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The Nature of the Language
What is a Translation?
    Anglo-Saxon brooch
       Anglo-Saxon Mount


            What exactly is ‘Old English’? Often when one tries explaining it others begin commenting on Shakespeare and Marlowe. They think it refers perhaps to Chaucer or something that’s relatively recognizable to the contemporary reader. Old English is, however, a remarkably different language from middle or present day English. It is Germanic in form and origin. In the fifth and sixth centuries, West Germanic mercenaries left Germany to come to Britain to defend the native Celts against the invading Scots and the Picts. The Roman legions had just withdrawn in 410 A.D and as a result these invasions occurred. The importation of Germanic culture, brought on mainly by the Jutes, the Angles and the Saxons, overcame Celtic ways of living, and the language they spoke became predominant. Old English is therefore unique in that it is an ancient language belonging to Britain but with deep Germanic roots. [1] A wide variety of Old English texts still exist from prayers to poems, recipes to riddles. This text focuses on the riddles of the Anglo-Saxons as they are perhaps one of the only windows available into the everyday lives and perceptions of this lost culture. Although other literary texts exist one must always keep in mind the fact that the elite were predominantly the ones writing, whilst the majority of people remained illiterate and knowledgeable of a strictly oral method of communication, entertainment and memory-recording. Despite this large gap in literacy there was much smaller distance between the oral and written language. Spoken English and recorded text were similar in nature and had a much closer relationship. Many people read out loud or together in groups, although most poetry was performed without reference to a text. As a result, the literature we are left with today is very reflective of the actual language that was spoken so many years ago.

           The riddles that we will be focusing on were originally spoken and passed down through word of mouth, eventually being recorded by scribes. The Exeter book contains a wide variety of these clever and puzzling riddles, from the common, colloquial and rude to the reverent and religious. This large collection, covering various subject matter, was given to the Cathedral Library in the late tenth century by Leofric, the bishop of Exeter.[2] Approximately ninety-three in total still exist, all coming from this one source, but unfortunately the manuscript suffers from severe damage, especially in the last fourteen leaves. The charming and often humorous nature of the Exeter riddles makes them enjoyable for students who are new to the language of the Anglo-Saxons. The riddles not only allow us to learn their spoken word, but also provide a pleasurable venue to do so. Although it has been over one thousand years it is remarkable how the delicate charm and wit of these puzzles seems to transcend time. This manual has been designed to give students a comfortable introduction to what may at first seem a daunting task. It seeks not only to explain the basic guiding principles behind understanding the language, but also provide helpful tips and useful examples.

The Nature of the Language

            It is evident from simply looking at a passage in Old English that it is an entirely different language from the English we speak today. It is from this very discourse, however, that our modern dialects originate. There are many significant differences between Modern English and Old English that are important to understand before one goes about translating literary texts. The primary one is the complex inflection that Old English performs, while contemporary English bases itself far more on syntax. In Old English affixes are added and the base word often altered in order to reflect the relationship between the words and their grammar. In present day English, although inflection still does occur, it happens less often. We still use the case marker of ‘s’ for genitive nouns for example, as in ‘the bear’s claws’ and ‘the flower’s fragrance.’ Unlike Old English, however, it is also common to discuss the fragrance of the flower, which still illustrates possession. The word 'of' is a separate entity and not an inflection on the original word. [3] As a result of the complex inflexions, learning the endings of Old English words is a very important contribution to our general understanding of Anglo-Saxon texts. The prefixes and suffixes of Old English words help us become aware of what their function is in the sentence. Once we know the purpose of the word and can identify whether or not it s a verb or noun, as well as its case, we can start to piece the meaning together, almost like a puzzle. This brings us to the second main difference between Modern English and the older language: word order.

            Unlike the way present-day grammar functions, Old English is more free in terms of the order of the actual words. This is not to say that there are not constraints, but to the Modern reader the sentence structure appears to be loose and less regimented. Later, we will explore the general patterns of Old English sentences, but for now it is important to understand that the words do not always follow what we, as modern day speakers, think of as a general logical order. The subject may be placed at the end or in the middle of a sentence or could be omitted altogether. This is why it is extremely important that we understand what each word is doing in the sentence. The inflections in Old English occur to help us differentiate the words and their function.   

