Philosophy of Translation in Riddle 40

As I mentioned in my last post, I am currently working on my final project, studying Aldelm’s Latin poem De Creatura and its translation into Old English as Exeter Riddle 40. In the last week, I spent most of my time reading from each version and comparing them, trying to spot differences and patterns. This week, I am trying to synthesize my findings from that work, but I thought I would take this blog post to write about one interesting pattern that emerged and how it relates to the broader philosophy of translation in Riddle 40. Medieval (similar to modern) riddles were composed as a series of statements with un-specified first-person subject which represent the answer to the riddle. This poem’s answer is “creation,” and Aldhelm organizes the Latin into antithetical, paradoxical phrases, usually two lines long, such as “Higher than heaven, I explore the secrets of the Thundering One, and nevertheless, lower than the earth, I perceive foul Tartarus.” The translator replicates these phrases, usually using two Old English lines for each one in Latin. Though the translator does not phrase every small clause in the same way, which would be quite hard to do with the same degree of literary grace, he does communicate the same general meanings within each statement. Famous (and disputed, but I won’t get into that right now) medieval translator King Alfred wrote that one could either translate “word for word” or “sense for sense.” Between these two, I think the Riddle 40 translator certainly takes the “sense for sense” approach, as he certainly does not attempt a literal translation of each word or phrase. However, I think there is more going on than the translator directly communicating the sense of each statement; in some ways, he adds his own slight variations and alters the style or content. One interesting example (finally getting to the main thing I wanted to talk about) is his framing of the connection between each statement and its successive, paradoxical counterpart. Looking at the lines I quoted above, Aldhelm (the Latin author) uses the word “tamen” or “nevertheless” between the two seemingly contradictory lines, which state that creation is both higher than the sky and lower than the Earth. Thus, the narrator, creation itself, actively alerts the reader that the two lines have a seeming contradiction. The Old English translator, however, does not replicate this concessive introduction to the second clause, and this theme runs throughout the translation. In other places, Aldhelm uses the word “sed” or “but,” but the Old English instead says “ond” or “and.” To me, this gives a slight but significant difference in tone and framing. While Aldhelm’s narrator actively lets the reader in on the paradox, the translator’s version somehow seems unaware, maybe even refusing to concede the idea that the two phrases are contradictory and challenging the audience to reconcile them. In this way, I do not think the translator simply preserves the sense of Aldhelm’s poem but adds onto it and morphs it, in ways that I see as improvements. I have found other examples of the translator’s doing this, but I’ll leave those for another blog post.

Moving Towards My Final Project

In the past couple weeks, I have continued my study of translation from Latin to Old English. After reading the Colloquy, I moved onto looking at a translation of Bede’s story of Cædmon from his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. This was an especially fascinating text to study because it included both translation of prose and poetry. Unsurprisingly, I noticed that the poetry translation took many more liberties in altering the original text. While the translator prose tried to communicate the same meanings in the prose maybe adding a few phrases to explicate a point or changing some grammatical constructions, in the poetry, they clearly want to preserve the feeling, tone, and overall message of the poem, without attempting to translate each phrase directly. I also noticed that there is not any direct correspondence between the specific lines of Latin and Old English. The next week, I began reading Aldhelm’s poem “De Creatura”from his collection of riddles, the Enigmata, and its Old English translation as Riddle 40 in the Exeter Book. This has been truly fascinating, and I have decided to write my final paper on this poem (I’ll write about my topic more specifically in my next blog post). The translation of a riddle presents many interesting problems. The translator must preserve the mysterious tone and try to retain the rhetorical effect while allowing phrase to fit the answer, “creation.” Thus, it would be truly impossible to give a word-for-word, or even phrase-for-phrase, translation. I found a great book that contains a section about this specific translation and addresses those issues, and I’m guessing this book will turn into one of my main sources for my final paper. The author points out that this translator does pay special attention to retaining rhetorical devices, which is largely possible because Aldhelm especially uses aural devices, rather than syntactic or semantic ones. Such aural devices were common in Old English literature, generally much more so than in Latin, which allows the translator to preserve them, even as they stray from the precise meaning of each phrase. I have really enjoyed my study of “De Creatura” so far, and I’m really excited to continue as I begin working on my final project.

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).

