The Impact of Language on the Success of Translation in Trevor Joyce’s Fastness

The Irish poet Trevor Joyce, distant cousin of James Joyce, achieved the fifty-year benchmark of his career just in 2017 and celebrated with the publication of Fastness, a new rendering of Edmund Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos. While Joyce is no stranger to translation and has published notable works from Chinese and middle-Irish texts (Dorward, 83), his choice to subtitle Fastness as ‘A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser’ immediately identifies this work to be of a different caliber. Joyce’s motivations for such an undertaking are many and varied – in his own words, Joyce notes that his selection of sources generally tends toward older texts ‘rancid with nostalgia’ and ‘almost fracturing already under the pressure of too much meaning,’ and the narrative of Mutabilitie qualifies in more ways than one (O’Mahony, 124). Furthermore, Joyce understands the effect of poems sourced from such texts to be embedded within language and traceable to a variety of other texts while also not reliant upon the recognition or recall of those texts (124). Thus, Fastness is an amalgam of both language and literature, operating at the local level of diction and syntax.

Joyce’s introduction to Fastness, in addition to providing a comprehensive overview of Spenser’s time and involvement in the politics of Ireland during the late 1500s, contains several claims regarding his intentions for the work and his hopes for the reader’s reception. Because Nature’s promise to Mutabilitie of one final change and consequential stasis has yet to occur, Joyce is motivated to reopen the case and allow Mutabilitie a fresh audience of her peers (Introduction, xvi). Most notably, Joyce states that he endeavors to impart some understanding of his choice to respond to Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos and read it against the grain, suggesting perhaps that Mutabilitie’s charge will be met with something more substantial in Joyce’s adaptation (xiv). Additionally, Joyce aims to rid the narrative of the superficial elements of mystery implemented by Spenser’s political concerns and instead produce an extension and augmentation of Mutabilitie’s genealogical pursuit (xvii). Finally, Joyce believes that poetry is an intricate composition, and the poet creates a ‘whole in which everything resonates at once’ (xv). The works of a poet like Spenser, well versed in the complexities of poetic expression, requires nothing less than a response which is cognizant of ‘all the carefully distributed threads of [his] utterance’ and ‘gives them back radically altered in many ways, but recognizably chiming with the original, and adding new meaning’ (xv).

However, in the pursuit of these claims Nature’s verdict still remains in favor of Jove, which prompts the reader to heed Joyce’s stance of meaning immersed within language. The success of Joyce’s objectives, therefore, necessitates a closer examination of the diction and syntax of Fastness as well as the Mutabilitie Cantos. This essay takes particular interest in the use of language as a means for Joyce to fulfill his intentions of reading and translating the Mutabilitie Cantos against the grain, especially focusing on the depiction of Mutabilitie in both works, and on the limitations imposed on poetic expression in Joyce’s aim of ‘added meaning’ in his translation. While Joyce is certainly successful in creating a different reading of Mutabilitie’s case, the success of his work as a translation is less apparent – indeed, Fastness is not a universal translation, but an interpretation whose full effect can only be understood by Joyce himself.

First for comparison is Spenser’s portrayal of Mutabilitie. Critic Jessica Dell identifies Mutabilitie as one part of the triple Hecate, also called the triple Diana, which is a symbol in ancient Greek mythology for female divinity and power and is typically associated with witchcraft and necromancy, among other things. The remaining two faces are filled by Cynthia and Diana. Easily derived from its title, the triple Hecate is visually represented as possessing three faces yet is understood to be neither three separate goddesses nor a single composite individual (Dell). The triple Hecate’s multifaceted nature allowed both the ancient and early modern scholars to associate her with a number of cyclical trinities. Dell believes Spenser to be associating Cynthia, Diana, and Mutabilitie as the moon, the earth, and the underworld, respectively. Unlike Mutabilitie, however, in mythology Hecate is portrayed as a powerful goddess whose rule was beyond dispute. Furthermore, it is clear that she shared ruling power with Zeus and did not need to defend her title after the fall of her Titan brethren. Thus Mutabilitie is Hecate’s descendant by her Titan relations, but rather than preserving Hecate’s divinity and power Spenser instead characterizes Mutabilitie as the ‘dregs of a faded lineage, heir to a diluted power’ (Dell). This genealogy, then, serves to work against Mutabilitie – rather than firmly establishing and justifying her claim to the Olympian throne, or any semblance of ruling power, Spenser twists Mutabilitie’s genealogy to highlight her dubious and potentially deceitful nature.

