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"Caught in Translation: Teaching Old English Literature to Undergraduates"

By Ruth Oldman, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

(June 2016 Issue / PDF)

Many students entering college today seem to come in with false understandings of Old English poetry. Instead of thinking of a language derived from West Germanic roots, students may think of the phrases used by Shakespeare and possibly Chaucer. They may imagine castles and knights, conventions of the Middle Ages, instead of picturing mead-halls made of straw and wood. When teaching a course in translation to undergraduates, providing students with an introduction of Anglo-Saxon England and its history, as well as a foundation of how language has shifted from Old to Modern English, could help shift their perspectives on the time period. It can also help if students are provided with variations in glosses and translations of specific texts, introducing them to the disputable nature of translating Old English texts. To effectively grasp these concepts, students should research and present on various aspects of daily Anglo-Saxon life to establish context for poetry as well as critique translations through comparison to illustrate the difficulty of translating Old English poetry. By providing these multiple dimensions, students are not only able to access the information in several different ways but can also see the “bigger picture” in regards to how culture and history affect the Old English language.

There are two critical approaches that contribute greatly to student understanding when doing an in-depth introduction to Old English literature in translation: contextualization and experience with the language. Two specific ways to accomplish student success with these concepts are student-led group presentations on daily aspects of Anglo-Saxon life and translation comparisons of a poetry passage. These assignments are designed to fulfill these objectives as well as provide students with the opportunity to refine skills such a collaborative research, analysis, and criticism. It is also important to incorporate student-centered aspects into these projects as a way of creating a sense of ownership in the creation of knowledge as well as sparking interest in the material and assignments themselves.

In order to provide a contextual springboard from which students can proceed with research for their first project, it is important to first understand students’ preconceived notions. Asking students what they think Old English is and what they understand about Anglo-Saxon England, through free-write and/or group discussion, allows students to learn the familiarity of their classmates and interact with the knowledge the class constructs together. This is also an important exercise for the instructor, in that her or she learns the amount of knowledge students bring to the course. While it is critical as an instructor to clear up discrepancies and provide a brief overview of Anglo-Saxon England’s historical narrative, it is also important for students to feel ownership in creating the class’s collective understanding of the material.

In detail, the first project asks students to sign up for and prepare a presentation about an aspect of Anglo-Saxon daily life that sparks their interest. Pairs or small presentation groups allow students to practice collaboration in their research. Topics could range from women’s roles, family, kinship, food, architecture, military, and so forth. Presentations would include a handout with key points for the class to reference; although seemingly a student mirror of “traditional” approaches of knowledge creation, these handouts are designed to both act as reference sheets for their peers and as a way for the presenters to have control of the production of knowledge. Students would be encouraged to deviate from the traditional presentation norm and include creative elements as a way of delivering their material in an accessible manner. For instance, if a student chose to research food they could cook an Anglo-Saxon recipe. If the topic was military, students could bring in photos of weaponry or video clips of tactics used in battle. These topics will also be spaced out throughout the course of the semester, being paired with a poem containing the subject matter specific to the presentation. Doing so would require students to draw parallels between the topic and the text and placing the poem into the context of the time. The main goal of this exercise is to illustrate to students that Old English literature, much like any other literature, reflects its history, society, and culture. It also requires students to undergo extensive research and draw from various sources, a skill that is applicable in and out of the classroom.

An example of one of these presentations would be the examination of kinship or lordship within “The Wanderer.” Robert E. Bjork notes “the poem is an artifact reflecting the culture from which it springs, and the wanderer participates—or has participated—completely in the social and cultural traditions of his age” (316). It contains contextual indicators that illustrate the importance of such traditions. In fact, the poem provides the “immediate context for the wanderer’s woe: feud has taken away his kinsman and lord. Feud, of course, is a conventional, inevitable aspect of this society. And just as feuds are inevitable…so is the grief resulting from them. One can depend on grief following a feud” (Bjork 318). By linking this topic to this specific poem, students can see the cultural impact kinship and lordship had on an individual as well as the importance it held during the time.

“The Wanderer” does contain more cultural indicators than just kinship, though. While the presentation on the topic would be critical when studying the poem, it would also be pertinent to use some class time to engage in discussion about other contextual indicators students noticed and what we can posit about Anglo-Saxon England from these examples. This could be an exercise most likely conducted with each poem to help lead us into conversation about the themes, critical in helping students grasp as many facets of the social and cultural traditions as possible. Bjork draws attention to the author “mak[ing] use of various poetic forms and functions endemic to his culture. And he does so in a way that reinforces developments in his use of wyrd and the imagery of silence…[w]e have his pattern repeated and lengthened in the next 30-40 lines…until we reach a series of genre clusters in II. 65b-110, representing gnome, chronicle, and homily” (320). Examining the actual language and its structure would aid students in grasping the concept of Anglo-Saxon poetic form and literary tradition within one poem.

Placing “The Wanderer” further along in the semester gives students the opportunity to familiarize themselves with these concepts earlier on and the tools to hopefully identify the cultural and literary conventions for themselves. When “the poet laments the loss of things valuable in Anglo-Saxon society, the horse, the warrior, the treasure-giver, the festival halls, and the hall joys…” the “ubi sunt passage, deriving as it does from the homiletic tradition and emphasizing as it does “the vanity of the world,” prepares the way for the final statement of consolation at poem’s end” (Bjork 321). These valuables may seem foreign to a modern undergraduate mindset so by drawing parallels between modern examples—such as their cellphones, Facebook accounts, cars, and close friends—students should be able to identify the passage as homily and be capable of understanding the importance of the lamented items within the list of lost things. Through presentations on topics that interest them and conversations about social and cultural aspects referenced in the poetry, students will be able to work towards a better understanding of the history of Anglo-Saxon England and the context in which the poems fit while honing collaborative research skills important for future academic and occupational pursuits.