Quarter Reflection

For this blog post, I am reflecting on the first quarter of my independent study — what I’ve learned, what has gone well, what I can improve, and where I’m planning to go next. So far, I think this study has gone really well. In the first stage of it, I used my textbook to learn Old English grammar, while studying vocabulary from a frequency list. This was great, and I especially loved thinking about how Old English’s grammar differs from Latin’s and Greek’s, which I wrote about on my blog. I found that Old English grammar was comparatively not too difficult: it does not have nearly as many endings and inflections to learn as those other languages, and most other features are similar to Modern English. As I finished learning the basic grammar, I started working on translation. At first, I was only reading a small number lines each week, but this has steadily increased as I improve. After reading a few small texts, I read a prose story, “The Fall of Adam and Eve.” Since then, I have been reading “The Battle of Maldon,” a heroic poem. I have really loved reading poetry, in which I have noticed and written about a variety of poetic devices, especially relating to syntax. Old English poetry has a completely different feel from Latin. Poets make quite frequent use of devices like variation, the restatement of a noun with a grammatically parallel phrase, which rarely appears in Roman poetry. Each week, I can tell that I am getting faster and more fluent in my translation. It took some time to get used to reading poetry, but recently I have been able to read about 60-80 lines a week, which I am very happy with. The thing I am most trying to improve on is using a dictionary as little as possible, which means really trying to learn vocabulary and inflections so I can increase my reading speed.

Now, I am starting to shift in focus towards study of Old English translation — specifically translation between Latin and Greek. I am reading a text written by Ælfric in Latin, the “Colloquy,” originally designed to teach Latin to Old English speakers. I am starting with the Old English translation of it, and then I will read the original Latin. Through this, I want to get a basic sense of how Old English and Latin correspond in translation — how do authors translate different grammatical constructions and vocabulary, how often do they change word orders, etc. After this, I will move on to studying a more advanced text, likely poetry, where I expect to see many variations from this basic form of translation. When doing so, I will find a topic to write my final paper on, which will analyze some aspect of a Latin-Old-English translation. Overall, I have really loved this independent study and think it has gone quite well, and I can’t wait to continue!

More Poetic Syntax: Parallelism

The past couple weeks, I have continued to read the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon.”  I want to write this blog post as a short continuation to my topic from last week, which was the syntax of Old English poetry. So, another common syntactic device is parallelism, which is the use of successive phrases which, with respect to some grammatical feature, match in word order.  That sounds complicated, but a simple example from “Maldon” is, “Æþelrēdes eard     ealdres mīnes folc” or “Æþelrēd’s country, my lord’s land.” The two genitive nouns, “Æþelrēd” and “lord,” are placed before the subjects of those nouns, “country” and “land” (this quote is also an example of variation, which I discussed last week). Thus, the two phrases are parallel because they match in word order with respect to case. However, parallelism can be much more complex, even with just four words. Later in the poem is the line, “Hēt þā bord beran, beornas gangan” or “he commanded to bear shields, the men to go” (with “shields” placed before “to bear”).At first glance, this may seem to be a normal parallel construction: “shields” and “men” are both in the accusative case and are followed by the infinitives “to bear” and “to go.” So, the phrases seem to match grammatically. However, there is a crucial difference. “Shields” is the object of the subsequent infinitive “to bear,” whereas “men” is the object of “commanded” and the subject the subject of the infinitive “to go.” In a way, “men” acts as the implied subject of “to bear,” but the poet clearly tries to create a sense of parallelism by placing the objects and infinitives in the same position. However, there is also an almost chiastic feeling to the line (chiasmus is “ABBA” word order), as the two things that are commanded — “to bear” and “men” — are placed back-to-back as the “B”s of the structure, and the two concepts that follow from these — “shields” and “to go” — in the “A” positions. This interpretation is supported by the fact that in a different line, the poet uses the same verb “command” without naming a direct object, meaning one can either command something to happen or command someone to do something. If Old English had passive verb forms, I wonder if “to bear” would be passive, meaning “he commanded the shields to be born, the men to go” — a much clearer example of chiasmus. No matter what, this is a great example of how Old English poets can combine inflection with syntax to create a certain effect while preserving the intended meaning.

Syntax in Old English Poetry

These past couple weeks, I have started translating Old English poetry, which has been interesting to compare to the prose I was previously reading. As one might expect, Old English poetry employs more varied syntax than prose. The most basic explanation for this phenomenon (which, as far as I know, exists is in basically every language) is that poetry places “constraints” on composition, such as meter or alliteration, and authors additionally might prioritize effect over clarity. Though this difference in word order certainly exists in Modern English poetry, it is much more apparent in case languages (those that mark grammatical function of nouns with endings), such as Old English. In Old English, an author is free to put an object or verb before a subject to fit a meter or achieve an effect. One great example of this was in “The Battle of Maldon,” a poem I began reading this week. After describing how Byrthnoth, the Earl of Essex, prepared his troops for battle against the vikings, the poet says, “Þā stōd on stæðe, stīðlīċe clypode // wīċinga ār, wordum mǣlde.” the first line simply means, “then stood on the shore, firmly called out” — the poet does not name the subject before the verb, leaving us in suspense over who is calling out. However, the next line begins, “a messenger of the vikings,” with this phrase in the nominative (subjective) case. This is hardly possible in Modern English, as we almost always have to name our subject before our verb. The last two words mean, “he spoke words,” but “words” comes before “spoke.” This allows the word “clypode” or “called out” from the previous line to match the almost synonymous verb of the next line, “mǣlde” or “spoke.” It is possible to do this in Old English because “wordum” is in the accusative case, so, even though it precedes the verb, there is no doubt it is the object. Through the varied word order allowed by cases, the author can achieve effects impossible without cases and unnecessary in prose.

