This week’s Old English seminar focused on literary translation in Anglo-Saxon England. In Anglo-Saxon England, English was the language of the lay people, while religious orders and the ruling classes could understand Latin. Hence, much of their texts were composed in Latin. Codices would not have been often circulated among the ordinary people due to the expensive and time-consuming nature of their production. King Alfred (870s-90s) became concerned that education was declining so he set up his translation programme of reform throughout his lands. His aim was to translate texts into the vernacular so that all “freedom men” and the clergy could be educated in their native tongue: “we too should turn into the language that we can all understand certain books which are the most necessary for all men to know” (Keynes and Lapidge 126). The books that he considered “most necessary for all men to know” mainly included those with Christian or historical themes, such as Gregory’s Pastoral Care and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. While Alfred’s translation programme aimed to educate his people, there was also a sense of fear underlying his efforts. The Anglo-Saxons were often a superstitious people, and Alfred believed that the decline of education in England in previous years lead to punishment from God in the form of the Viking raids of the late ninth century: “Remember what punishments befell us in the world when we ourselves did not cherish learning nor transmit it to other men” (Keynes and Lapidge 125). About 100 years later, Ælfric the monk set about further translation. He had a more sophisticated translation theory than Alfred. While Alfred translated largely word for word, Æfric believed that this would cause misunderstanding so he strove to translate in a more simplistic manner in order to retain the sense of the texts. In his Prefaces, Ælfric repeatedly emphasises simplicity as one of the things he strives to achieve. He states his aim as “edification of the simple” Wilcox 127). People could learn “either through reading or hearing it read” (Wilcox 127). In his Preface to his translation of Genisis, however, Ælfric mentions the “ghostly significance” of allegory and alludes to exegesis. This will be explored further in next week’s seminar on Genesis and the fall of the angels.
Keynes, Simon, and Michael Lapidge. Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1983. Print.
Wilcox, Jonathan, ed. Aelfric’s Prefaces. Durham: Durham Medieval Texts, 1994. Print.