Fall 2020 || half unit of credit || Tuesday and Thursday 12:00- 1:15
Course at a glance
Translation is both an academic subject of study and a creative art. Learning to translate Old English will give you the opportunity to experience first-hand the processes and challenges of translation, raising your awareness of translators’ choices no matter what language you are reading. In this course, you will start with the basics of grammar while reading widely in modern translations of Old English poetry to gain an understanding of this early medieval literature. You will then learn to translate for meaning before crafting a polished translation of a short passage on your own. Our readings will cover theories of translation and introduce you to a growing body of contemporary texts that have been termed the “New Old English” poetry.
Old English is a language that was spoken and then written in Britain between approximately the fifth and eleventh centuries. We study the language in order to read and translate it but not to speak it as you would a modern language. Learning to read Old English will acquaint you with a fascinating literature, challenge your historical preconceptions, and allow you to engage creatively with the texts in workshopping your own translations – and, of course, in the process improving your understanding of how language works, essential knowledge if you hope to become a teacher, writer, editor, or effective communicator in any role.
This course is a pre-requisite for ENGL 3378 Beowulf: Then and Now. Students who have taken ENGL 3361 cannot take this course for credit.
Why read Old English literature?
The literature is beautiful and fascinating and varied.
Some people might think that Old English literature is simply about dragons, warriors, and raucous feasting. There is some of that, but the literature that survives from this era can also be meditative and philosophical, as in the elegiac poems. It can play with language and meaning, as in the riddles. It can tell of wonders and miracles in saints’ lives, or provide proverbial advice on daily life. It can construct histories of the past or exhort people to political action, as in the work of Bede, or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, or the preacher Wulfstan. We will read a variety of works, and you will have an opportunity to select texts that interest you in your reading and translation projects.
The language is beautiful and useful to learn.
Your first impression of the Old English language might be similar to the way J.R.R. Tolkien described it: “rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains. But I cannot guess what it means, save that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.” The character Legolas speaks these words as he listens to the Rohirrim, Tolkien’s fictional version of the early English, in The Lord of the Rings. Legolas expresses a dominant theme in Old English literature: the contemplation of the transience of life and the need for courage to face this reality. “Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?” are Tolkien’s lines (and you might recognize Peter Jackson’s film version of them), but they are adapted from the Old English poem “The Wanderer.”
This “rich and rolling” language is also a useful study for any student. Consider how many times you’ve wished you knew something about grammar — maybe when you weren’t sure of how to correct a faulty sentence or how to understand the comments on your essays. A Canadian university graduate should know something about the structure of the English language, and this knowledge is obviously important if you hope to go into teaching, editing, writing, or other communication-related positions when you graduate. We’ll proceed slowly in our study of the language, making sure you have a grasp of basic concepts before developing your reading and translation skills. A study of Old English will also help you develop an understanding of the history of the English language and the deep roots of many of the words we use today.
You may develop a hands-on understanding of translation theories and practices while learning to assess different kinds of translations.
Although English is a widely known language around the globe, we do rely a great deal on translations in order to understand other cultures. Learning to translate Old English will give you the opportunity to understand the processes and challenges of translation first-hand. The early English themselves were prolific translators of Latin, and some of their works will be part of our discussions as we learn to assess what different translations can offer.
You may experience the creative process of translation yourself by working towards a polished translation of a short passage yourself. This work will go beyond translating for meaning to challenge your full creative and scholarly potential in deciding what kind of a translation you want to produce and working towards your goals in class workshops.
You will become acquainted with some contemporary experiments in the translation of Old English poetry. Our reading list will include samples from what critic Chris Jones calls the “New Old English” poetry — a surge of translations in the twenty-first century that experiment with how to represent this early medieval literature.
You can study the interplay of orality and literacy in Anglo-Saxon culture, observing interesting analogues to our contemporary transition to a digital culture.
The Germanic tribes who settled in Britain in the fifth century brought with them an oral culture, with some use of runic inscriptions, but within a few hundred years these early medieval peoples were producing written works of the highest quality. Yet many of their writings bear the marks of an oral style. We will have an opportunity to speculate on the interplay between orality and literacy in early English culture, in which we might find some analogues in our contemporary transition to a digital culture.
The early medieval period can challenge your historical preconceptions and make you rethink some ideas you might be taking for granted.
Do you think of the early medieval period as the “Dark Ages”? Do you expect to find primitive warriors slaying monsters and raping women? Or do you expect to find Christian monks praying and singing in their churches? Do you think the period is young and primitive or old and ancient? Lawless and free, or repressed and controlled? This is your opportunity to explore what we can know about the past and why it matters to us in the present.
You can explore answers to the question, what do we mean by “medieval” and why are the Middle Ages everywhere around us in the 21st century? For that matter, why were the Victorians so taken with the idea of the medieval? And who was Elizabeth Elstob?
Part of our discussions throughout the term will involve examining the concept of medievalism — that is, the recreation of some aspect of the Middle Ages in a later time. Look around today and you will see the “medieval” all around us — in television shows, films, graphic novels, video games, and fiction. Why and how do we use the idea of the “medieval”? Why did medievalism appeal so strongly to the Victorians in both popular and scholarly sources? What did the first scholars of Old English before the nineteenth century find important ? In all of these times, how did the “medieval” help to shape notions of the present day? (And for some clues about Elizabeth Elstob, read this.)
Pre-requisites and Program Requirements
Although the minimum requirement for an upper-level seminar course such as this one is successful completion of one unit of literature at the 1000 level, it is strongly recommended that you have some experience in a 2000-level course before registering in a senior seminar. Students who are not English Majors or Honours students are welcome in the course if they have the equivalent experience in other departments. If you are not an English student and are unsure about whether you are adequately prepared for this level, please email me at email@example.com.
For English Honours students: this course is listed as a Group B: Medieval course in your list of required courses. For English Majors: this course fulfills the requirement of a pre-nineteenth-century course.
Please note: This course is the pre-requisite for ENGL 3378: Beowulf, Then & Now
Your professors plan their courses with certain learning objectives in mind. But of course, in the end you are responsible for your own learning; what you will get out of a course will depend on the efforts that you put into it. I think that successful completion of this course should give you:
1) a knowledge of some of the major texts of the early English period;
2) a knowledge of theoretical approaches to the reading, editing, translating, and interpreting of medieval texts;
3) an ability to read Old English, along with the enhanced sense of English grammar that this knowledge entails;
4) a knowledge of research conventions and resources used in literary studies. You will learn to use secondary sources in an essay of some length and breadth;
5) experience in communicating ideas orally in a seminar and in writing.
An evaluation scheme will be posted here later this summer.
- A Gentle Introduction to Old English. Murray McGillivray. Broadview Press.
- Other texts will be announced later this summer.
These texts will be available in the MSVU Bookstore by September.
Watch one of the most creative adaptations of an Old English poem, “Wulf and Eadwacer,” in the following video, a machinima interpretation of a poem that has always struck readers as a most difficult riddle to solve.
A detailed syllabus will be posted and updated regularly on the course Moodle site.