In addition to interesting syntax, I have noticed the prevalence of a common Old English device, variation, in the poetry I have read. This describes the renaming of a phrase (especially a noun phrase) in close proximity, usually for emphasis. Again, Old English’s case system allows for this. While in Modern English, we have to place appositives directly next to each other, Old English authors could separate such phrases with other words without any ambiguity because the two appositive phrases were in the same case. For example, again in “The Battle of Maldon,” the poet says, “Ēac him wolde Ēadriċ     his ealdre gelǣstan // frēan tō ġefeohte,” meaning, “in addition, Eadric wished to serve his leader, his lord, in battle.” “Ealdre” or “leader” and “frean” or “lord” are appositive phrases and a good example of variation (“frean” restates “ealdre”), but they are not next to each other in the Old English, separated by “gelǣstan” or “to serve.” However, there is no ambiguity because they are each in the dative case, demonstrating their apposition. Thus, it is easy to see how Old English’s grammar provides a whole new set of possibilities in poetry from Modern English. I am excited to eventually study how this differs from Latin poetry, as Latin uses a similar case system and probably even more varied syntax.

Interim Reflection

This week, instead of a normal blog post, I’m reflecting on my study as a whole, thinking about my progress and process and looking into the future.

So far, I think this independent study is going really well. I have learned all of the basic grammar of Old English, and at this point I’m just focusing on developing my translation skills. This part of the process has gone much faster than I expected. While Old English is certainly not an easy language, the foundational grammar does not take too long to learn, especially since I have already studied Latin and Greek, and there are not too many forms (especially of verbs) to memorize and distinguish between. As things are going now, I plan to be in good shape to start studying translation theory and medieval approaches to translation after Spring break and then moving to analysis of Old English poetry translated from Latin. I will soon update my proposal to fit this new timeline, as I initially planned to take longer learning the grammar.

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Learning Verbs and Continuing Translation

Last week, I spent most of my time learning about Old English verbs. As I wrote about last week, I’m interested in comparing Old English’s grammar to that of Latin/Greek (which are quite similar to each other) and Modern English. Thankfully, verbs are much simpler in Old English than in Latin and Greek. For starters, there are only about 16 forms of each verb, compared to the hundreds in those languages. Latin and Greek verbs also have a series of “principal parts” — the forms of the verb one needs to memorize to even be able to conjugate it — whereas you can basically rely on just one form to find the rest in Old English. Another interesting difference is that Old English does not conjugate verbs for person in the plural. Thus, there are different verb forms for first, second, and third person singular (“I,” “you,” and “he/she/it”), but all persons share the same form in the plural. This is one example of Old English’s tendency not to use as many distinct forms as Latin and Greek, instead relying more heavily on demonstrative and personal pronouns to free up the word order. For example, because Old English does not conjugate plural verbs for person, an author or speaker may need to use a plural personal pronoun to clarify an ambiguous subject. Even more importantly, Old English often uses demonstratives to show case where noun endings and context are not sufficient. The other interesting feature of Old English verbs is that they only conjugate in two tenses, present and past. Similar to Modern English, Old English often uses auxiliary verbs to express other timeframes, such as the verb sculan to mean “will.” Last week, I also read another text, “Wulfstan’s Translation of the Apostle’s Creed,” which was fascinating. Two things I noticed from the reading were the prevalence of Object-Subject-Verb word order, especially in subordinate clauses, and the frequent use of synonyms for emphasis. As I keep reading, I will continue to track patterns and features like these and think about how they may affect translation into and from Old English.

Starting Old English

Hi, everyone! Welcome to my blog for my independent study on Old English and Translation Theory. I have just finished my first official week of the study, so I wanted to write a blog post summarizing what I’ve done so far. Right now (and for the next couple months), I am just focusing on the basics of Old English, working through my introductory textbook to learn the foundational grammar and vocabulary and practicing translation through the texts in that book. I have gone through the sections on pronunciation, pronouns, and nouns. I also started working on adjectives, which I will finish this week as I also learn about verbs. I am really loving Old English. Perhaps unsurprisingly, its grammar feels halfway between Latin or Greek, which I have studied before, and Modern English, of course with some Germanic-specific elements added in.

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