Caedmon’s Compounding

May 25, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of languages is understanding how they grow. In order to allow for outside influence, a language must be able to change. Old English, for example, often used compounds as a way to form new meanings. While Old English did accept loan words from other languages, it also developed a system to accommodate acculturating forces. One of the techniques used in Old English was to link together two nouns or a noun plus an adjective. This practice was called compounding. (In fact, we still use this method today. A few modern-day examples are: network, snowball and punchline.)

One of the earliest poems in English (some would say the earliest), “Caedmon’s Hymn,” displays some really interesting compounds. As Christianity’s importance grew within the Old English culture, the language needed to expand and account for these new ideas. Poets and authors creatively combined words in order to achieve the desired effect.

The West Saxon version of “Caedmon’s Hymn” reads:

Nu sculon herigean           heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte             and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,          swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,                       or onstealde.

He ærest sceop                 eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,                halig scyppend;
þa middangeard               moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,                       æfter teode
firum foldan,                      frea ælmihtig

Seth Lerer (of the University of California, San Diego) translates Caedmon’s song as:

Now we shall praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian,

the Creator’s might, and his mind-thought,

the works of the Glory-father: how he, each of us wonders,

the eternal Lord, established at the beginning.

He first shaped for earth’s children

heaven as a roof, the holy Creator.

Then a middle-yard, mankind’s Guardian,

the eternal Lord, established afterwards,

the earth for the people, the Lord almighty.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about this song. First, it is easy to see that the space (caesura) has dropped out. Typically, the caesura is a place to pause for breath between phrases. It may be replaced by commas or // in modern poetry. It was a form of controlling the breath, much as is commonly used in music.

Second, this poem contains a lot of repetition. Before books, the technique of repeating phrases or ideas aided memorization and reinforced the main idea. Caedmon sings of the Lord in many different ways, the “Guardian,” the “Glory-father,” and the “holy Creator” (among others). In such a short work, Caedmon has created metaphors that elaborate on the importance of God.

Furthermore, Caedmon effectively employs compounding. Lerer translates “heofonrices Weard” as “heaven-kingdom’s Guardian” - weard being the warden, and heofonrices translates to heavenly riches. The term “modgeþanc” is really interesting also. Lerer translates it as “mind-thought”, though I find that term also unclear. Others translations simply use “thought”, but that too seems to miss the term’s full meaning. Caedmon did not simply write about thought. It is possible that since alliteration is so important to the poet, he may have included modgeþanc (rather than “þanc”) simply because it added a third “m” sound to the line. The poem pays attention to rhyme and meter and alliteration just as much as it does to meaning, though, and I believe that Caedmon would have been interested in creating compounds that advanced his point, not merely stylized it. I wonder if Caedmon is getting at the idea of a thoughtfulness that accompanies creation. To me, mind-thought in modern English sounds a little too science-fictiony, reminiscent of Doublethink in 1984. Regardless of translation, however, Caedmon clearly utilizes compounding to reinforce his point.

One final compound that I want to mention is "middangeard." A similar term appears in Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old High German. It is important to note, however, that middangeard is part of a mythology in each of those cultures. In other words, Caedmon anchors Christian elements to a pre-existing mythological term to better describe God’s effect on man. Translated as “middle-yard” here, it likely means earth, but not in the sense of dirt and terrain. Rather, Caedmon chooses this term (over something like Old English “eorthe”) because it symbolizes the human middle-ground, in between heaven and hell. Just as he is not simply speaking of thought, but of thoughtfulness, Caedmon wants to invoke the spiritual space that we inhabit and the best way to do that is to co-opt a familiar term.

In using repetition, alliteration and compounds, Caedmon creates a song that gives us a sense of how language adjusts to new ideas. He embraces Christian elements by incorporating traditional elements and adding the idea of God the father or God the Guardian. He offers simple metaphors, such as heaven as a roof, to help others access the complex ideas of Christianity. God is mentioned in nearly every line in order to solidly establish the lineage and upend previous mythologies. Perhaps this song is best heard. You can listen to a choral arrangement by the University of Louisville Cardinal Singers here.

** Much of this blog draws on ideas from a lecture given by Seth Lerer through the Great Courses. Find more about “The History of the English Language” at the Great Courses website.


To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Translations of Chaucer

May 4, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week’s Quarterly Discussion focused on Chaucer in translation. I opened the discussion with the question as to how one would determine what elements make a “best” translation. This seemingly generic question is actually really difficult to answer. Some authors excelled at rhyme schemes, while others performed better with word choice, for example. Truly, there is no single response and my intent in opening (and closing) the discussion with this question was to explore the benefits of having access to the primary source (and primary language).

