It’s English, but not as we know it

butterflyAt some point in every semester, I give my students a really difficult assignment that I am not sure they are capable of completing. I’ve been to assessment workshops, and I know that when you issue an assignment, you are supposed to have a clear vision of what you will receive in return—visualize a butterfly, I think the metaphor was, and if you can’t, don’t complain when you get beetles or cockroaches in return. My philosophy in crafting assignments, on the other hand, is more like, “Wow! That’s interesting. Let’s see if the students can do it.” In my graduate class this semester, for instance, I thought it would be intriguing and informative to require the students to work firsthand with archaeological reports. Thus I issued them in groups of two with their four hundred page (and those are 8 ½ by 11 pages, mark you) behemoths, and asked them to discover what this data suggested about early medieval attitudes to the body. It might seem easy enough, but bear in mind that these reports contain lengthy sections on, for example, “Post-holes and hollows not obviously associated with ditches,” “Tabby weaves,” and “Dental pathology”–all fascinating topics, I concede, but not the usual fare for students in an English department. Nevertheless, my students took it all in their stride, and gave beautiful presentations where they bandied around grave numbers and stratigraphic information like they were archaeologists who hadn’t changed their socks for the past three months. Because I always use the student work itself to set a grading benchmark, no one is harmed in the process of conducting these experiments, and I am always pleasantly surprised by the shape of the “butterflies” I receive come the due date.

While my graduate students were poring over their archaeological reports, my undergraduate students from History of British Literature were busy using the Middle English Dictionary to translate the thirteenth-century lyric poem “Love is Sofft”–for those of you who haven’t spend a decade specializing in medieval languages, that would be “Love is Soft.” This assignment is complex first because of the Middle English Dictionary itself, which has to be coaxed and cajoled into revealing word meanings like it was a recalcitrant but extremely smart goat. Much of the problem is, of course, that it is hard to organize a dictionary for a language lacking standardized spelling. Yes, there are mani, manie, manige, mane, magnie, maniȝ, mange, monie, monei, mone, moniȝ, menie, myny, mainie, meine, manes, maniȝes, mones, monne, maniȝe, moniȝe, monien, mænige, manes, maniȝum ways to spell a single word in Middle English. As a consequence, entering a word as it is spelled in the poem will likely bring up three or four different entries in the dictionary (or none at all, which is even more frustrating), requiring the students to make reasonable deductions about which is the “right” one based on context. Even a brief perusal of contemporary translations of this poem, however, shows that some lines seem to have stumped even the most venerable of editors.

Take these lines, for example:

Love is hap wo hit haveþ, hon forto hete;
Love is wis, love is war and willful an sete.

Elaine Treharne glosses “hon forto hete” as “one to inflame,” and “willful an sete” with “willful (one); suitable (one),” yielding a translation something like,

Love is good luck for whoever has it, one to inflame;
Love is wise, love is wary and willful and suitable,

which makes sense after a fashion. Brian Stone, on the other hand, translates these lines as,

Love by chance brings misery inflamed with fever heat;
Love is wise and love is wary, wants its way complete.

Wait a minute, is this the same poem? The problem is that wo in the first line could be woe or who; an could be one or and; and sete could be all manner of things including suitable, arrow or set. It’s not just the meaning of the words that is at issue, then, it’s also what part of speech they are.

When even major editors offer such divergent translations, how do undergraduate students get on with this assignment? Actually those who spend a long time with the dictionary measure up quite well, producing credible translations of their own. And clearly this is an assignment with a number of right answers, in which the translation itself is a means to an end. After slaving over their version of the poem, the students find that “Love is Sofft” is a far from profound poem–more of the Justin Timberlake than the Tennyson ilk—that sauces its basic message that “love is good, love is bad” with a soupcon of misogyny in its final line. What I think that every student learns, however, is how much work goes into any translation of a medieval poem, and how aware we should always be of the distance between the original and the version that we read.

–Jackie Stodnick

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