OETG #7: meetings of minds in Maxims I

Following on from that striking imperative to frige mec frodum wordum! (‘Ask me with wise words!’) we’ve met again to inquire into Maxims 1 up to line 22b, and there found some other meetings of minds:

Eardas rume
meotud arærde     for moncynne,
ælmihtig god,     efenfela bega
þeoda ond þeawa.     Þing sceal gehegan
frod wiþ frodne;      biþ hyra ferð gelic,
hi a sace semaþ,     sibbe gelærađ,
þa ær wonsælge     awegan habbađ.

the Ordainer created for mankind,
– almighty God! – abounding countries,
as many peoples as customs.
The wise must hold a meeting with the wise,
their souls are alike,
they ever settle disputes, preach peace,
which the unblessed have previously destroyed.

(Maxims 1, ll. 15b-21, translation mine)

Here the poem echoes its own didactic interests – encouraging the ‘wise’ to hold a meeting (literally – and charmingly- a ‘thing’, Þing, l.18) and teach peace. The poem suggests that heterogeneity in peoples and their ways was a purposeful part of Earth’s creation. The þeoda ond þeawa (‘peoples and customs’ l.18) with their missenlicu mod (‘diverse minds’, l.13) were ordained to be different, and this encourages and even necessitates (that demanding sceal, l.18) communication with one another. Does alterity here become represented as a force which ought to unite, not divide?

How should we translate ferð in line 19? As Roland suggested, earlier in the poem we might use more mind-centric terms for these words which encompass mind/heart/spirit/soul – the interior of a person. Is this the case here? The context of the surrounding lines is important to consider. Some discussion was held over whether sibbe gelærað might be translated as ‘preach peace’ rather than ‘teach peace’, taking into account the Christian context of exchanging wise words, religious sayings, and of oral conversion. I found that interesting, and have chosen to illustrate this in my translation. Perhaps, considering this, ferð may be considered here in the field of ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ to suggest the power of these meetings and exchanges, that the soul of the wise Christian is the same sort of soul as its brethren, all saved and blessed alike in the reception of the Word of God.

The power of communication between such ferð is positive, it brings sibbe, ‘peace’ (l.20). The wise must wrixlan their gieddum (l.4) – creatively exchange their wisdom-sayings, an action which echoes the act of divine Creation. Indeed, Maxims 1 urges us to use our words to first praise God, before we do anything else with them (l. 4). The ‘right’ and ‘wise’ exchange of words suggests an act that peacefully maintains that which God has measured out for us.

At line 21 we also meet some others, the wonsælge – those who ‘destroy’ this peace. Wonsælge poses a challenge for translation: Bosworth-Toller gives ‘unblest’, ‘miserable’, or even ‘evil’ as possibilities. Literally it means ‘lacking/wanting blessedness’, where sælig conveys spiritual blessing. The dreaded Grendel is famously wonsælig (Beowulf l. 105), there is a sense of unholiness. In conjunction with the Meotud as the Ordainer or Measurer of ordered creation, here we see the ‘unblessed’ directly oppose and reverse the action of the wise: they awegan — ‘destroy’ – the peace. This has a sense of taking something away (‘awaying’ it) but against the backdrop of creative action in this poem, ‘destroy’ provides a striking contrast. If the ‘wise’ (by implication, ‘blessed’) sort of  ferð come together to create peace, the ‘unblessed’  ferð unravel and disperse it, creating discord in a once-ordered world. This must be repaired through another ‘thing’ – the meeting of minds, and the sharing of wisdom.

– Rose Evans, King’s English Department Undergraduate

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

OETG #5 — 4 December: one of three beasts

On our fifth session, we approached the poem’s last ten lines. We attempted a different modus operandi on them: each of us had their way with all lines beforehand, and then we tried to assemble a cohesive translation.