Necessarily, translation contains many layers. First, there is the original language barrier. Most people who read a work in translation do so because they cannot access the language of origin. Secondly, translations must navigate not only word choice, but also context and cultural information carried within a language. Stylistic issues present a third difficulty. These are things such as alliteration, rhyme scheme, line length, etc. And finally (though this list is hardly exhaustive), the translator faces the issue of the target audience. By that I mean that the translator must weigh all of these decisions by postulating how successful the translation will be in the target language. In other words, there is a very delicate balance between risk-taking and minimizing risk, all driven by the target audience.

I selected Chaucer in translation for a couple of reasons. First, I was surprised that the Great Books version was Neville Coghill’s translation. My initial introduction to the Canterbury Tales was twenty years ago in an undergraduate class where we worked slowly and diligently (if impatiently) through the Middle English. I think this text is still fairly accessible with footnotes. Having said that, I do understand the amount of labor involved in combing through a footnoted text. (Personally, I believe that Gibbon’s texts include more footnotes - and more foreign languages - than the Middle English Chaucer, but that is perhaps just me.) Since I study the idea of poetry and occasionally attempt translations, I have become very interested in the differences (and similarities) between the original and translated versions of Chaucer.

For this discussion, we compared four different texts of “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”: Nicholson (Librarius version, published 1934); Neville Coghill’s translation (published 1951; this is also the Penguin Classics text as well as the Great Books version); A. S. Kline’s version (dated 2007); and the original. Below is a short passage from all four texts which will hopefully illuminate many struggles both from a translator’s standpoint, as well as the audience’s.

First of all, Chaucer writes in rhymed iambic pentameter. Since this sounds archaic to the modern-day ear, the translator first has to decide if they will stick with that same rhyme scheme. Secondly, Chaucer includes jokes throughout, using words with double meanings that may have faded away over time. In some cases, the translators chose to create a new joke, one that would work with the contemporary audience. In other cases, the translator ignores the joke. What license does a translator have in making these decisions? How much introduced content is actually new content? For example, in order to replace the Old English forslewthen, which means slow to act, or to delay, Coghill adjusts the metaphor and loses the layered meaning of a man about to set sail who is incapable of stemming his own “tyde”. Coghill writes, “But as I see you mean to stay behind/ And miss the tide for willful sloth of mind” instead of the original line: “But sith I see that thou wolt heere abyde/ And thus forslewthen wilfully thy tyde”.

Analyzing translations can be a tedious process, but it is the most enriching language experience I can imagine. In studying these texts, we gained insight into: root words, etymology, cultural adaptations, similes and metaphors (both new and old), effects of acculturation, and more. Furthermore, when translations of Chaucer differ, then the moral, main idea, character or understanding of Chaucer and his times, might also change. The stakes may be even higher when thinking about something like Tocqueville’s Democracy in America or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, in which the moral is educational. The following passage demonstrates just one (of many) deviations that we analyzed during this discussion.


“Ful sooty was hir bour, and eek hir halle

In which she eet ful many a sclendre meel.

Of poynaunt sauce her neded never a deel.

No deyntee morsel passed thurgh hir throte;

Hir dyete was accordant to hir cote.” – Original


“Right neatly was her bedroom and her hall,

Wherein she'd eaten many a slender meal.

Of sharp sauce, why she needed no great deal,

For dainty morsel never passed her throat;

Her diet well accorded with her coat.” – Librarius (Nicholson)


“Sooty her hall, her kitchen melancholy,

And there she ate full many a slender meal;

there was no sauce piquante to spice her veal,

No dainty morsel ever passed her throat.

According to her cloth she cut her coat.” – Coghill


“Full sooty was her bower, all melancholy,

In which she ate full many a scanty meal.

No pungent sauce was needed for her veal;

No dainty morsel ever passed her throat.

Her diet, her cottage struck a single note.” - Kline

After reading through these passages, we wondered: Do we have the same impression of the widow after reading these four lines? Why do Coghill and Kline introduce the term melancholy? Did Chaucer intend for the widow to be surrounded in dirt, or simply soot from the ever-burning fireplace? Did the widow feel impoverished? How does “veal” change the passage, if at all? If we assume that Chaucer is intentionally including words from Latin, French and Old English, does the word “piquante” fit here, or does it distract (since we no longer navigate language tri-lingually or are, at least, not aware of it)? “Cote” is the Middle English term for cottage, so is the introduction of “coat” appropriate?

Basically, if this is the character that Chaucer uses as the introductory frame for his morality play, how much change still maintains the same message? And, is it important to aim for the same? At the end of our discussion, we still struggled to state precisely what is “best”. The translator must make value judgments and so must the audience, thus complicating the very business of translation!

