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On Old English Translation

About 15 years ago, when I was still in grad school, I went through a phase where I did a certain amount of translation into Old English--perhaps a masochistic exercise, but it appealed to me as a technical challenge and as a way of improving my knowledge of the language. It would also come in handy when, years later, I got a job translating stuff for the Zemeckis version of Beowulf.

Around that time, coincidentally, the mailing Englisc mailing list was created for those who were interested in composing things in Old English. I boldly offered my translation of John Crowe Ransom's "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," and created a certain amount of controversy.

The basic dispute was whether it was appropriate to try to render modern concepts directly into Old English. Ransom's poem actually has little that is obviously modern at first glance. All the objects mentioned are familiar and have attested Old English translations. I only needed to coin a few new words, and pretty much all of these were completely morphologically regular: "gosisc" for "Goose" as a language, "æppelswefn" for "apple-dreams," and "goswise" for "goose-wise." The thorniest question was how to render "brown study," which is hard to translate as it both is idiomatic and possesses a deeply layered meaning in Ransom's poem. I chose to render this one as "brunwann blædlar" (brown mind-lore=study) which in retrospect was probably a mistake of hyper-literalism. Other concepts in the poem, such as the notion of quickness being "in" the girl's body, may be modern, but I think it's defensible to translate them closely.

At the time I felt--as I still largely do--that limiting oneself only to concepts available to the Anglo Saxons was unnecessarily restrictive. Not that I have any objection to projects like translating contemporary Latin works that never had Old English translations into Old English, but I do think it presumptuous of anyone to say that one shouldn't translate a particular work. Old English translation is not done for the benefit of Anglo-Saxon schoolboys. It is for us--or at least that tiny sliver of us who care about such things. So if an Anglo Saxon would find the particular phrasing odd, I can live with that. People who use Latin don't confine themselves to the universe of ideas possessed by Augustan era Romans, so why should modern users of Old English confine themselves to the worldview of Anglo-Saxon monks? In linguistic terms, I am skeptical of most claims (the Pirahã notwithstanding) that a particular language cannot as a matter of principal express alien concepts. For living languages, if a culture needs the new concept, the language will expand to accommodate it. For dead languages, pushing the boundaries of what is and is not natural to the language itself gives valuable insight into that world view.

So here is my translation of "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter." (Follow the link for the original text.) I've made one grammatical correction from the original version I posted to the Englisc list, but it's otherwise unchanged.

Bellan for Johannes Hwitsides Dehter

Wæs swilc hrædnes on hire lytel lic,
and swilc leohtnes on hire fotstapol,
nis na wundor þe hire brunwann blædlar
wafiað us eall.

Wæron hire wig hlyded in urre eagdure hean.
We locodon betwux ortgeardtreowum and geondan
hwær heo feng to wæpnum wið hire sceadwe,
oþþe gedrecced to þone mere

þa sleacan ges, snawwolcen gelic
hira snaw dreopiende on þæt grene græs,
gecræftende and blinnende, slæpig and modig,
þe cirmedon in gosisc, Eala,

for þære unteorigan heorte innan þa lytelan
hlafdigan mid þone rodd þe heom macodon arisan
fram hira middæglic æppelswefn and gestrican
goswise under þæm heofenum!

Ac gað nu þa bellan, and we sind gearwe,
on summe huse we sind styrnlice gestilled
to saganne we sind gedrecced æt hire brunwann blædlar
licgende swa gemete gewreðod.

A point that no one raised on the list, but which I myself was conscious of at the time, was that I had made no attempt to render the poem in Old English verse. I made some effort to do that at the time but didn't rework the whole poem, largely because writing metrically correct Old English verse is incredibly hard. I got better at that over time, and did some OE verse when working on Beowulf, but if I ever have the time to rework this, I might give it another shot.

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