Translating Old English poetry

Translating Old English verse presents obvious challenges. Here I outline:

  1. the challenges and the character of OE poetry
  2. the deliberately idiosyncratic approach I am taking

1. The challenges

Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is the language spoken by the Germanic settlers in England from their arrival in the 450s until a few generations after the Norman Conquest. Scholars divide OE into prehistoric OE (before anything was written down); Early OE 650-900; Late OE – after the Vikings/Danes invaded north and eastern England. There is a theory that interacting with the Danes in the Danelaw ie the East of the country which they settled, hurried the abandonment of the inflections which made OE hard to learn, speeding the transition to early Middle English. The Danes, the Normans and the spread of Latin learning, all did for OE. Some 80% of OE words didn’t survive into Middle English, let alone modern English.

Old English verse All OE verse is in alliterative measure ie no rhymes, no regular rhythms; instead each line is divided in half, with two stresses in each half: the start-sound of the first stressed word in the second half of the line must be alliterated by one of the two stressed syllables in the first half of the line, possibly both. The second stressed syllable in the second half of the line generally doesn’t alliterate, eg:

Brimmanna boda, | abeod eft ongean

Limited vocabulary A lot of the words are very samey: lots of geatu, ongean, gealgean, gangon, geganga, geseman, gofol. Not a scholarly opinion, but even when you hear it read aloud you get the impression there were far fewer words, and far fewer combinations of sounds available, than in modern English with its vast vocabulary. (See a handy list of core OE vocabulary)

Inflection – Old English is an inflectional language like Greek or Latin ie a lot of the grammatical information is contained in suffixes at the end of the word. The practical effect of this is that a lot can be said with few words eg ‘…folc and foldan. | Feallan sceolon…’

Compressed As with the poems in the Elder Edda, the alliterative form of Anglo-Saxon verse, and the inflectional nature of the language, tend to make the poetry compressed, very compressed. Pronouns and connective words aren’t necessary. A lot is conveyed by two words.  The modern English translation always takes more words to say the same thing.

Phrases 

  • Apposition The division of the already short 4-beat line into two 2-beat parts combined with the requirement for every line to alliterate, makes for continual use of apposition ie small alliterative phrases or units are deployed to fit the alliteration more than the flow of the sense.
  • Separation As in Latin poetry phrases can be widely separated since the inflections – not the word order – explain the grammatical relationship between them; short phrases often refer to people or actions a few lines earlier, rearranged to make the alliteration. This sense of dislocation and apposition adds to the special character of the poetry.
  • Stock phrases It is assumed the poetry originated in oral form, composed by skilled poets or skopas who used stock phrases or readymade formulas to elaborate on the spot equally well-known stories and legends. A number of stock half-lines occur in more than one poem; a few occur more than once in the same poem.

Laconic The affect of all these factors is to make the verse very clipped, abbreviated and laconic. The brevity tends to understatement; a lot is implied. There is a continual sense of very masculine understatement.

Litotes  This tendency is made explicit in the use of litotes, a Greek term for a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect, usually through double negatives eg rather than saying that something is attractive (or even very attractive), you say it is “not unattractive”.

Feminine endings In the study of poetic meter a feminine ending is a line of verse that ends with an unstressed syllable. So:

  • Masculine ending: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day – the final beat falls on the final syllable
  • Feminine ending: To be or not to be, that is the question – the final beat falls on the penultimate syllable and the ‘-ion’ syllable is weak = feminine

Many of the final words in each line are infinitives or other forms which take a weak final syllable. OE poetry is full of weak, feminine endings. This produces a kind of dying fall to almost every phrase – eg “…folc and foldan. | Feallan sceolon…” giving the poems as a whole, a particular rolling music.

2. My approach

Many of the qualities listed above are lost in the translation into uninflected, uncompacted modern English. All the translations I’ve read, not unreasonably, try to translate Old English poetry into flowing, smooth, readable, fully comprehensible modern English. This involves:

  • using entirely modern words
  • entirely modern forms of the words eg especially simple uninflected verb forms and modern pronouns
  • unpacking the tightly wrapped and allusive stock phrases into fully explicit sentences
  • rearranging short phrases which are organised in the original in order to fit the alliterative scheme and thus often scattered, into more logically sequential orderings
  • losing the music of OE’s feminine, ie unstressed, endings, especially the feminine endings of infinitive forms of verbs

I’ve set out to try and avoid these losses. I am trying to create a version of mongrel English which stays as close as possible to the original in every respect – words and word forms, apposition and alliteration,  avoiding all Latinate or French words, using archaic forms and even inventing new words to bridge the gap between then and now, the damaged often obscure source text, and the clear fluent logic demanded by our shiny white screens. I am trying to make them readable but to keep as many of the qualities identified above as possible.

Caedmon’s Hymn (c670)
is the oldest recorded Old English poem, and one of the oldest surviving examples of Germanic alliterative verse. In his Ecclesiastical History of Britain, the Venerable Bede tells how Caedmon, an illiterate cowherd at a monastery in Whitby, has a vision which tells him to use traditional OE verse forms to praise the Christian God. Caedmon’s Hymn is nowadays regarded as the “first English poem”:

nu scylun hergan | hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti | end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur | swe he uundra gihwaes
eci dryctin | or onstealde
he aerist scop | aelda bearnum
heben til hrofe | haleg scepen
tha middungeard | moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin | æfter tiadæ
firum foldu | frea allmectig

The Wikipedia translation:

Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory
as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders;
he first created for the children of men
heaven as a roof, the holy creator.
Then the guardian of mankind,
the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth,
the lands for men, the Lord almighty.

My translation:

Now we shall honour | heavenrich’s guard
the might of the master | and his moodthink
the work wulderfather | so he wonders wrought
eternal Lord | ordered beginning.
He earliest shaped | for the children of men
heaven to roofe, | the holy shaper,
then middleyard | mankinde’s guard
eternal Lord | after appointed
fields for folk, | father almighty.

Related links

Modern iIlluminated manuscript-style illustration of Caedmon's Hymn by PC Hodgell

Modern iIlluminated manuscript-style illustration of Caedmon’s Hymn by PC Hodgell

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