A Prose-Poetic Translation and Expansion on Wagner's Epic Tetrology

A Progress Report on the Project
by Christopher Fulkerson

CF's Composition Desk


UPDATE AS OF SEPTEMBER 2010: I'm back at work! And I've completed the first draft of the entirety of THE PURE GOLD, the translation I have given of Das Rheingold. Currently my plan is to concentrate on the Wagner aspect of the project, finish that, and then "re-read" the text in light of the other Teutonic myths that it is my basic plan to incorporate into the story. Already there are a number of expansions in my story that enlarge the Wagner according to ancient Teutonic models. The most dramatic difference between mine and Wagner's versions is that my version of the story does not require the destruction of the world; the allegorical characters "Lif" and "Lifrathur," who are Life and Livelihood, arise from the Ragnarok. That is consistent with the original Teutonic myth that Wagner chose not to include in his version of the epic. I plan to follow the ancient Nibelungelied in important places where Wagner deviated from it in Goetterdaemmerung, and to continue the story to some point well beyond Wagner's version.

...During the mid-1980s I began writing what was originally intended to be a trifling summary of Wagner's Ring epic. A very talented painter named Patrick Kroboth, so generally talented in fact that he supports his art career by moonlighting as a violist in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, was painting a series of watercolors about the Ring, with an iconographical emphasis on the Norse origins of the story. We were introduced through the kind offices of the pianist Marta Le Roux, the energetic late wife of Jean-Louis Le Roux, my boss at the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. I had written lots of program notes for the SFCMP and other performers, and these had even been positively reviewed in the newspaper, something that doesn't often happen for program annotators, so Marta thought I would be right for the task of doing the Wagner. Patrick showed me the paintings he was working on, and I immediately loved their combination of charm and gentle eroticism, but agreed with him that the iconography was not fully consistent with either its Norse or Wagnerian sources. We began talking about how he might go about depicting the story and the mythology in a more consistent way. I got to work on a very stripped-down version of the story.

From the beginning there were surprising obstructions to the project. I let one of my professors at UC Berkeley, Joseph Kerman, read over the first, incomplete rough draft; he betrayed me incredibly by actually pubishing a denouncement of it in the New York Review of Books. I seem to remember that he called my translation "wrong-headed;" I had in no wise intended the thing, as I gave it to him, for publication! Being no more than a graduate student at the time I was powerless to do anything about his attack, which was completely unfair and gratuitous, and way beyond the scope of what may have been called for. He had made not a single remark to me about what he thought about it, and I had to learn through the grapevine that he had written about me in the Review. Since he had earlier encouraged me by inviting me as the only composer at the time invited to speak before the UC Camerata, an informal musicologist's forum, I was really shocked. But I had to try to keep some semblance of balance in what I had perforce to realize was not the congenial student-professor relationship I had thought it was. When, the next time I saw him, he asked me at a party at his house if I didn't mind the harsh things he said about my piece, I quipped "Bad press is good press." He warmly thanked me, saying he had been sure I would be big about it. I do believe he was in severe enough denial about human nature to fail to realize that he had been an utter jerk and that I had had to sling rubbish to keep him somewhat in my playing field. As the wounded party I thought mine was the wiser course to follow. There is no higher court for academic injustices of this kind; all that be done is to tell the truth and let the real situation become clear to posterity. Each and every one of the other tenured faculty at Berkeley treated me in this way on significant occasions. This occasionally resulted in my actually having to pay out of my own pocket for things that were promised to me, as when Richard Felciano cut my budget for my Ariel performance of Peter Maxwell Davies' WESTERLINGS in half. In one phone call, there went $1000 I had already promised others I would pay to them. I really wonder whether I would ever have gotten a degree there at all if it had not been an outside committee that awarded me the only Grand Prize in Musical Composition that the UC System has ever awarded, thus enabling me to submit the prize work as my Master's Thesis. In order to continue its policy of discouragement to me, the faculty would have had to act as though their colleagues at Pomona College and elsewhere, who had judged the competition, and the UC office of the Intercampus Cultural Exchange, were all wrong. All this by way of explanation of some of the forces getting in the way of my Ring project.

The promotional idea that Patrick and I had had for our book was to bring it out during the then-imminent performances of the SFO Ring under Edo de Waart, but there really had been no way we would meet the deadline we were working under, since the cycle was already in production. Not only would all the work have had to be done, we would have had to put the book through production. Naturally we missed our first deadline, but kept our enthusiasm for the project. We next allowed a staff member of the SF Opera to help us try to find a proper publisher; she promised to give us lots of leeway and most importantly not to charge us. She turned out to be a banshee hounding us constantly and very soon presented us with an exhorbitant bill, which Patrick and I rejected. She had been a friend of Patrick's but he quickly agreed she was overstepping all bounds, not least that of her word. She was a severe neurotic who used to come to my home and shout at me to work harder; I had to work through San Francisco City Hall to determine that she had no license to act as any kind of agent. She went away rightfully unpaid, but the project suffered again as a result of the experience.