It was hard to ease the panther into silence, quite literally: a throng of men and beasts gathers around the heavenly cat after the singing of a few lines earlier. As the poem swirls to its conclusion, however, smell emerges as its sense of choice. It ends, in fact, with an interjection of grave, if somewhat funny, olfactory appeal: þæt is æþele stencOne does not quite know what to do with such a half-line. The hardest part of the session was perhaps reconciling our differing takes on it: it is tempting to go for ‘that was a noble stench’, but apparently ‘stench’ in nowadays’ English easily has more unpleasant connotations than Old English stenc, for which Bosworth-Toller has ‘smell’, ‘scent’ and ‘odour’.

The poem therefore closes on a synaesthetic note: the sense given most importance is definitely smell, but the reader, following the lines on the page, is asked to exercise sight — as much as the gathering crowd exercises hearing.

royal-ms-12-c-xix-f-16-r-panther-illumination-from-bl-uk-screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-10-55-05
Illumination of a panther surrounded by a throng of beasts from an early 13th century Latin physiologus, now Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 16r. The serpent, beneath the panther, looks much like a dragon in this representation.

Being our last session for the term, however, we tried to draw some conclusions on what our translation’s aims were; in short, on what is it that we looked at for these past few months. Despite the fragmentary character of the Old English literary tradition, one always works within a context. The Panther belongs in a group of three poems, clustered together in the Exeter Book; each of these three poems tells of a different animal, respectively the panther, the whale and the partridge, or phoenix. They have parallels in the tradition of the Latin physiologus, a late antique predecessor of the medieval bestiary: in fact, they appear to be renditions of these late antique Latin texts themselves.

The relation between these ‘originals’ and The Panther, as well as its sister texts poses a number of questions. The Latin physiologus, in fact, although far from being a stable text, is usually composed by a sequence of over twenty units detailing as many creatures, legendary or uncanny, or less so. Are these three poems in the Exeter Book therefore to be taken as a fragment of this archetypal longer sequence, or do they brush a self-sufficient image as a triptych? The fact that in the Latin the three poems generally appear in the same disposition would encourage the former understanding, but surely we cannot answer with any certainty, nor, perhaps, do we need to.

e-codices_bbb-0318_015r_max-copy
Illumination of a panther from the  Physiologus Bernensis, Cod. 318 at Burgerbibliothek Bern, f. 15r, from around the year 830. The prancing deer and wolves make for a jubilant picture.

It seems impossible to rid Old English literature of its fragmentary character. Moreover, this exchange between the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon raises a number of questions for us as translators. What is the value of our action of translation and remediation of an already-translated text? Perhaps, translations have a significance, literary and otherwise, in and of themselves. Is Old English The Panther a lesser text because of its being a translation from another source? It seems that, after a term’s work, we are left with more questions than answers, and with more fragments than wholes.

Get ready for our 2017 translation of the Maxims. Maybe more answers will come our way.

Antonio Lenzo, OETG

OETG #4 – 22 November: The Fire-Breathing Devil

In the penultimate session this semester, the religious allegory of The Panther poem seems to come to a climax.

dreams dragons devils old english

In these lines, God, the ruler of mirth and joy, is juxtaposed against the dragon (devil) that is the origin of evil. One point of discussion arising from this section, and an idea that has intrigued me since I started translating Old English is how close can you or should you stay to the original? Line 55 has the word ‘dreama’, and to a modern reader, we automatically want to translate that to ‘dream’. However, the Old English meaning is more like joy, ecstasy, happiness, mirth. Calling God the ruler of ‘Dreams’ keeps the sound of the original, but is then losing the intended meaning. Oh, translation dilemmas.

The other thing I found really interesting about this extract, is the word ‘dracan’ which the Bosworth-Toller tells us means either dragon, serpent or the devil (although it explicitly references ‘dracan’ from line 57 to mean the Devil). Choosing ‘serpent’ keeps the poem in line with the animal subject, the Panther, however if we take this allegorically, as Bosworth-Toller has, it is intriguing that the medieval writer imagines the devil as a dragon. The poem seems to have a focus on creation and destruction, but it seems ambiguous here who is the Creator. We would assume God, but He doesn’t seem to take ownership of the ‘other created things’, perhaps showing His humble nature. However as the dracan is the ‘origin of poison’, we see how the Devil is rooted in destruction, or anti-creation, if there is a difference.

ealda-feond

We had an interesting discussion about fyrnum teagum, as fyrnum conjures ideas of fire and hell, again linking back to the fire-breathing Devil. However, fyrnum also means ancient, which resonates with ealda. ‘Ancient bonds’ implies that this battle between good and evil is eternal, and will continue, despite the amount of suffering both sides endure. Are we reading too much into this Christian allegory though? Does this poem call upon religion to make sense, or is it demanding us to question its own origin: who is the Creator of this poem and who or what are they battling against?

