Sunday, November 20, 2011

Not Only the Icelanders: Translating Praise Music from 1500 Years Ago, and the Future of Printed Books

It's often told that in the most literate society in the world, Iceland, readers can still understand books written in Icelandic 800 years ago. It is impressive and admirable that their ancient texts, the Sagas and Eddas, remain accessible to allow the average person opportunity to read and decipher for themselves.

But perhaps literate speakers of English have the same ability, mostly yet untried.

Accidentally, today, in surfing around the web, I came across a reference to the oldest identified Anglo-Saxon poet, Caedmon.  Caedmon worked in a Monastery, tending to the animals. He could not read, and sang so badly that when everyone got together for the 8th century's version of karioke, he left the room. One night, he had a dream, in which an angel asked him to sing - and he sang a new song. Upon waking, he remembered the verses and spent the rest of his life turning scripture into Praise music.

I went looking for more info, including a different translation and came upon one that also gave the original text.

Well. You know how it is. Once a stream of thought gets going, there we go.

I noticed that the opening word "Nu" sounds like "Now", then that "hefaen___" sounds exactly like "Heaven" and one thing led to another. What I found is that by trying different pronunciations of the original words, I was able to decypher much of the Old English version.

Here's a poetic Modern English translation:

          Now let me praise the keeper of Heaven's kingdom,
          the might of the Creator, and his thought,
          the work of the Father of glory, how each of wonders
          the Eternal Lord established in the beginning.
          He first created for the sons of men
          Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator,
          then Middle-earth the keeper of mankind,
          the Eternal Lord, afterwards made,
          the earth for men, the Almighty Lord.

Here's an original language version from the year 737 Anno Domini:

              1 Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard
              2 metudæs maecti end his modgidanc
              3 uerc uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuaes
              4 eci dryctin or astelidæ
              5 he aerist scop aelda barnum
              6 heben til hrofe haleg scepen.
              7 tha middungeard moncynnæs uard
              8 eci dryctin æfter tiadæ
              9 firum foldu frea allmectig

Here's my rough, literal version:

1 Now shall hear Heaven-rich's [Heaven owner's] ward
2 Mete-er's (measurer's) might and his making-think
3 Work of the elderfather so his wonder goes
4 ever directing the onset
5 He first shaped the elder sons
6 Heaven to roofbeam holy shaper
7 then middle-earth mankind's ward
8 ever directing after today (until today)
9 the firm fields Free-Lord Almighty

Here's another good modern translation that I found.

My pronunciation may not be anything like the original, but because the language remains the same, despite spelling and dialectical changes over time, the words still mean pretty much what they did 1,500 years ago. There "original language version" is also transcribed into our modern alphabet - if one were to try to read the text as written, we'd need to also discuss the character "thorn" and a few other such, just as we have to know that the long S of colonial times is not an "F" but rather a modified character used according to certain grammar rules of the day. This follows a discovery some time ago, that I could sort-of read Greek by simply transliterating the letters in biblical texts and looking for roots to English words.

I'm not going to be winning any awards or going into business translating ancient texts, but the thing is: this is one of the wonders of the internet. To uncover new possibilities in ourselves by being exposed to history we never even knew existed, to science we never even questioned, to the stories of ordinary people who helped set the course for the future.

Like the monks copying the Bible and their countries' literature to get books into every monastery in the world, like Gutenberg's printing press churning out copies of the Bible and world literature for every book buyer in Europe, the net puts everything written before into the hands of ordinary people.

And we don't have to depend on "authorized experts" to translate for us or explain it to us.

I'm reading a book that came out a few years ago, on the history of printing, called "Paradigms Lost: The Life and Death of the Printed Word" (Tip: go through your favorite blogger's Amazon search link to buy it). It's a fascinating delve into many of the ways the printing press, and even typography, changed our societies and our world. It is in some ways an unfinished book, for, as the author himself, a retired editor who bills himself  "an independent historian" and cites reams of sources,  says "..[we] are just in the first years of an era that exists so far mostly in magazine articles, techology manufacturers' boastful extrapolations, books like this one, and confused observations..."  The book was copyrighted 2005, at the beginning of the "print apocalypse" as the failure of traditional publishing to meet customer needs was beginning to become clear. 

Despite the introduction of the Kindle in 2007 (not so much new technology as a more wide-spread distribution method),  the number of books printed in the US in 2010 grew 5% with traditional publishers. But the really exciting part is that the "non-traditional" sector, including "print on demand" and self-published books almost tripled from 1,033,065 titles in 2009 to 2,776,260 in 2010.

This does not represent new demand - the demand was always there - this represents new access, thanks to the internet, which has given any author a nearly cost-free access to markets outside their local area.

The internet lets us all share what we know, and learn more on whatever topic we wish. We can direct our own course of study, without cost. We can become self-educated people.We can think for ourselves. And we can tell others.

And like those who first benefited from the printing press, we want our own copies. Just in case the link goes dark. Or the net goes down. But mainly because free people everywhere like to have their own.


  1. Hello Tina! What an interesting post. Funnily enough a month or so ago I came across a translation of Hallgrim Petursson which has been scanned onto the internet. =) I had never heard of him before and was taken with his story and found his poetry and hymns to be very meaningful...his Icelandic background fits in with your post so tidily I am second guessing myself wondering if you were the one who pointed me in his direction!

    I hope this link takes you to the book:

    Take care!

  2. Hi Leslie,

    Here's a clickable version of the URL to "Icelandic Meditations on The Passion"

    I haven't read Petursson's poems before but I will now! Sometimes if we read too many home page headlines, it seems the internet has simply magnified the voices screaming "Give us Barabbas"... this, from The Cry of the Multitude, is a good remedy:
    "What time the Law with bitter curse
    Shall all my evil deeds rehearse,
    And. trumpeting them forth on high,
    Shall loud for my damnation cry,
    I plead my Saviour's bitter pain,
    And God's most just acquittal gain."

    Thanks so much for turning me on to him!

    God bless and Merry Christmas! :-)



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