Reprinted with permission from Old English Newsletter 30.1 (1996):16

ENGLISC: A New Listserv Discussion Group

William Schipper and Sarah Higley
Memorial Univ. and Univ. of Rochester

     In December 1996, inspired by a debate in November on ANSAX-L over the appropriateness of posting messags in Latin or any other dead language, Cathy Ball (Georgetown University, Washington D.C.) and Bill Schipper (Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland) established a new listserv discussion group devoted to the composition and translation of Old English.(1) Its aims--to allow a forum for scholars and other interested parties to practice writing Old English and thereby take an active, rather than a passive, approach to its study-- were soon challenged when Karl Hagen posted a translation into Old English of a John Crowe Ransom poem. This effort inspired a storm of debate about the purpose of our translation exercises beyond pedagogical ones, and about the capacity for Old English to express early American poetic concepts. As Patrick Conner put it: "I have never before seen so consummate a demonstration of the ways in which language is linked to culture as in our trying to find ways to make OE work in a modern context." He intimated that the same problem does not inhere to quite the same degree in Latin translation projects. What might seem natural to translate into Latin these days seems questionable in Old English. Theere are many English-Latin dictionaries, presumably to aid in composition, but only a couple of English-Old English dictionaries, the most accessible one being Stephen Pollington's Wordcræft. (2)
     The list has raised a number of interesting questions, none of which have yet been answered: Can we revive the language of a dead culture such as Old English? Are we held back by the paucity of its corpus and the limitations of its vocabulary? If so, what are the implications of that for readers of translations? These questions are now being addressed, implicitly or explicitly through the activities of the list. Since its inception ENGLISC has tried its collective hand at a number of translation exercises, among them the following:

Bells For John Whiteside's Daughter/Bellan for Johannes Hwitsides Dehter
The Four Questions / Þa feower frignunge
The Gettysburg Address / Þæt Gettysburg Gemaþel
In addition, the list has discussed available dictionaries, and several members have tried their hand at constructing online Modern English to Old English glossaries. Above all the list has demonstrated that translating into a "dead" language is not a simple process, but requires a thorough knowledge of available Old English texts and of the contexts for particular words and not just some Old English grammar.


(1) The list is distributed from Memorial University, St. John's Nfld. To subscribe, send the following message to sub englisc YOUR NAME, substituting your own name for "YOUR NAME."
(2) Other dictionaries include W. W. Skeat, An English-Anglo-Saxon Vocabulary (Cambridge: University Press, 1879; repr. Binghamton, 1978); and Gregory K. Jember, John C. Carrell, et al., eds, English-Old English, Old English-English Dictionary, Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1975).

Return to the Englisc List Homepage