I continued to tinker away at it for another few years; since it was no longer necessary to keep the text brief, I allowed its conception to grow, in fact well beyond the Wagner original; I would incorporate all the Norse mythology that Wagner had left out, and I would create a kind of prose-poetic writing for use in the dialogue that would correspond to not only the ancient materials but to Wagner's usage as well. I have gotten a good handle on this in the first Act of my translation of Siegfried. And I restarted the whole thing with a new version of Rheingold Scene One. I have had the idea that to create not just some children's bylines but a real piece of literature, that would forge a new type of path through the material: not only the main texts, but all the names of the characters and sites et cetera would be translated into English, so that the reader's experience of the story would be the same as that of speakers of the original languages, for whom these names and words had constantly familiar meanings. The titles of the individual operas are therefore:


I have since decided I don't like the habit that English language translators have of not translating names as well as other aspects of a story. The immediacy of the meaning is just not available using the traditional method of preserving names. For example, every time an Icelander hears about Grettir the Strong, the protagonist of the last great Viking saga, he hears not "Grettir the Strong," but the meaning of the word grettir, which is "snake." There is the deeper cultural meaning of this word as well, which has almost pronographic implications, especially in the kenning-saturated poetry that puns on the name and the word. These facts are lost or confined to footnotes in the academic and conventional translations of Grettir's Saga. The average reader misses many very important resonances of meaning if they don't know that "Grettir" means "snake," and that the Nordic game of "the Passing of Grettir" (perhaps better translated as "Palming the Snake") was a group game played with an animal phallus.

I could not have chosen a more difficult genre to try to translate so fully. As everybody knows, Norse literature is full of very cryptic poetic conventions, including to begin with both rhyme and extensive alliteration. So it was double the trouble of the usual translation, since both the beginning and ending of many words had to be rendered "properly" somehow. Then there is the curious habit of metaphoric expression called "kennings." These elements were used extensively by Wagner. It was about this time I began to realize he really had been a poetic, as well as a musical genius. Anyone who claims there are weaknesses with Wagner's poetry just hasn't acqauinted themselves with it adequately. It is an amazing etymological mine, spanning German, Swedish, Icelandic, English and even Irish (probably because of the Irish presence in Iceland) literary and linguistic sources.

The version of Rhinegold I made was inadequate for a long time, but by the time I got up through Valkyrie I had learned well enough what I was doing to complete a fairly decent rendering of that opera's first Act, which I used to read at gatherings and as a plum to the girls at Girls Chorus Summer Camp, calling it "the Story of the Star-Crossed Lovers;" they loved it. I got as far as SIEGFRIED Act One, which I gave at a reading at the Le Roux's home.

I left the project for many years, thinking about it only obliquely and through the medium of other types of study, for example of the music Wagner wrote for it. This put me in mind of a problem I had not realized existed: that of the difference in the nature of the storytelling in the different operas. Goetterdaemmerung is more like a folk tale, or specifically, more like and Icelandic Saga, than any of the rest of the Ring, and there are no supernatural creatures presented, one might say, "in broad daylight," rather only through the convention of appearances in dream, or alone in the mountains under cover of the convention of "forbidden" appearances. Indeed the Ring progresses from its first opera, in which there are no human characters at all, to its last, in which there is a "difference" or "explanation" for each of the few appearances that supernatural characters make.

Bruennhilda herself famously morphs from a goddess to a mortal woman, and the project came to a real halt when I realized that I didn't understand her as a mortal. What I did not know was that I was encountering the element of Viking Saga. No translator can understand the story without knowing this literature. I bought a few of the relevant sagas in translation but quickly realized this was a wierd type of story that I had little experience with or understanding of. I guess I at last dimly realized I was still out of my depth with what I was trying to do.

I had a lot of agreeable drudgework yet to do, learning about Saga. So I did some continuing education, and took two really excellent courses on Viking Myth and Saga, taught by the historian and Saga expert Gaius Stern, who also brought in an Icelandic language scholar. So I have taken the major steps to close the gap of my knowledge with this repertoire, having read all the major sagas and most of the smaller ones; since there are only a few dozen of these tales, I think I will not find it too difficult to read every bit of this literature. The main discovery I didn't know I had to make was that to an important extent these stories are legal texts, and that the sagas Wagner used are the exceptional supernatural stories. So the Volsunger Saga is not really limpid to a reader unfamiliar with characters like Egil, Njal, Grettir, and Hrafnkel, and the women in their millieu.

I have solved the problem of Bruennhilda's behavior when she betrays her husband Siegfried: she is a typical bloodthirsty Viking bitch, who, except at the very end, cares more about how things work out for her than more or less anything else. There could be a case that she was never really that enthusiastic about him until after he is dead; this flies in the face of the Romantic perceptions we are conditioned to have about her (perhaps this would be where Kerman might more plausibly call my translation "wrong-headed," but he never let me get this far) but if you know Norse inheritance law and the way Nordic women are depicted as urging their husbands into deadly conflict, in order to raise their standing to the highest level a woman could have in that society, that of a wealthy widow, then you can understand that Bruennhilda's behavior with Siegfried was consistent with her plan to get off of Valkyrie Rock however she might. She sleeps with Siegfried there on the mountain top, but I now think she has merely learned what other skills she has to use to get what she wants, and there is a reason she lets him go a-Viking so easily. Once a Viking is married, he is not supposed to go a-Viking quite so readily. That is usually an earlier part of a Viking's career. Though she is transformed from a War Goddess to a human being, there is never a time when she is not a dangerous woman, and a very risky match for Siegfried. At best, her humanity as well as her loving compassion are only really clear after Siegfried is dead; her Immolation Scene is actually a Conversion Scene. I don't care what Wagner or any other writers say about the situation: though I expect to refine this line of description, I'm pretty sure that's my version of the story and that I'm going to stick to it.

So, the long and short of all this is that the trifling children's version of the story has grown into a much larger effort, but that I have the bull by the horns, or maybe I mean the ox by the shoulders, have scoped out the work much better now, and hope to return to concerted work on the project once a few extant musical projects are finished, maybe as soon as 2010. If only I didn't have to work a full-time job outside of music...

July 17, 2009
Revisions July 20, 2009