To post a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.

Chaucer Translations

March 30, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In April, we will be discussing two of my favorite things in the Quarterly Discussion: translation and Chaucer. I love Middle English texts because they show such difference between Old English and contemporary English. Old English was originally spoken by Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. As the Anglo-Saxons formed larger communities, Old English began to overpower Latin as the dominant language in Britain.

There are some stark differences between Latin and Old English. For example, English is structured around the subject-verb sentence structure. If we rearrange the word order, meaning may very likely change. In Latin, however, word order matters much less than the form of the words. Nouns are inflected for case, number, gender, and verbs are inflected for person, number, tense, aspect, voice and mood. Since Latin depends on these constant word endings, the language can attain a rhyme scheme that sounds awkward in English.

In fact, the first English poems depended upon alliteration and repetition instead of rhyme scheme and syllable count. As British arts began to commingle with the highly stylized French poetry, the style began to change. As so often happens when languages collide, the arts begin to absorb and reflect the other culture's style. Middle English began to assume some of the words and styles from French poetry. Beginning roughly in the 11th century, it continued into the 1500s. Since Chaucer constructed The Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400, it is important to understand a bit about Chaucer's main dialect: Middle English.

In April, the group of participants in our Quarterly Discussion will review a variety of Chaucer translations. This practice is so interesting because it simultaneously reveals a wide variety of things. First, the Middle English is recognizable in structure (much moreso than Old English). Therefore, reading the original is not impossible. Most originals are now printed with excellent footnotes and background information for those words that have slipped out of the English language since Chaucer's day. Second, we learn about Chaucer himself. What sort of biases, prejudices and experiences he had can be reflected in a work of this magnitude. Finally, we discover cultural clues, such as clothing styles and stereotypes. Since Chaucer was an incredibly playful artist, the reader is required to ascertain tone as well. Is the cultural stereotype, for example, serious, playful or insulting? How will we know through language alone? There will be questions that are impossible to answer, but I find that discussions about Chaucer's works are always entertaining and rewarding.

As a teaser, I have been comparing some of the Chaucer translations, and I find the following bit particularly interesting. Chaucer modeled "The Franklin's Tale" after the French story-telling style of a breton lay. We know, then, that the narrative will be rhymed and involve chivalry. The language is highly stylized and assumes that the speaker is an educated man. Therefore, when the Franklin says “But, sirs, I'm not a cultivated man/ And so from the beginning I beseech/ You to excuse me my untutored speech”, the reader already knows that this is untrue. Chaucer chose the style to fit the speaker, tale and theme. But Chaucer also chose how to deliver the lines. From the very first lines, then, his tale incorporates irony and ambiguity as much as it uses elevated rhetoric.

"The Franklin's Tale" revolves around Dorigen, a fair maiden, who is won over by the knight Arvéragus. They swear their love to each other, but must part soon after their wedding. When Arvéragus is sent away for two years as part of his knightly duties, Dorigen pines away for him. During this time, another suitor approaches Dorigen. Though she rejects him, she does mention that if he can move mountains, she would love him. She says this because it is the mountainous, rocky shore that blocks her husband's safe return. Unfortunately for Dorigen, the suitor finds a magician who eventually moves the mountains. When he proves that he has fulfilled the pledge, Arvéragus consents to the coupling as the only way to save Dorigen's honor. Crestfallen and ashamed, she approaches the suitor and he forgives her debt. After hearing this whole tale, the magician (also called the philosopher), then, forgives the suitor's debt. So, in the end, no one errs other than in words. No crime has been committed, though the magician remains unpaid for his trick.

By looking at the final lines of this tale, we can gain an understanding of some of the tricks with translation.

First, the original reads:

This philosophre answerde, 'Leeve brother,/ Everich of yow dide gentilly til oother./ Thou art a squier, and he is a knyght;/ But God forbede, for his blisful myght,/ But if a clerk koude doon a gentil dede/ As wel as any of yow, it is no drede!

'Sire, I releesse thee thy thousand pound,/ As thou right now were cropen out of the ground,/ Ne nevere er now ne haddest knowen me./ For, sire, I wol nat taken a peny of thee./ For al my craft, ne noght for my travaille./ Thou hast ypayed wel for my vitaille./ It is ynogh, and farewel, have good day!'

And took his hors, and forth he goth his way./ Lordynges, this question, thanne wol I aske now,/ Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?/ Now telleth me, er that ye ferther wende./ I kan namoore; my tale is at an ende.