Spenser further characterizes Mutabilitie as cruel and ambitious with demonstrations of her power resulting in ‘many one’s great pain’ (2, 4). Following the implications of the connection to Hecate, Spenser also links her with figures meant to amplify her constructed villainy (Dell). Mutabilitie’s representation as the underworld, and therefore death, is reinforced with her lineage stemming from Bellona, another pre-Olympian Titan who ‘sound[ed] on high / Wars and Alarums unto Nations wide’ (Spenser, 2). Through familial bonds, the associations of witchcraft and war of these two goddesses are reflected onto Mutabilitie. In humanity’s eyes, the change they experience over time is nothing more than Mutabilitie playing ‘Her cruel Sports, to many Mens decay’ (2). To Cynthia, Mutabilitie is a rival whose threats do not warrant serious consideration, only ‘stern Countenance and disdainful Chear’ (8). By treating the female divinities independently and positioning Cynthia and Mutabilitie opposite each other, Spenser deprives both of their sovereignty and degrades the harmonious unity traditionally found in representations of the triple Hecate.

Besides connotations with unsavory figures, Spenser demeans Mutabilitie by simultaneously gendering and sexualizing the Titaness. For example, to Mercury, Mutabilitie is a hellish force whose power instills fear and astonishment in him and other celestials (12, 14). Her approach toward the throne causes all except Jove to stand in silence and fear, indicative of her potentially disruptive power (20). Yet even this is limited within the narrative as Jove’s own power and anger dominate Mutabilitie, eventually smothering her own. Jove describes Mutabilitie as a ‘frail Woman’ born ‘Of that bad Seed,’ a ‘foolish Girl’ with an idle claim (18, 14, 24). Though she may have shaken lesser gods, when Mutabilitie sees Jove seated on ‘his sovereign Throne…full of Grace and Majesty,’ she is ‘almost quell’d; / And inly quaking, seem’d as reft of Sense / And voyd of Speech’ (16, 18). In fact, she does not speak until Jove goads her to do so. This is vastly different behavior compared to Mutabilitie’s approach toward Cynthia’s seat, where ‘Boldly she bid the Goddess down descend’ and ‘Threatened to strike her if she did withstand’ (8, 10).

Additionally, Jove cites the punishments he inflicted on Procrustes, Typhon, Ixion, and Prometheus as warnings, yet does not sentence Mutabilitie to the same. Instead, his wrath is calmed not by the force of her rhetoric but by her beauty, and he dismisses any thought of her individual agency by attributing her actions to ‘some vain Error or Enducement light…Or through Ensample of thy Sister’s [Bellona’s] Might’ (22). Mutabilitie announces her arrival to the Olympian court by adhering to the prescribed gender roles of a patriarchal authority, and Jove treats her accordingly.

Mutabilitie is deprived of speech once more following Nature’s verdict, and this is a particular issue for Joyce. This blow, in Joyce’s eyes, was long predicted by Mutabilitie’s decision to argue in the Queen’s English rather than continuing the physical destruction she wrought earlier in the narrative. With Mutabilitie resorting to the language of her usurpers, Joyce believes Spenser is submitting her to the ‘language of governance’ and thus retaining Mutabilitie in her place before she truly leaves it (Introduction, xvi). This language of power preemptively determines the outcomes of events and the fates of beings, only pretending to discover them later. For this reason, Joyce’s reopening of the proceedings is founded in the creation of an artificial dialect intended to admit all parties, and this dialect consists of his own everyday language, traces of that of Spenser, as well as slang both recent and outdated, and the jargon of disciplines such as journalism, politics, and business (xvi). Joyce has done away with the Queen’s (and Spenser’s) English, including expletives and ‘seiz[ing] on every register that seemed to resist authority,’ which gives Mutabilitie a more authentic voice aligning with the nature of her disposition rather than the Jovian one prescribed to and subsequently confiscated from her (xvi). The implication here is that Mutabilitie needs to meet Jove on her own terms, and this dialect is crucial because it serves as a new mold for Mutabilitie’s character.

