Diana Whaley. 2012.

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