Next, the same section of text from the Great Books series version (translated by Nevil Coghill) reads:

Then the magician answered, “My dear brother,/ Each of you did as nobly as the other./ You are a squire, sir, and he a knight,/ But God forbid in all His blissful might/ That men of learning should not come as near/ To nobleness as any, never fear.

“Sir, I release you of your thousand pound/ No less than if you'd crept out of the ground/ Just now, and never had had to do with me./ I will not take a penny, sir, in fee/ For all my knowledge and my work to rid/ The coast of rocks; I'm paid enough for what I did,/ Well paid, and that's enough. Farewell, good-day!”/ He mounted on his horse and rode away.

My lords, I'll put a question: tell me true,/ Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?/ Ere we ride onwards tell me, anyone!/ I have no more to say, my tale is done.


While this translation has a lot to offer, I want to look at just one line for the sake of brevity. Coghill translates: “Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?” as “Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?” According to a variety of Middle English sources, “fre” can be translated as noble, free, of noble status, gracious, and generous. Which word best fits the syntax, meter, meaning and author intention? These are difficult questions, made particularly difficult in a translation of something that may also be tongue-in-cheek. I think it is important to note that Chaucer's original leaves open the possibility that Dorigen may have been the most “fre”. The translation, however, does not because instead of the ambigious “mooste fre”, it asks who was the finest “gentleman”. In my mind, that single word changes the passage quite radically.

Translations are never perfect, but they are fun to explore. I think we will gain much insight from our comparisons. Feel free to join us! Email for more information and to join the conversation!

To post a comment, click on the title of this blog and scroll down.

Tribute to Gariela Mistral

March 23, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

More than ten years ago, when my thesis advisor asked me to translate some of Gabriela Mistral's poetry, I had never heard of her. But I am ever so grateful because Mistral's writings have had a profound impact on my life. Growing up in rural Chile, Mistral was mostly self-taught. She then became a schoolteacher in her late teens. Having served a small community, Mistral began publishing and eventually left Chile and moved around the world as educator, ambassador and human rights advocate. Her mestiza background as well as her understanding of children and poverty made her an incredibly powerful voice. She also wrote with precision. In 1945, she became the first Latin American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the fifth female. And yet, she is seldom read or heard of in English. I understand that we have an astounding amount of quality contemporary literature being produced, and yet, I firmly believe that there are voices from the past who should not be lost. In my mind, Mistral has been marginalized for two reasons. First, I feel that being female affects her reception. Second, she left Chile and never really returned. I think that being a female poet in the beginning of the 20th century, coupled with the fact that she was continually moving, negatively affected her posterity.

In 2003, Ursula Le Guin published a selection of Mistral's poetry. In the introduction, Le Guin wrote, “I do want to talk about her [Mistral's] current obscurity, for she was a famous poet in her lifetime. One would expect a Nobel Prize winner to be well represented in English.... It is not a problem of language, or a North-South problem. Mistral's work is only partly accessible even in Chile. Her roving life left her works curiously dispersed. The four books of poetry published during her lifetime came out in New York, Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Santiago de Chile.... The problem of Mistral's reputation also has something to do with, alas, gender. Having been adulated as a poetess, she is not read as a poet.” In other words, we cannot celebrate her works with equal fervor to, say, a poet like Neruda, who has become known as the “people's poet”. It's not a contest between one poet or another, but I would argue that both have added great value to society. Mistral's contributions include voices for children and poor that were unheard before her poems. She also discussed indigenous issues. She interacted on a diplomatic level as well as a literary level. Since she is one of Neruda's teachers, I would argue that she is the first “people's poet”.

Mistral vividly discusses nature, youth, age and loss. She adeptly responds to a wide variety of crises, and in multiple languages. Considering that her formal education ended at age twelve, she never ceased to educate herself. An ability to educate oneself combines external and internal resources. In other words, Mistral was able to take advantage of the flourishing culture within Chile, but also proves that she had an incredibly able mind. She read literally everything that she could. Additionally, she traveled as much as possible, gaining experience and insight from each position. I sincerely hope that we continue to honor voices like these, regardless of gender. Voices who reflect humanity, empathy and power. In celebration of her voice and her ethics, here are a few lines as translated by Ursula Le Guin from Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, (2003).

From "El Reparto" ("Sharing Out")

If a woman born blind

were here by me

I'd say to her softly, softly,

in a voice full of dust,

– Sister, take my eyes. ...


And take my knees, too,

if yours have been

shackled and stiffened

by the snow and cold. ...


If I can end used up,

shared out like a loaf,

scattered south and north,

I'll never be one again.


I'll be disburdened

in a pruning of branches

that fall away, dropping

from me as from a tree.


To post a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.