            The Anglo-Saxon language also differs in terms of its use of gender. Old English uses a ‘grammatical gender’ system as opposed to a ‘natural gender system.’[4] In Modern English only animate - usually only human - characters receive a gendered tag, whereas in Old English all nouns are gendered regardless of whether or not they are living. There exists a ‘third gender’ in the Anglo-Saxon as there are three categories in the old system: male, female and neuter. An altar, for example, in Old English (wigeđ) is considered to be neuter and its accompanying pronoun is it (hit). A fountain, on the other hand, (wille), is gendered to be female and is accompanied by the pronoun, she (heo).

            Old English is also different from Modern English in its basic vocabulary. As you start to translate you will become aware of how dense and complex each individual word is. The lexicon of the Anglo-Saxons was tightly compact and to unpack the meaning of the words is a difficult and sometimes impossible task. This is not to say that we should not attempt a translation, but sometimes words in Old English are simply not translatable. While we can attempt to render these words to the best of our ability, a part of the meaning tends to get lost in the process. The same thing happens in contemporary translation as well, for example, when an Italian joke is told in English and somehow loses its humour along the way. Many words in Old-English are very concentrated and simultaneously convey many different emotions and feelings. The Anglo-Saxon word legere, for example, can be translated grave, sickness, sick bed or place of rest, all of which would change the tone of the translated piece dramatically. As a result your translation of a particular work might differ greatly from my translation or a university professor's, depending on how they interpret the meaning of the original text and how they decided to convey it. Basically, there is no one correct translation to any Anglo-Saxon work because of how the language functions. The Anglo-Saxons used words like we use concepts, each separate utterance indicated a number of meanings all intricately woven into one condensed statement. The meaning of Anglo-Saxon words was also very context-sensitive. Depending on where the conversation was taking place or who was speaking, words would often have different meanings. Modern English is more rigid and functions with far less semantic flexibility, because we have many more words. Our present language is very determined in a limited number of contexts with meanings infinitely pinned down and recorded in dictionaries. We are told from a young age to refer to these books in order to get 'The' meaning of a word, regardless of when it was used and where it was spoken. Because Modern English is more literal than the oral tradition of the Anglo-Saxon language it is far less concerned with the context in which words were spoken.

What is a Translation?

            But what exactly is a translation? Translating the Anglo-Saxon language is a great deal more than simply interpreting an old text for modern readers. It is about trying to uncover the message of a thousand-year-old script. It is about peaking into the cultural lives of those who inhabited England so many years ago. In many ways Old English texts themselves are like riddles that need to be solved and picked apart. Translation is like doing a jigsaw puzzle blind, without having a completed picture to refer to; you have to do it in parts, without looking at a completed copy first, and eventually everything will come together. The process of translation always needs to be given remarkable attention, patience and confidence. It is not only about rendering the exact meaning as was existent in the past, but about trying to recreate the oral and textual magic that was Old English poetry. Approaches to translation are manifold and differ greatly. One can attempt to undertake a very literal translation of a text, trying to render a passage in Modern English as grammatically close as possible. Students of Old English can also take a more poetic approach and try to make their translations alliterate and flow more smoothly than the original verse. Others may want to reinvent the passage for present-day readers and include modern language. Whatever the approach, whatever the method, the process of translation is at once both an educational and awe-inspiring process which helps one understand not only the culture of the past, but also the thoughts and perceptions of the present. Our own concerns, prejudices, ignorances and personal preferences will always be intricately bound up with our translations. The medium, is also largely the message: font style, punctuation or lack thereof, hand-written or typed text, brand of paper, and so on, all contribute greatly to the translation’s overall effect and meaning. With a thousand different approaches, come a thousand different translations, which makes Old English texts not only historical remnants of a culture now past, but also windows into later cultures that have attempted translations, reflections of ideological and social frameworks.

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[1] W. Bruce Finnie, The Stages of English – Texts, Transcriptions, Exercises (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1972) 9-10.

[2] Paull F. Baum, Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book (Durham: Duke University Press, 1963) xi-xii.

[3] Elizabeth Closs Traugott, The History of English Syntax (Toronto: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc, 1972) 75-76.

[4] Traugott, 85.