Joyce has not recreated events in the narrative, thus Mutabilitie is still subjected to the consequences of patriarchal authority; however, Joyce has taken great pains to develop the reader’s sentiment and support for Mutabilitie by using possessive pronouns. In the tenth stanza of canto six, where Spenser writes ‘the hardy Titaness’ (8), Joyce translates the line to ‘our hardy Titaness’ here and later in stanzas seventeen and eighteen (9, 13). Again, Spenser writes, ‘Yet nathemore the Giantess forbare…’ (10), but Joyce writes, ‘Back down? Our Giantess back down? No chance!’ (11). But the most radical instance is when Joyce changes ‘That, when the haughty Titaness beheld…’ (Spenser, 18) to ‘Now, when our Heroine saw this…’ (Joyce, 19). The aim of these inaccurate translations, then, is to prepare the reader for the transformation of Mutabilitie from villain to protagonist. Interestingly, this ‘Heroine’ description occurs in the same stanza where Mutabilitie finds herself speechless in Jove’s presence, which allows Mutabilitie to retain the new reputation Joyce has provided her while remaining true to Spenser’s text (19). In addition to employing a possessive tone, Joyce plays on words to reiterate Mutabilitie’s ascension to the heroine. As previously stated, in the very first stanza Spenser describes the deterioration of men as a result of Mutabilitie’s sport, yet Joyce translates the stanza in a way that almost distances Mutabilitie from the resulting decay:

How fast things shift and spin

out of control, how fast hordes die;

watch that a while, then tell me

you don’t see a force at play in it

greater than us. But not just us.

I’ve heard how this Mutability one time

rose against all the Gods at once,

to disempire them. So let me tell you. (3)

From such a reading, Mutabilitie is rightly titled as a force larger than the lives of men, and Joyce’s ‘force at play’ is reminiscent of Spenser’s ‘Her cruel Sport,’ but Joyce avoids the implications of Mutabilitie finding amusement in ruin. Rather, she is simply the energy behind the swift change of all natural things. To be sure, Joyce’s translation does remain very close to Spenser’s characterization at times, and can even be argued to go beyond. For instance, Joyce refers to Mutabilitie as ‘this Titanic chit’ (5) where Spenser simply writes ‘Titaness’ (4). It can be argued that Joyce is exaggerating Mutabilitie’s portrayal as a means of making her transformation to heroine that much more pronounced and significant.

Though she perhaps does not receive fair trial or consideration at the court of Arlo Hill, Joyce’s dialect is an act of democracy itself by making the narrative universally understandable and accessible. Where Spenser’s narrative is tipped in favor of Jove and the established ruling powers, Joyce’s seems to lean toward Mutabilitie on principle. This ‘artificial dialect’ he creates allows Mutabilitie’s case to reach across class, regional, and temporal boundaries, bringing the well-known trope of rightful heir versus usurper to the forefront once more. The something ‘more substantial’ Joyce intends to meet Mutabilitie’s claim can only mean the recognition of the power of rhetoric and the significance of equality in dialogue. Because regardless of how eloquently Mutabilitie presents herself and her case to the court, Spenser prevents the reader from sympathizing with her cause and the truth of her claim.

An evaluation of the success of Joyce’s pursuits benefits from Michael Smith’s article ‘Translation & Reality: A Letter to the Poet Trevor Joyce,’ which discusses the impact of modern linguistics on the use of language. In Smith’s opinion, Joyce places an importance on language as a human creation, and rightly so, with an undefined relationship to a postulated ‘reality’ (4). All languages postulate a certain ‘reality,’ and the nature of that reality will differ with each language. Therefore, taking Joyce’s translation as a language separate from that of Spenser, the Queen, and even the contemporary reader, the ‘reality’ of Joyce’s translation and its correlated success is only apparent to Joyce himself since he created the language of Fastness. This is evident where Joyce’s translation not only seems inaccurate, but strange. For example, Spenser writes Bellona’s power ‘makes both Heaven and Earth to tremble at her Pride’ (2), and Joyce turns that into, ‘so now both heaven and earth / funk out when she shows proud’ (3). And later, when Mutabilitie comes to Cynthia’s palace, Joyce depicts her ‘stro[lling] willy nilly by’ (7).

Smith continues to note that engagement with these languages and literatures involves consciousness of their subjectivity and historicity – the reader as well as the author must recognize that one’s reality is different from another’s, and texts are therefore interpreted into the language of the reader’s own postulated reality (4). Thus ‘translation’ exists only in one’s own reading of the text, not as any inter-lingual exercise, and each reader’s interpretation is different. Thinking along these lines regards Fastness not as a translation as Joyce would like to put forth, but a representation of his personal reality experienced while reading the Mutabilitie Cantos, and even an appropriation of Spenser’s original work into a novel voice of expression for Joyce. Smith’s conclusion here explains why certain bits of Fastness do not seem to be accurately rendering what Spenser has written while other parts do.