By Serena Cooke, undergraduate, King’s College London English Department.

OETG #3 – 8 November: intertextual suggestions

Upon the third OETG meeting, we tackled a passage of The Panther which presented us with a rather striking image of the ‘striking animal’. Lines 38 – 39, in fact, go as follows:

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-10-57-01

These ‘three nights’ of the þeodwiga’s sleep cannot but prompt a parallel with Christ, and indeed the following lines do everything to encourage it:

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-11-02-16

The panther’s rise from slumber is associated with Jesus’ resurrection, consecrating this ‘marvellous beast’ to godly grace. However, the use of ellenrof complicates this understanding; here a substantive, it is translatable, according to Bosworth-Toller [http://www.bosworthtoller.com/009244], as ‘remarkably strong, powerful, daring, brave’, but it is its intertextual significance that really is worthy of attention. It is used, for instance, in Beowulf, in reference to Beowulf himself and to Wulfgar, both warriors renowned for their valour, thus evoking a prototypical warlike figure whose pluck and might seem hardly in accord with meekness, a feature which most would nowadays associate with Jesus Christ. The characterisation of the panther in this sense is suggestive of a superimposition, whether conscious or not, of different hues of meaning which may make a modern reader uneasy.

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-13-02-30
Detail from f. 139v of Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, where line 358 of Beowulf can be read. Note ellenrof, spelt as ellen rof, in the middle.
 This tendency to attribute to a same object seemingly discordant features is proper of other examples of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which share The Panther’s somewhat conflicting imagery, from The Dream of the Rood to Beowulf itself. This curbs a translator’s usual struggle for fluency and uniformity.

Perhaps, however, it is not really a question of reconciling two spirits, or of seamlessly weaving these suggestions in a coherent text. Rather, it is a challenge, in translating Old English poetry, to be able to acknowledge and integrate the disparate echoes which give depth and complexity to a text. It is a matter of discussing it in a dialogic, or dialectic, manner. What do you think? Will you discuss the text with us?

Antonio Lenzo – OETG 2016-17

OETG #2 – 25 October | Showing one’s true colours

We have been reminded this week how our modern English fails to map onto the language of the poet of The Panther, as we try to make sense of a creature that defies our modern English dictionary definitions and mental images of ‘a panther’. For the poet, the visual image of the (a very specific kind of) panther is key: it’s an imagined creature that lives in and is the realm of wonder. As such, it spells its being out visually, as in l. 19a-20b (with two versions of translation shown):

19 ðæt is wrætlic deor, wundrum scyne
That is a striking animal, with stunning colours
He is a marvellous beast, wondrously brilliant

20 hiwa gehwylces;
Of every shade;
In every hue,

We wonder how this colour-creature translates into modern English. Does colour hit the right tone, or should we rather speak of hues or shades, as our two translators have done? ‘Hue’, being phonetically closest to ‘hiw’, has an interesting etymology, as the following two OED entries (dating back to 971) reveal:

1. Form, shape, figure; appearance, aspect; species. Obs.
2. Colour. Down to the 16th c. app. exactly synonymous with ‘colour’; but it appears to have become archaic in prose use about 1600, for it is included by Bullokar, Cockeram, etc., in their collections of ‘Hard Words’, and explained as = ‘colour’. In modern use it is either a poetic and rhetorical synonym of ‘colour’, or a vaguer term, including quality, shade or tinge of colour, tint, and applicable to any mixture of colours as well as to a primary or simple colour.

