September 2007


Two more Beowulf translations, just so I feel that I’ve actually accomplished something, rather than simply having fewer blank sheets in my notebook. The first one has now been updated, though I am still working on borrowed time.

“What are ye warriors,
clad in mail, who thus your tall ship
over the sea-road bring to come
here over the waters? I was awhile
a coastguard, keeping seawatch
so that on the Dane’s land no one hostile
with sea force could inflict harm.
Never here more openly have come and gone
shield bearers, nor must you the word of leave
of the war-makers fully know,
my kinsman’s consent. Never have I seen a greater
warrior over this earth than is one of you,
man at arms. That hall-retainer is not
just exalted by weapons. Never may him his looks belie,
matchless appearance! Now I must your
origin know, before you further from here
spy, on the land of the danes
go further. Now ye foreigners,
seafarers, listen to my
plain thought: haste is best
to reveal from whence you have come.”

“…Therefore I now of you
lord of the Bright-Danes, would request,
protector of the Scyldings, as a favor,
that you do not deny me, warrior’s protector,
noble friend of my country, now that I have thus come from afar,
that I may be permitted alone with my warrior band,
his hardy troop of men, to cleanse Heorot.
I have also learned he, that fierce assailant,
in his carelessness cares not for weapons.
I then scorn that–so Hygelac may be of me,
my liege, blithe of mind–
that I bear a sword or a broad shield
yellowwood to battle, but I with grasp [alone] must
grapple with the fiend and contend for life,
foe against foe; there he shall trust in
the lord’s judgement, he whom death takes.
I expect that [which] he wills, if to him[Grendel] victory is allowed
in that battle hall the people of the Geats
he fearlessly devours, as oft he did
the great glory of men. Then you need not my
head to hide, for he would have me
stained with blood, if death takes me;
[Grendel] will bear the corpse off, thinking on the taste,
so eats one who goes unmourning
staining the moor-retreat; now you needn’t about
my life’s sustenance worry longer.
Send to Hygelac, if battle takes me,
the best battlewear that my breast defended,
best garment; that is Hræthl’s leaving,
worked by Weland. Such always the fates as they must!”

The sheer weight of appositives is mind-boggling, isn’t it?

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I’ve been doing so much chemistry of late that I think my brain is turning quantum; one moment here, then at the opposite end of the mental spectrum with no apparent transition. That being the case, I decided to do my chem homework halfway up a tree today. It was a good change of pace. For another break before I return to work, I decided to listen to some Waybacks and post some more of my OE translations. The first is Cædmon’s Hymn from Bede’s history, and the second two are riddles from the Exeter Book. Once again, the I translated only literally, with little thought for style. The originals are pretty snappy, so I’d suggest listening to them, even if you don’t know what it means.

Cædmon’s Hymn:

Now we must honor Heaven’s guardian,
the might of God, and his conception
work of the father of glory, just as for each of the wonders
the eternal lord established a beginning.
He first created for the Earth’s bairns
heaven as the roof, holy creator,
then Middle Earth, the guardian of mankind,
eternal lord, after he created
the Earth for the people, lord almighty.

Ringing any Tolkein bells? No? Then try these on for size. I personally like them a lot more:

A moth ate the words. That seemed to me
a well-wrought fate when I learned that wonder
that the caterpillar devoured the speech of a certain one of men,
thief in darkness, the glorious statement
and its firm foundation. The thievish guest by it was
not a wit the wiser for having those words he swallowed.

My hall is not silent nor am I myself loud
around the glorious hall. For we two the lord shaped
a journey together. I am swifter than he,
at times stronger; he more enduring.
Sometimes I rest myself; he must keep running
in him I dwell always while I live.
If we two are parted, for me death is appointed.

The first of these riddles (which isn’t really a riddle, is it?) has one of the coolest words in OE: Stahlgeist. A thieving guest–how wonderfully, paradoxically strange! Of course, leave any guesses in the comments section, and let’s see what you make of the riddles.

Two main points brightened up my otherwise hellish schedule this week. The first was getting to begin translating Beowulf. Mind you, we only technically know six nouns, one adjective, and the demonstrative pronouns, but Old English really isn’t that bad. By the end of this semester, in fact, I think I’ll prefer reading the original rather than translations. Anyway, my first translation (after I figured out that my professor was referring to lines, not pages) runs thus:

Then he went to seek, after it became night,
the lofty house, how in it the Ring Danes
after beer drinking had kept settled in.
Then he found therein the company of nobles
asleep after the feast, knowing no grief,
the misery of men. The unholy creature,
grim and greedy, was ready at once,
savage and fierce, and from their resting places grabbed
thirty thanes; from there he went
exulting in his booty to go home,
with that feast of slaughter to seek his dwelling place.
Then day was on the verge, at the first light
Grendel’s strength in war to men was unveiled;
then it was after his feasting they raised up a lamentation,
a mighty cry in the morning. The renowned prince,
noble and of proven worth, sat bereft of joy
in mighty suffering, enduring grief for his thanes.
Afterwards they examined the hateful track
of that accursed creature; that strife was too strong,
grevious and prolonged.

And there you have it. The prince, by the way, is Hrothgar, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the manuscript. Stylistically I’m content to leave it unpolished until I understand the style of Old English verse a little better, but if anyone sees any glaring errors, let me know.

The second bright spot was Alan Lightman’s lecture on Einstein and general relativity this past Wednesday. It was an awesome lecture,and not as packed as it should have been by rights. There were quite a few nonstudents there, but fewer Wash U people than I had anticipated. Even here, it seems, there are distinct classes of nerds, with physics being one of the less populated species. Still, everyone in the audience seemed to be having a good time, and it was fun to watch people start fidgeting when Lightman got to the stickier tenets of relativity. My favorite part, however, was the book signing. Not only did I get my first copy signed, but I got to ask one of my burning questions: had Mr. Lightman ever read Invisible Cities. Turns out he’s a huge Calvino fan! WOOT!

Reality has set in somewhat. After an absurdly optimistic initial take on my time commitments (during which I forgot how long transliterations and prelabs take), I had a nice, hard meeting with reality. Not that I’ve gone under, but the written numbers are getting to me: 22 hours for 16 credits. Add to that 6 hours of workstudy and a minimum of 4 for WRPMing (not including weekly training and staff meetings, programming, or preparation), and I begin to feel that my schedule has turned into a batch of tribbles. Perhaps it could be said that my schedule has tribulated, so do I now have tribulations?

On the positive end of things, I have my linguistics professor from last semester again, and with a much smaller, far awesomer class. We spent Tuesday trying to pronounce every symbol in the IPA. Any class where you compare proficiency in velar trills is one in which you are in good company!