Joyce’s ‘experimentation’ however is still valid because it tackles Smith’s perceived discrepancy between language usage and the reality to which it purports to refer (6). Smith recognizes this, and acknowledges that the resulting works are indeed worthwhile because they attempt to ‘liberate the consciousness from the confines of the rationality and feeling others have come to accept as the only kind of thinking and feeling of validity’ (6). Finally, Smith observes that experimentalists in the use of language in poetic discourse such as Joyce reject any ‘external reality’ in their time and the language corresponding to that reality, opting instead for a private world and a language descriptive or expressive of that world (6). Likewise, by this thinking Joyce rejects the ‘reality’ of Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos, aggregates the elements of the cantos, and creates his own private reality through innovation of language. For this reason, Fastnessis further distinguished from a simple translation, but this does not devalue the text. Smith recognizes that his line of thinking may have fallen into his own trap of believing itself to be the only of validity, and admits that attempts like Joyce’s could indeed be vital in breaking preconceived notions of literary pursuits. This in turn works to push the field toward an enhancement of consciousness and a more profound, ‘truer’ understanding of the ‘world’ (6). The accuracy of Joyce’s translation may not be apparent to anyone besides Joyce, but this is not to say the text is meaningless.

Rather, Niamh O’Mahony presents Joyce’s appropriations as entirely articulate, meaningful, and sustaining rather than effacing the individual poet’s writing (120). As O’Mahony states, there is always the potential for a phrase or line from one source to speak to a phrase or line from another, and this allows the two texts to create resonance. Such an approach also encourages more explicitly expressive poetry that breaches the limitations of lyricism. O’Mahony argues that the appropriative practice of aggregating sources and creating poems directs the readers towards the work’s influences and sources with the obligatory degree of textual remove and dissociation, while also provoking the language of a text to unfamiliar and unintentional patterns of association (123). For example, Joyce could be employing an aural pun of Spenser’s ‘plaintiff Plea’ when describing Mutabilitie’s ‘plaintive’ approach to judge Nature (48, 49). Some phrases are put to different use and some are reworked, as Joyce’s take on Spenser’s Sabbaoth pun results in his own on the ‘settled fastness of all things’ (81) combining the Jovian notion of ‘fast at rest’ (Spenser, 80) and the rapidity of change. Rewordings of this kind, however, present some difficulty in making assertions about the poet’s cultural and political resonances within the resulting poem.

There leaves the final question: does Joyce have the capacity to express himself through his appropriations? According to Sutherland, as cited in O’Mahony’s text, this supposed opposition between authorial expression and formal complexity, lyric expression and formal innovation, is a false contest (127). In contrast is the de-subjectifying effect of conceptualist appropriation, where subjective poetic expression is replaced with a ‘mass of free-floating language’ (128). Though differing in opinion, like Sutherland the majority of critics absolve practices such as appropriation from the accusation of leading to meaninglessness in poetry. The appropriator, therefore, views himself as the mediator of materials, texts, and history, and Joyce certainly adopts this view of himself as well. Somewhat contrasting with Smith, O’Mahony is of the opinion that Joyce’s appropriation is not opposed to meaning, but enables a more explicit account of both the poet’s and the reader’s experience of the world.

As evidenced, Joyce’s rendition contrasts strongly against Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos, particularly in the depiction of Mutabilitie as heroine rather than villain. It is a true translation only to Joyce who understands it to the fullest extent, but to the modern reader it is an innovative poem sourced in arguably the greatest non-dramatic poem of Spenser’s age. Clearly, appropriation is not an abstracted practice intended to confuse readers – it can be a deeply meaningful form whose sense and effect show in the many rhymes and concurrences that emerge across texts and contexts, as well as the clashes and ‘rupturing’ of individual lines and phrases (129).

Works Cited

Dell, Jessica. ‘Divided They Fall: (De)constructing the Triple Hecate in Spenser’s Cantos of Mutabilitie.’ Early Modern Literary Studies, vol. 16, no. 2, 2012, p. 3. Literature Online [ProQuest],

Dorward, Nate. ‘On Trevor Joyce.’ Chicago Review, vol. 48, no. 4, 2002, pp. 82-96. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/25305007.

Joyce, Trevor. Introduction. Fastness by Joyce, Miami University Press, 2017, pp. vii-xxiii.

—. Fastness. Miami University Press, 2017.

O’Mahony, Niamh. “Releasing the Chaos of Energies’: Communicating the Concurrences in Trevor Joyce’s Appropriative Poems.’ Irish University Review, vol. 46, no. 1, 2016, pp. 119-131., doi:10.3366/iur.2016.0205.

Smith, Michael. ‘Translation & Reality: A Letter to the Poet Trevor Joyce.’ Irish University Review, vol. 46, no. 1, 2016, pp. 4-9., doi:10.3366/iur.2016.0196.

Spenser, Edmund. Two Cantos of Mutabilitie, from Fastness by Trevor Joyce, Miami University Press, 2017.