ENGL / WRIT 3377

Winter 2023  ||  half unit of credit  ||  Tuesday and Thursday 12:00- 1:15

Course at a glance
Why Read Old English Literature?
Pre-requisites and Program Requirements
Course Aims
Experiential (hands-on) Learning

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. We will examine translation theories from the Middle Ages to the present, discussing concepts of originality and equivalence, the status of translations, and issues dealing with gender and colonialism.

You will put these theories into practice by learning to translate Old English, one of the languages spoken and written in Britain from approximately the 5th to the 11th century. We’ll start with the basics of grammar while reading widely in modern translations of Old English poetry to become acquainted with this early medieval literature. These readings will introduce you to a growing body of contemporary texts termed the “New Old English” poetry. At the same time, you will learn to translate for meaning before eventually crafting a polished translation of a short passage on your own along with an analysis of your theoretically informed choices as a translator.  

We study Old English in order to read and translate it but not to converse in 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 translation – 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. No previous knowledge of the language – or even of grammar – is expected; we will start with the basics.

Why read Old English?

Detail from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript
Detail from an early medieval manuscript

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 historical 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.”

Elizabeth Elstob, who advocated the study of Old English for women in the 18th century
Elizabeth Elstob, who advocated the study of Old English for women in the 18th century, and who wrote the first OE grammar in modern English

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’ll experience the creative process of translation yourself by working towards a polished translation of a short passage. 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’ll 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.

Detail on the Franks Casket showing the mythical figure Weyland the Smith and some runes
Detail on the Franks Casket showing the mythical figure Weyland the Smith and some runes

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.

AEthelflaed, the
AEthelflaed, the “Warrior Queen”
of the Mercians

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

Stylized horse head from the Staffordshire Hoard
Stylized horse head from
the Staffordshire Hoard

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 recommended that you have some experience in a 2000- level course before registering in a senior seminar. Students who are not English Majors, Writing Minor, 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 anna.smol@msvu.ca.

For English Honours students: this course may count as a 0.5 medieval credit or as a half unit of a theory credit. For English Majors: this course partially fulfills the requirement of a pre-nineteenth-century credit. For Writing Minor students, WRIT 3377 counts as an upper-level elective in the Writing Minor.


Course Aims

These course aims are sometimes called “learning objectives.” Learning is an open-ended process that can be unpredictable. While I am here to guide and help you in any way I can, you alone are responsible for your own learning. What you get out of this course depends on the effort you put into it. This list of course goals is not exhaustive. Surprise me, or yourself, by going beyond expectations!

Successful completion of this course should give you:

  • knowledge of some of the major theoretical issues in translation studies;
  • knowledge of some of the major short poems of the Old English period, as well as the various styles of contemporary translations of this material;
  • an ability to read Old English, along with the enhanced understanding of modern English that this knowledge entails;
  • a creative writing experience in producing a polished translation of a selected passage of Old English poetry;
  • knowledge of research conventions and resources used in literary studies;
  • experience in communicating ideas orally in a seminar and in writing in various media.
Anglo-Saxon brooch. Trustees of the British Museum
Image:  Brooch. Late 6th – early 7th century. © Trustees of the British Museum.



Please note: this text list has not been finalized for the Winter 2023 term, although it is likely to be as follows. You might want to wait before buying, however, until the final text list is posted.

• Books to buy:
A Gentle Introduction to Old English
. Murray McGillivray. Broadview Press.
This is the book that we will use to learn how to read Old English. This book will also be used if you are taking ENGL 3378.

Old English Poetry: An Anthology. Trans. R. Liuzza. Broadview Press.
This book contains translations of the texts that we will be learning to read in Old English, and you can use this book to guide your own translation work. We will also read (in modern English) many of the poems in order to develop an idea of the range of Old English poetry, which will help you make your choice for a translation project.

• Online/ through Moodle:

A Guide to Old English, edited by Bruce Mitchell and Fred Robinson, 2011. MSVU e-book. You will have to consult this book for the Old English text and glossary for your translation project. You can find the link on our Moodle page.

Various essays and translations of Old English poems, either linked to e-books or provided as PDFs. These will form the basis for discussions of translation issues. I will occasionally recommend other books in the library or online that will be relevant for your translation project.


Experiential (hands-on) learning

Experiential (or hands-on) learning takes place in all of our English and Writing courses, as you not only learn to analyze and write about texts as a professional literary critic, writer, or editor would but also engage in activities that are directly relevant to other types of work undertaken by English and Writing graduates in their later careers:

  • critical analysis of text
  • developing and writing a concise, coherent, and persuasive argument
  • working collaboratively
  • providing constructive criticism to peers on their ideas and writing.

See our Experiential Learning page for some of your other options in our English / Writing courses: http://www.msvu.ca/en/home/programsdepartments/BA/english/experiential.aspx

In this course, you will go through the process of working like a professional literary translator and critic.


Syllabus and Evaluation

A detailed syllabus, including a schedule of readings and course policies, will be posted and updated regularly on the course Moodle site. Registered students may email me for a copy shortly before classes begin. The Evaluation scheme will be detailed in class and in the course outline.


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