Manuscripts, Translation, and Paleography

Recently, I have started the translation portion of my independent study, looking at medieval texts translated from Latin into Old English. Though I’ve now moved onto other texts, I want to talk here about my experience reading Ælfric’s Colloquy, a text he wrote to teach Old English speakers Latin. I read it from a manuscript that also featured a direct Old English translation above the Latin. The translator writes the Old English equivalents of the Latin above each word on the manuscript, meaning it is the most direct translation possible (there are no differences in word order, phrasing, etc.). For me, the most challenging, but also the most interesting, part of studying this translation was trying to decipher the manuscript. Even though the handwriting is very clear and the British Library version of the text I used allowed me to zoom in, it was quite difficult for me to read, and I could not have possibly done it without a great deal of help from my advisor, Dr. Shores. The first problem is that some of the characters look different than how they do now. For example, the letter “s” looks like an “f” without the crossing line, and the “w” looks more like a “p,” which both repeatedly tripped me up. Even more interestingly, the manuscript uses various symbols of abbreviation to signify common endings for Latin words. For example, a “:” could represent “us” in the ending “-ibus” (so the manuscript said “canib:” to mean “canibus”) and a symbol that appears like an umlaut stood for “m” (so “earü” for “arum”). The Old English was even more difficult to read than the Latin, largely because it is smaller and written in a lighter color of ink. Even though it took a long time, it was a really fun introduction to reading real manuscripts, something I haven’t gotten to do before, and it was interesting to look at the translation. Though it is word-for-word, some differences are unavoidable, such as Old English’s use of the subject pronoun with verbs, articles with nouns, and more prepositions than Latin usually includes. These differences mean that the Old English often has two use multiple words for one Latin one. Though this sounds insignificant, it can be very important in poetry, where they may disrupt formal elements like meter or alliteration. For my next post, I’ll be writing about the more recent translations I have looked at, which are much freer in stylistic choices (and, luckily, already transcribed for me so I don’t have to use the original manuscript).

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