Before We Get to the Good Stuff—A Few Technical Thoughts on Translating Edmund Spenser
One of the most brilliant aspects of The Faerie Queene also makes this work inaccessible to most modern readers. For approximately 35,000 lines, Spenser writes in verse (tight poetic form).
Because I’m a recovering English teacher, I’m going to explain a bit about how meter and verse function in this poem. (Lit nerds who already get it, move along.) In 2019, very few people seem to understand this stuff, so I’m starting at ground zero because I want you to see an important choice I’ve had to make along the way.
So, a *stanza* is a big chunk of poetry. It’s sort of like a whole verse in a song. These big chunks of poetry are broken up into two smaller units—lines and metrical feet.
You know what a line is. We still use that term for music and poetry today. But a “metrical foot” is a little less common. This is a specific unit of stressed and unstressed syllables.
To simplify that—imagine the name “Julie.” That word has two syllables, and the stress is on the first syllable. The name “Bernard” also has two syllables, but (at least in the US), we stress the second. Lit nerds have special names for all of these wee little metrical units, and Wikipedia has a decent chart here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iamb_(poetry)
Spenser primarily used pentameter in The Faerie Queene, which means (for the most part) he had five of these metrical feet per line. He also used a very particular rhyme scheme as he put these lines together. Here it is:
Each letter there represents the ending sound of one line within a single stanza. So, lines 1 and 3 rhyme, lines 2, 4, 5, and 7 rhyme, etc.
WHY DID HE DO THIS FOR 35,000 LINES?
Well...because at the time, readers were used to looking for rhyme schemes and meter in poems. Just like the rhythm and lyrics of a modern song help imitate the song’s meaning, these tools helped a poem’s form enhance its meaning. (You can read more about this in Kaske’s “Introduction” to Book One of The Faerie Queene, if you are interested. Photos attached.)
But the problem is, today, most Twitter-trained readers get bogged town trying to read such complicated forms. Not only is Spenser’s language archaic (which is difficult in itself), but the nuanced connections he tries to make between stanzas while holding to a very tight and complicated formula, can make his work almost impossible to understand.
When I first started transposing The Faerie Queene, I tried to keep to Spenser’s meter and rhyme. Very quickly, though, I realized that it would be impossible. Too many common words and phrases used in the Elizabethan era are not used by people today, so they require many more words to explain. In the end, I decided it would be kindest to complete a vivid, stanza-by-stanza, prose transposition that catches most of Spenser’s meaning, while preserving as much of his musicality as possible.
As I thought about all of my favorite translators, I realized they had each chosen narrative heart over pedantic precision at times. I’ve loved Beowulf for decades, but Seamus Heaney’s made me weep in my kitchen. Dorothy Sayers’s Dante is electric. Les Mis is gorgeous in all forms, but (despite those few distracting too-modern idioms the critics gripe about), my favorite English Les Mis was given to us by Julie Rose. I can tell these translators weren’t just converting one language to another, but that they had a deep inner fire and respect for the story. They didn’t just translate denotatively but connotatively.
Of course, some losses are inevitable with this choice—especially in a poem like The Faerie Queene. Not all double meanings, elements of wit, or bits of irony can be caught in prose. However, as I’ve spoken with people who’ve “read” The Faerie Queene in school, almost all admit to “skimming” over bits that were difficult to understand.
So, I think there’s a huge value to preserving as much as I can, providing a segue into the main plot for the common reader, and then urging those who fall in love with Spenser to head back into the archaic text to discover what I could not capture. Consider me the salt on the oats.