Another concept important for students to understand is ambiguity many scholars encounter in translating Old English texts. Having students experience this through interaction with a text and a comparison of language introduces them to the issues faced when translating. One way to introduce the material is to give a short selection of Old English nouns and adjectives and asking students to translate to the best of their ability with the aid of a glossary. Allowing them to interact with the language, as opposed to just hearing about it, provides a tangible example that launches into a discussion on the evolution of the language as well as the difficulties faced by translators. Using student produced examples will provide a personalized conversation intended to explain that scholars tend to gloss and translate texts differently depending upon the mood they are attempting to create. In Kevin S. Kiernan’s article “Reading Cædmon’s “Hymn” with Someone Else’s Glosses” he discusses “[t]he textual history of Cædmon’s “Hymn” provides an unmiraculous case history of how re-productions of literary texts both purposely and unintentionally re-present our past” (103). Scholars tend to translate their glosses with a certain lens, either focusing on the poetics or the plot or occasionally attempting both, and wind up presenting the text and the past in a certain light. For instance, in Murray McGillivray’s Old English Reader, the Old English word “mod” translates to “mind, heart, spirit” (269). While all of these glosses are similar in usage they differ in definition and cultural meaning. Many times context helps determine which term is accurate, but other times personal opinion can interfere and where “spirit” would have been more appropriate “mind” is used. Kiernan quotes Bede who states “it is not possible to translate verse, however well composed, literally from one language to another without some loss of beauty and dignity” (104). If a translator is attempting to preserve poetic forms, such as alliteration, one gloss may be preferred over another to maintain a modern translation of this literary device. Even then, something would still be lost, a concept that students shall become familiarized with when studying Old English.

This exercise can also lead to a conversation on canon and the universal text, gloss, and translation. Kiernan describes the Cædmon’s “Hymn” present in the Norton Anthology:

The modern English translation effectively hides the unprecedented combination of languages, dialects, manuscripts, and versions in the Norton reproduction. Under the big general heading of “Old English Literature” the Norton first prints a modern English translation of “Anglo-Latin Literature,” Bede’s story of Cædmon. We can recognize the source by Bede’s remarks introducing and then commenting on his Latin paraphrase of Cædmon’s “Hymn.” Yet these remarks by Bede can appropriately apply only to his Latin paraphrase…we know that none of the Anglo-Saxon Latin manuscripts contains an integrated copy of the Old English “Hymn,” only marginal copies. The Norton silently integrates its copy from the Old English Alfredian translation in Bodleian Library MS Tanner 10. (117)

Kiernan also discusses earlier in his article that the trouble with Cædmon’s “Hymn” is that Bede “specifies that he translated the short version Cædmon sang in his dream, not the longer one produced the next morning” (104). From this explanation, it is clear that liberties have been taken from the very beginning of Old English translation. It is important for students to understand that even something with great authority must be approached cautiously for this reason. Norton takes an Alfredian translation and makes it Bede’s Anglo-Latin translation. Although Norton has help from various prestigious scholars, it does not mean that integrating and molding copies together is ethical as it seems to ignore key contextual facts. Helping students understand these concepts allows them to recognize that reading texts in translation involves a large amount of trust in the translator. It also allows them authority to challenge the canon through analysis, giving them power within an academic conversation they may have felt alienated from previously.

With these concepts, confidence, and tools, then, students can be given a passage of Old English poetry and asked to find three different Modern English translations for a translation comparison project. The comparison should begin by identifying whether they are reading a comprehensive translation, one which tries to maintain Old English poetic form, or one that attempts both. Identification will involve a close analysis of the translation, examining glosses of certain words—like “mod”—and determining whether the translator chose the correct gloss for their purpose. They will be asked to explain the benefits of each and if one translator achieves their goal more effectively than another. To conclude, students should explain which translation style they prefer as well as which translation, supporting their opinions with thoughtful insight. The overall intention of this exercise is to allow students practice with analysis, critique and peer reviewing, a skill that will be useful if they choose to continue on with their education. The project also provides an outlet for students to engage with multiple versions of a text and the opportunity to have authority in a previously inaccessible academic conversation.

It can be difficult to illustrate the appeal of Old English literature, particularly within undergraduate coursework. Offering a course this focused would likely be directed towards English majors in their final few semesters of coursework. Even then, there would likely be a challenge in attracting interest at first. However, it is possible to chip away at beleaguered attitudes towards the history of Anglo-Saxon England and establishing a context for the poetry, making it more accessible and understandable through a student-centered approach. By providing the opportunity to choose their presentation topics and creatively present the material to the class, students have ownership in their education. It also has them practicing collaboration and research, skills pertinent in any profession. The translation comparison gives students the opportunity to engage in critical conversations and critique their peers. By applying a student-centered approach to the teaching of Old English literature and language, there is a stronger chance for students to become enthused towards the materials and hone their skills to become better scholars, workers, and professionals.

Works Cited

Bjork, Robert E. "Sundor æt Rune: The Voluntary Exile of the Wanderer." Old English Literature. Ed. R. M. Liuzza. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002. 315-27. Print.

Kiernan, Kevin S. "Reading Cædmon’s “Hymn” with Someone Else’s Glosses." Old English Literature. Ed. R. M. Liuzza. New Haven: Yale UP, 2002. 103-24. Print.

McGillivray, Murray, ed. Old English Reader. Peterborough: Broadview, 2011. Print.