The first entry’s meaning is ambiguous. ‘Form’, ‘figure’ and ‘species’, for example, mean both the outer contours or outer type of somebody or something, as well as a representation, an embodiment, of something else. (Incidentally, the latter meaning has in most cases become obsolete just as the 1st entry above.) The Bosthworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary points to a similar tension when listing, besides ‘colour’, both ‘appearance’ and ‘symbol’ under ‘hiw’. May the panther thus be a literal ‘image’ of this paradox that is inherent in ‘hiw’ / ‘hue’? If so, as well as being classifiable and knowable as the species ‘panther’, the poetic panther here then is imagined through both its colours (as per 2nd entry) and its ‘marvellous’, unknowable qualities, being through its appearance, very much in the spirit of neo-Platonism. Thus the panther may be showing its true colours, quite literally.

The panther’s colours and hues are then compared with the iconic, biblical colours of Joseph’s coat, rich in colour and hue:

21 […] Iosephes / tunece wære telga gehwylces/ bleom bregdende,
[…] Joseph’s / Tunic [that] was woven with/ Every colour,

The description of the panther that follows these lines is an exercise in creating a superlative for the panther that exceeds all previous superlatives, even Joseph’s blessed coat. The panther is ‘blæc brigda gehwæs, beorhtra ond scynra’, ‘Shining brighter and more beautiful in every variety’, and ‘wundrum lixeð’, ‘Gleams with wonders’. Being asked to visualise the – or, a – panther that actively ‘gleams with wonders’, we are not being invited to know the nature of the species ‘panther’. What is clear, however, is how intensely this poem rejoices in translating the unknown, or unknowable, into the realm of the known, or knowable, through words and images, even at the expense of creating a clearly outlined form.

Jenny Baer – OETG

The Panther as imagined by James Merry, responding to CLAMS graduate Hana Videen's translation of the text. Find out more about their collaborative project http://medievalandmodernbestiary.com/panther/
The Panther as imagined by James Merry, responding to CLAMS graduate Hana Videen’s translation of the text. Find out more about their collaborative project http://medievalandmodernbestiary.com/panther/

OETG #1 – 11 October

OETG 2016-2017 is go! This week we welcomed many new faces to the group – including undergraduates, postgraduates, and students from beyond King’s. We also decided on the text for the year ahead… ‘The Panther’.

95v
Fol. 95v, The Exeter Book. c. The Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral.

This week, we began working on the poem ‘in class’, working in groups to speed-translate (usually we translate at home then use the session to compare). This actually worked really well as a first meeting exercise, giving us the chance for plenty of conversation.

A couple of themes and concerns of the poem are already starting to jump out at us, even from lines 1-15a.

line 1-3

The poem starts as it goes on: obsessed with counting, recording, measuring. Three words for ways of knowing are in the first three lines: ‘unrimu’, ‘areccan’, ‘witan’. Discussion over these lines had us thinking about the ways that we tame the world, or animal; of trying to take into account the whole of God’s vast creation within language and poetry.

The concepts of knowing are developed into being able to speak about the world and creatures within it in lines 12-15:

lines 12b-15a

This creature is known in many ways: named a wild creature (deor), and ‘panther’, written about, and called the ‘lone stepper’. For the poem, it’s so important to reiterate the various names and measurable or memorable characteristics of this creature. But in the layers of description over description, name over name, the ‘panther’ seems to slip out of view.

The repetition of words and themes that begin in these first lines and weave all the way through the poem reminded us of the woven patterns of a sword, zig-zagging its way across the blade.

Image via Oxford Museums Service.http://www.oxfordaspiremuseums.org/blog/unearthing-anglo-saxon-pattern-welded-sword
Image via Oxford Museums Service.http://www.oxfordaspiremuseums.org/blog/unearthing-anglo-saxon-pattern-welded-sword

We’ll be meeting every fortnight to work our way through the rest of the poem. Have you translated the Panther before? Does this obsessive numbering and naming remind you of other Old English poetry? Write your comments or ideas below!

Fran, Organiser, OETG 2016-2017