As a teacher at a small four-year liberal arts college, I am constantly looking for ways to improve my teaching practice for an array of courses each semester. The 2015 NEH Institute “What’s Gained in Translation” has allowed me to reenvision some of the ways I approach course material in, for example, a British Literature I survey.
For my presentation, I opted to examine the famous episode from book four of the Venerable Bede’s (ca. 673-735 A.D.) Ecclesiastical History of the English People wherein a commoner named Caedmon suddenly becomes a skilled poet (specifically, a singer of Old English verse). Having left a feast as usual for shame of not being able to contribute a song, Caedmon later falls asleep in a cattle-shed when it is his turn to watch over the cattle. In a dream, a man (often interpreted as an angel but not named as such) calls him by name and prompts him twice to sing about Biblical creation. Caedmon then bursts forth with a song praising God and creation in Old English verse.
In the earliest extant manuscripts, Caedmon’s song and all the surrounding text is presented in Latin. Bede acknowledges that he has offered a Latin paraphrase of the original Old English song, indicating that the verses cannot be fully rendered into another language. His choice of Latin, though, is unapologetic. Still, the paraphrase appears to invite an array of renderings and alterations over the centuries- such as Old English glosses of the song handwritten in margins, through to modern print renderings with wide gaps between verse halves and subscripted Modern English translations. Facsimile samples from primary sources, alongside Dr. Kevin Kiernan’s article, “Reading Caedmon’s ‘Hymn’ with Someone Else’s Glosses” (first printed 1990; now readily available online) helps complicate the idea of the modern print anthology as singular authority and highlights the idea of translators, named or unnamed, as active shapers and transmitters of texts.
Close examination of several versions of this excerpt proved to be a good way to begin a semester in early British Literature. It is brief but raises many ongoing and important questions about cultural mediation and the ways texts are constructed and altered in different contexts. For example, after reading Kiernan’s article and considering: Who composed the song? Caedmon? Bede? Later translators? How might that matter?, students were able to later ask, unprompted, questions such as, If her book is an autobiography, why does Margery Kempe refer to herself in the third person? How much did her two scribes influence what got written down? What inspires so many modern English writers to translate Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? These and other questions led to lively discussions.
The readings and conversations from this summer’s NEH Institute continue to keep me thinking more deeply about the vital role of translators, both past and present, in creating ideas about people, languages, and texts.