The new Secret History


First impressions of the newly-out translation of The Secret History of the Mongols by Christopher P. Atwood for Penguin Classics.


Poetry. See my post on Mongol slang. From that you can gather that Atwood’s stated goal to render the poetic techniques of the original – a lack in previous translations – is one of the things that most excited me. It’s so important to convey the use of language, the imagery, and the imaginative world that is constructed from figures of speech, idioms, and the lines of verse Mongols used for emphasis or in emotion. I was highly anticipating this aspect of the translation, while uncertain how the aesthetics might go, Atwood being a Mongolist with no avowed poetry in his CV.

Well, that’s about where I end up after reading it.

It’s great to have the original’s verse features signposted. Atwood gives us lines that work well: ‘choke on the cheese and gag on the grease’ for a figure of speech around milk foods and meat foods (Mongol imagery is very bodily). Other picks are less happy: ‘chubby-cheeked/Lovely ladies’ for the convention of rounded faces in a moon-like beauty. Still, at least it tells you the alliteration is there.

General comments: First and foremost, I expect great things now that we have the Secret History of the Mongols in a Penguin Classics edition. Accessible. Acknowledged. Widely available, at a cheap price. None of the previous translations have been affordable and easy to acquire. Let it become as well-known in English as an Icelandic saga! (to which Atwood compares it in his introduction).

I am relieved that this supersedes both the scholarly Igor de Rachewiltz, whose reductive, negative view of Mongols is inserted too freely into his translation, and the popular Paul Kahn, who smooths out ambiguities and makes everything familiar. Because of his concern to imitate stylistic features, Atwood has often chosen between the literal and alliteration: he goes with the latter. People who fall in love with the text still want to consult the obscurantist, old-fashioned dignity of Cleaves, and the cultural specificity of Urgunge Onon. These two read more strangely than does the new Atwood, but the thirteenth century ought to feel strange to us.

Let’s look at a passage in side-by-side translations. Here’s young Temujin’s poem to his holy mountain, where he hid from an enemy.

In Francis W. Cleaves:

When Temüĵin, descending from on [Mount] Burqan, striking his breast, spake, saying, “Mother Qo’aƴčin,

Because she heareth
Like a weasel,
Because she seeth
Like an ermine,
Escaping as to mine own body,
With a horse hobbled by [means of] the tether,
Walking in the paths of the deer,
Making an abode of a tent of elm twigs,
I went up to [Mount] Burqan.

By [Mount] Burqan Qaldun,
As to my life [which is only] so much as a louse,
I escaped.
Mine only life,
With an only horse,
Walking in the paths of the elk,
Making an abode of a tent of willow switches,
I went up on [Mount] Qaldun.
By [Mount] Qaldun Burqan,
As to my life [which is only] so much as a grasshopper,
I was shielded.

I was caused to be sore afraid. Every morning I shall sacrifice unto [Mount] Burqan.

In Urgunge Onon:

Temüjin then came down from Burqan and said, beating his breast, ‘Because mother Qo’aqchin

hears like a weasel
and sees like an ermine,
she saved my life.
On the dotted tracks,
[I] followed the deer trails.
I made a yurt of willow.
I climbed Burqan.

On Burqan-qaldun,
my life was like that of a louse.
I managed to flee.
My only life was spared.
With only one horse
I followed the elk trails.
I made a yurt of twigs.
I climbed Qaldun.
On Qaldun-burqan,
my life was like that of a swallow.
I was protected.’

‘I was greatly afraid. Every morning I shall sacrifice to Burqan-qaldun, and every day I will pray to it.’

In Atwood:

Temujin descended from the heights of Burġan and, beating his chest, said, ‘Because Mother Qo’aqcin,

Like a weasel kept her watch,
Like an ermine cocked her ear,
Hastily fleeing hale and whole,
A hobbled horse I led on trails of hinds;

Dwelling in a den of dense-tied willow laths,
I hiked the heights of high Burġan
And hid my life, like a little louse, in Burġan-Qaldun.
Saving as much as my poor self,
One mere mount I led on moose’s trails;
Watching from a home of plaited willow wands,
I made my way on wide Qaldun,
And kept my life, like a cricket’s chirp, in Qaldun-Burġan.

I was very frightened. I will do anointing every morning, I will do remembrance every day to Burġan-Qaldun.

The Secret History and me

And this is how I included Temujin’s poem in Amgalant:

On the heights Temujin, oriented to the sun, humbly knelt nine times and gave his humble verses, in a murmur, as though straight into the spirit’s ear. His thanksgiving verses had a childish quality; they had odds and ends of children’s safety spells.

Through great fear have I lived;
Through great grace I have my life.
I walked where the wild creatures walk,
I slept with twig and tree for tent,
Where I had fled onto Holy Old Haldun.

On Haldun the Old and Holy,
Such as I am, I was saved.
Sorely afraid, my life as frail as flea’s,
I lay in the wild creatures’ lairs,
I wove a roof of willow.
In the skirts of Haldun, Holy and Old,
The sparrow, spared by heaven, escaped the hawk.

Upon his ninth knee he finished, and flung himself out on the earth.

In a while he rose and spoke, shyly now he wasn’t couched in verse. “I vow you food from my food every day of my life.”

My Amgalant series is an engagement with this text. Indeed I go so far as to talk about the Secret History, its strategies, its meanings, within my first novel, Against Walls. An unusual way to write today, but I adopted it from TH White’s occasional commentary in The Once and Future King on his beloved source, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur; also I’d read too much 18th century fiction, when authorial asides were the fashion, and so personable. In the second novel, Imaginary Kings, which dives deeply into Temujin’s or Jamuqa’s point-of-view (half and half), I still weave my prose out of translation from the Secret History, but I don’t pull back to discuss it. The reader has learnt enough about the Secret History in One, and doesn’t need that inside glimpse into what I’m doing with the text; so I let each book accrue its own stylistic features, as arose from the material. On the other hand, Imaginary Kings has the heart and the guts of the Secret History’s story around Temujin and Jamuqa and Toghrul (To’oril) Khan, that political-personal plot told as intimate epic in the original, and in mine. Everybody, in the vast cast of Mongols and others, speaks the speeches they give in the Secret History; only, as a wise reviewer said, I amplify my original to make a novelist’s sense of its cryptic utterances. In the above review John Caviglia lights on the phrase ‘novelized exegesis’ and that’s exactly how I thought of the process.


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