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James Paz (University of Manchester), 'Translating the Nonhuman Across Old and Modern English Verse'

In recent years, eco-materialist approaches to early medieval studies have challenged anthropocentrism by uncovering the perspectives of nonhumans in Old English poetry, especially riddles. Yet these nonhuman voices are always already mediated through writing and are transformed even further when transitioning from Old to Modern English verse translations. 

This paper explores the confluence between translation theory and eco-materialism to examine how translators of early medieval riddles reshape nonhuman speakers for modern audiences. By tracing the movement of nonhuman voices across Old and Modern English, I will analyse how translators can heighten or downplay the agency of nonhuman speakers, stressing or suppressing their alterity, widening or closing the perceived gaps between humans and nonhumans. To carry out this analysis, I will compare and contrast widely studied, taught and anthologised translations by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Craig Williamson with creative translations by contemporary poets including Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Miller Oberman. 

My paper recognises that anthropomorphising translations which smooth over gaps or breaks in meaning can help us to experience the otherwise unimaginable worldviews of nonhuman beings and increase our empathy for their plights. However, because the English language has been linked to an implicit violence within Western thought, translations that suppress the unintelligible 'otherness' of early medieval riddles ultimately fail to disrupt the anthropocentric attitudes that characterise the target language of Modern English. A more radical eco-materialist translation strategy offers another way of engaging with nonhuman voices that are fragmented or withdrawn. This strategy recognises that poetic texts are co-created by human language, writing materials and environmental elements, and it embraces more-than-human modes of meaning-making.

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