BOOK REVIEW / Blistered dwarfs and cringing Gollums: Wagner's ring of the Nibelung: A Companion - Thames & Hudson, pounds 24.95

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The Independent Online
THIS impressively hefty companion includes expert commentaries by various Wagner scholars, as well as the full German text of the Ring cycle and a translation by Stewart Spencer. But its blurb gives a false impression when it says that this translation 'exactly follows the verse form of the original', as if it were a singing translation like Andrew Porter's masterly version of 1977.

Rather than following its exact rhythmic pattern, Spencer amplifies the metre and stitches in extra syllables where it suits him, while allowing alliteration wherever accuracy permits. Given the similarities between German and English, this is rather often, and it casts a shadow of Wagner's 'synthetic' Middle High German over the enterprise. 'Schwarzes, schwieliges/Schwefelgezwerg' becomes 'Brimstone-black/and blistered dwarf]' and so on, making one wonder how Wagner's singers ever managed to get their tongues round the original.

Wagner's tetralogy is as firmly rooted in medieval German epic and Scandinavian Eddas as it is in the philosophy of Feuerbach and Schopenhauer (all ably expounded in the introductory essays by a clutch of eminent Wagnerites). The effect of reading an English translation is strangely altered by more recent burrowings and borrowings in the mines of Old English. Whereas Germany got Wagner, the English-speaking world got Tolkien (without the music, you understand - please don't take this as a hint). Thus, the effect of reading this particular translation, the work of a medievalist, is to point one towards another epic whose title is spelled out in the translation of 'des Ringes Herrn' as 'the lord of the ring'.

Once this is noted, other elements fall into place: Alberich and Mime take turns as whingeing, cringing Gollums, Wotan in his Wanderer guise is Gandalf incarnate, and the rest of the giants, gods and heroes take on a certain colouring of Middle-earth.

Spencer is only too aware of the possible pitfalls of literal translation. He quotes a splendid 'strike at me now,/as I strangle thy knee,/thy darling mangle,/to dust with thy maid' from Alfred Forman's pioneering translation, and forswears the 'Go and bite your bottom, son of a silly person' school of invective, showing that he has also spotted the near-fatal effect of the Python team on taking seriously anything that has to do with siege warfare, horned helmets or talking animals. It is no more likely that such resonances will spoil people's appreciation of Wotan's monologues than that the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now will ruin the Ride of the Valkyries.

Wagner's poem, read as a poem, rates quite a bit higher than Tolkien but not as high as, say, William Morris's retellings of the Norse sagas. Wagner himself intended the libretto to be enjoyed as an independent work of literature, but, of course, its chief importance is as the foundation of the music.

What is surprising, taken in the cold print of a translation, is how powerfully it reads. The narrative develops through sure, striking touches that overcome the longueurs, the ill-digested philosophy and medieval apparatus, the repetitions and the name-calling, and keep one turning the pages.

This translation should be reissued, perhaps, in a gaudy paperback with an airbrushed cover and a gold-embossed title, and sold among the swords-and-sorcery books in the popular sections of the high-street bookshops. In that way it might well win a new and appreciative audience for Wagner, just as it is hoped that animated opera and television spectaculars will draw in audiences for the next Ring projected for Covent Garden.

What Stewart Spencer has achieved in this remarkable version is to provide the nearest thing to a standard reading translation imaginable, one that can sit next to William Mann's Tristan translation and not blush by the comparison. It is not a version for singing along - here Andrew Porter's is still the standard, and can be used along with the Goodall recording if you want to lip-synch to Rita Hunter. But if it brings readers to Wagner who will turn into listeners, it will have done its job.