Thursday, October 27, 2005

Bagme Bloma: A Verse Translation

I just recently posted about Tolkien's poetic composition in Gothic, "Bagme Bloma" ["The Flower of the Trees"]. The translations that I've been able to find in English, while to some extent poetic, focus mostly on sense, so they definitely don't have the meter and alliteration and general flow of the original. Since I am very sensitive to sound and content matching or complementing each other, I set out to do my own translation in full poetic form. I'm indebted to the translation quoted in Shippey's Road to Middle Earth, Indûr's translation (about half-way down), and especially The Annotated Bagme Bloma for making sure I understood the basic sense of the poem. Also, check out this analysis (PDF; auf deutsch).

So following are the Gothic original and the first publication of the new Bitter Scroll Translation(tm). I would love to hear suggestions, critique, etc. I think it's pretty good, but I want to know what other people think, especially if I can improve it.


Brunaim bairiþ bairka bogum
laubans liubans liudandei,
gilwagroni, glitmunjandei,
bagme bloma, blauandei,
fagrafahsa, liþulinþi,
fraujinondei fairguni.

Wopjand windos, wagjand lindos,
lutiþ limam laikandei;
slaihta, raihta, hweitarinda,
razda rodeiþ reirandei,
bandwa bairhta, runa goda,
þiuda meina þiuþjandei.

Andanahti milhmam neipiþ,
liuhteiþ liuhmam lauhmuni;
laubos liubai fliugand lausai,
tulgus, triggwa, standandei.
Bairka baza beidiþ blaika
fraujinondei fairguni.


On glorious branches, glittering and
Pale green as she grows,
The birch tree bears her lovely leaves,
The flower of flowering trees,
Fair of hair and lithe of limb,
The mistress of the mountain.

The winds now call, soft winds are stirring,
She lowers her limbs in play.
Sleek and straight and white of bark,
She utters a trembling tongue.
Great mystery, bright token is she,
A blessing on my people.

The twilit sky obscured by clouds
Is bright again with lightning.
And standing strong and faithful while
Her lovely leaves take flight,
The birch will wait there, bare and white,
Still mistress of the mountain.


My goals in translating were as follows. I wanted a poem that came as close as it could to the smooth, flowing beauty of the original. So like the original, the translation has a specific meter (roughly, 3 stanzas each with 3 pairs of lines of 4 and 3 strong beats) and a certain degree of alliteration and internal and external rhyme. Tolkien's original does not quite follow the old Germanic device of one sound alliterating across a whole line (e.g., sometimes the first two beats alliterate with each other, and the second two with each other, as in Fagrafahsa, liþulinþi). So I felt justified in altering the structure slightly myself.

So much for form. As to content, I tried to craft a translation that, if on the surface less literal, is hopefully more accessible. "On the surface" because often ancient languages use one basic word where we have many quasi-synonyms with the same basic sense, but carry also connotations of emphasis or slight variation according to object. E.g., rodeiþ may be listed as "speak" in lexicons, but depending on context and even interpretation, in different circumstances may be better translated with synonyms like talk, declaim, utter, perorate, announce, speak up, speak out, declare, address, communicate, etc. Hence the use of 'great' for goda (good); 'glorious' for brunaim (shining, bright); 'the mistress of' for fraujinondei (ruling). If written in good Gothic, translate into good English. Thus my translation is necessarily a bit more interpretive than the others.

Finally, there are several words in the Gothic that do not exist in any Gothic texts or lexicons. It is very characteristic that Tolkien reconstructed these from words that exist in Old English, Old High German, or Old Norse. See, again, The Annotated Bagme Bloma. My translations differs only in that I interpret lindos as an adjective 'soft' used as a noun (as OHG lindos, 'softly') despite possible problems with form. This has windos and lindos related by both sense and rhyme (as old Germanic poetry often used alliteration to follow sense). I didn't see why Tolkien would, only in that line, talk about any other kind of tree.

For an interpretation of the poem in terms of the Literature-versus-Language (philology) struggle that went on at the U. of Leeds when Tolkien there, see Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle Earth. Literature and Language were labelled respectively Track A and Track B in the English Department, but Tolkien likened them to the corresponding rune-names: A = ác (oak), and B = beorc (birch), or in Gothic, bairka.


Derek the Ænglican said...

I don't know Gothic but from the bit I can puzzle out this is a very good translation. It's really hard to maintain the feel of poem from one language into another and still remain faithful to the content of the original. These seems to do a good job of both. Very commendable...

King Alfred said...

Thanks :-)

Elsa said...

I have a feeling for gothic language but no in-depth knowledge whatsoever. Curiously, I was born in one of the countries where supposedly gothic language survived the longest (now barely more than toponyms).
I like your translation. It’s poetic (and that certainly agrees with a poem ;-). Perhaps that shows a fruitful side of your ‘Anglo-Saxon Melancholy`. Thank you for sharing your work.

aldo Nallbani said...

Great translation! all lyrics and song are matched and what i like most is the sound of some letter thets gives u a feeling of knowing this language so long ago.