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Writing translations of Old English

This handout was prepared specifically for the first year course of the Oxford B.A. in English. Students on other courses may nonetheless find some useful advice about translating Old English texts.

In the exam, you will have a choice either of writing a commentary on a passage of verse, or of translating a short unseen piece of prose. The translation passage will probably be between ten and fifteen lines long, and a brief glossary of words which you may not know will be provided.


Learning vocabulary:
The best way to learn Old English vocabulary is by spending time reading and translating texts. The work you do on the set commentary texts will introduce you to a large body of Old English vocabulary.

You could also make lists of words which turn up often in your reading. Probably the most useful words to learn are the functional words which help structure sentences and clauses - conjunctions, prepositions, determiners and so on. Make sure that you pay particular attention to 'false friends' - words which look like Modern English words, but mean something different.

One way to break up the learning of vocabulary into manageable chunks is to group it according to topic. You will find that certain topics tend to recur in Old English literature - religion and warfare being two major ones - and a lot of vocabulary in these areas will already be familiar to you from your commentary work. You could add to this from a source such as Stephen Pollington's Wordcraft, a Modern English to Old English dictionary and thesaurus which provides a useful grouping of words under various categories.

The passage provided in the exam will have a brief glossary of a few words which the examiners expect that you won't have come across before, but you will be expected to know a fair amount of Old English vocabulary.

Learning grammar:
Start by learning the different forms taken by the personal pronouns, since these will turn up in pretty much any passage you encounter. Remember that the masculine third person singular pronouns can mean "it" as well as "he/him" etc.

Then learn the forms of the demonstrative pronouns this/that etc. These are similarly indispensible and knowing the different cases will help you enormously in your translations.

Following this, try to develop a sense of how the different cases work in general with nouns and adjectives. For example, a noun ending in "-a" is almost always a genitive plural, while one ending in "-um" is almost always a dative plural. Many, but not all, genitive singular nouns end in "-es", which makes them look like the familiar Modern English genitive ending with "-'s". Unless you are blessed with an excellent memory for these things, you won't be able to learn this all off by heart, but you will start to see patterns and to understand better how nouns work.

The same applies to verbs. You will see, for example, that many of the past tense forms incorporate "-d" into their endings, which is very like Modern English regular verbs ("walk-ed", "danc-ed", etc.) You may also find the endings of singular verbs in the present tense vaguely familiar from studying Chaucer or Shakespeare - "thou hopest" and "he hopeth" in Old English would be "þu hopast" and "he hopað".

Learning how Old English grammar works is really just a matter of practice. Read as much as you can, and practice translating everything from short clauses and sentences up to longer paragraphs. Keep your general knowledge of grammar fresh in your mind - you're far less likely to get into a muddle if you have a sense of how clauses, phrases and sentences fit together, and what is necessary to make them work correctly.

In the exam, spend some time reading through the passages offered for translation and commentary and deciding which one you want to attempt. You have three hours to write three answers on paper 3a, and one of those hours should be dedicated to the translation/commentary element - so you have plenty of time to spend reading and planning.


Translating well involves more than simply knowing what the words mean. You need to make sure that you put each word in its correct place in the sentence, and to do this you need to know a bit about the word's grammar. Consider the following:

He þær wunade oþ þæt hiene an swan ofstang æt Pryfetes flodan

Both "he" and "hiene" are third-person masculine singular pronouns, corresponding to Modern English he/him/his. "An swan" is a swineherd, and "ofstang" is a form of the verb meaning to stab. So an initial translation of these words might be "he stabbed a swineherd". This would be incorrect, however, as a quick look at the grammar tells us. While "he" is the nominative form of the pronoun, "hiene" is accusative. It cannot, therefore, be the subject of the verb. "An swan", on the other hand, may be either nominative or accusative (it is not possible to distinguish the two cases in many nouns). Since it is generally necessary for a verb to have a subject, we know that "an swan" must be that subject since it is the only noun phrase in the clause which could be nominative. So, what we have is this:

hienean swanofstang
hima swineherdstabbed

Changed into Modern English word order, this becomes "a swineherd stabbed him".

So, to translate the first sentence, first we find out the basic meanings of the words:

Heþær wunade oþ þæt hiene an swan ofstang æt Pryfetes flodan
(pronoun) there (to live) until (pronoun) a swineherd (to stab) at Privet's stream

Adding some grammatical information gives us this:

He þærwunade oþ þæthienean swanofstang ætPryfetesflodan
He there lived until him a swineherd stabbed at Privet's stream

And finally we re-order the words into Modern English idiom:

He lived there until a swineherd stabbed him at Privet's stream.

The form of verbs and nouns not only tells us about the order of words in sentences, but also about the number of people being referred to. Consider the following sentence:

Hi sindon on middanearde.

It is very easy when dealing with pronouns to confuse the third-person masculine singular nominative "he" with the masculine third person plural nominative/accusative "hie" (they/them). This is further complicated by the fact that the feminine third person singular accusative is also "hie" (her). In this sentence, however, there is an obvious clue as to the precise meaning of "hi", which is that the verb, "sindon", is in the plural. Therefore, this cannot be "he is on earth" but must be "they are on earth".

Becoming familiar with the different forms taken by nouns and verbs is incredibly useful when translating. The information we have just considered allows you, for example, to distinguish between "hi wiston hie" and "he wiste hie" - "they knew her" and "he knew her" - where the pronouns are potentially confusing but the verb provides the necessary information.

Finally, be constantly aware of word order. Compared with Modern English, which generally relies on a standard Subject-Verb-Object word order to express relationships between words in a sentence, Old English has far looser rules about word order. For example, you cannot rely on the order of words to tell you which noun is subject and which object, as we have already seen in the swineherd example.