OETG #6 — Speak your ferð: translating the ‘mind’ words in Maxims I

Translating the opening lines of Maxims I, one is immediately struck by the concentration of words relating to thought, the mind and intellectual activity. Since the maxim poems belong properly to the realm of wisdom and knowledge, it seems important to capture this vocabulary accurately from the outset.

Three words/phrases designating the mind occur: ferð, hygecræft, heortan geþōhtas. Those familiar with the elegies will recognise ferð from The Wanderer, where it occurs 5 times. The word means both ‘spirit’ and ‘mind’. It finds wide usage in both religious and battle poetry, as well as in personal names. Interestingly, it also appears once in an epithet for God, frēan on ferðe (Azarias l. 97a). Line 90a of The Wanderer shows the collocation frōd in ferðe, which explicitly associates the word with intellect and justifies semantic extension into this field.

Frige mec frōdum wordum!      Ne lǣt þīnne ferð onhǣlne

Try me intelligently, don’t hold back your mind

l. 1 Maxims I – translation by RB

hygecræft is a rare compound containing hyge, another word for ‘mind’, and cræft, a word bi-valent to the fields of practical, creative skill (as in Modern English – eg ‘handcraft’, ‘woodcraft’) and ‘force’, ‘strength’ and ‘power’ (the etymological meaning of the word). A challenge for translation arises from the preceding words relating to wisdom and intellect and the following line glēawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan, ‘the ingenious will re-work the old songs’. The notion of poetic dexterity is here harmonised with intellectual depth implied by þæt þū dēopost cunne. One could render þīnne hygecræft as ‘the power of your intellect’, ‘the force of your intellect’ or ‘the extent of your intellect’ as easily as ‘your ingenuity’ or even simply ‘your skill’. Practical facility and intellectual perspicuity do not seem quite as separate as they are to modern conceptions.

This idea is reinforced by the adjective glēaw, ‘clear-sighted’, ‘prudent’ and ‘discerning’, used in conjunction with the verb wrixlan. This verb normally describes the activity of the scop ‘poet’ in exerting special craftsmanship on his material (see Beowulf ll. 366, 874). It is a specialised word, almost always used in relation to verbal creativity. It seems regard should be paid to the appearance of this specialised word for poetic craftsmanship. One might then look for a translation for hygecræft including this notion of verbal dexterity – ‘mental prowess’, perhaps?

For translating heortan geþōhtas, all agreed one should avoid an etymological Modern English rendering ‘the thoughts of your heart’. The Modern English ‘heart’ is too embedded in the domain of romantic love to be useful here. But its semantics in Old English were wider, including, to an extent, the Modern English emotive connotations, along with notions of courage and mental activity. The exact phrase appears in The Seafarer l. 34a. In the context of wisdom poetry (as opposed to battle poetry) and what follows – a litany of eternal truths – one might translate þīne heortan geþōhtas as ‘your convictions’, in the sense of the things one is ‘convinced’ of to be general and true, perhaps even ‘principles’?

                                                                      Nelle ic þē mīn dyrne gesecgan,
gif þū mē þīnne hygecræft hylest      ond þīne heortan geþōhtas.

I shan’t tell you mine,
if you hide from me your proficiency and your principles.
l. 2b-3 Maxims I – translation by RB

Roland Brennan, PhD candidate, UCL


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