Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Bright Rose: Early German Verse, 800-1280, edited and translated by Philip Wilson (Arc Publications, 2015)

Inigo Purcell reviews translations of some of the earliest known German poetry.

Philip Wilson accomplishes two things in The Bright Rose, the first of which is translating early and middle High German verse in a way which both reads as fresh and hews close to the original texts: Arc’s parallel texts here give a clear idea of the sound patterns within the original text, and in some cases vocabulary, which Wilson has rendered as close as possible to the original. As Early and Middle High German is quite a niche field (and, Wilson notes, very few Early High German texts survive), managing to convey to the general reader how this translation captures the original text is an impressive feat.

The second accomplishment is choosing a selection texts which establish the character of German verse in the 480-year period in which he is working; a blurb makes clear that Wilson is interested in conveying how ‘human nature may not have changed as much as the German language has’, and he succeeds in this. He does this via a selection of texts which offer snapshots of different styles: a fragment of the earliest surviving Old High German poem, the Hildesbrandlied, in which a father and son face each other on the battlefield, initially unaware of the other’s identity; a set of charming invocations against threats such as bees, imps, and your horses getting ill; and when he reaches the middle High German period, a series of love lyrics on the returning theme of lover’s being parted by the dawn.

Perhaps one of the most resonant of these is Wolfram von Eschenbach’s poem in which the watchman who has smuggled in the male lover arrives to warn the pair that dawn is approaching, and he should leave. As in the Hildesbrandlied, the story is incomplete, but whereas in the earlier poem it is a fragment in von Eschenbach’s poem it speaks to the developing narrative sophistication of medieval German verse. The previous poems have made clear how ‘lovers being parted by the dawn’ is a narrative trope within the verse of the period, so the reader can see how Eschenbach is playing with this form.

The final poem Wilson choses to include also plays with this form: Steinmar’s ‘Love outside the court’ also features some lovers parted by the dawn, but unlike the ladies and knights in the earlier poems, they are a servant and a maid in a cowshed.

All in all, Wilson manages to create both an impressive translation, and, through his careful curation of the verse he has chosen to translate, illuminate the reader about an area of poetry they have probably not encountered before, and leave them curious as to what else exists in early German poetry.

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