Reprinted with permission from Old English Newsletter, 30.3 (1997): 14-17.

THE FOUR QUESTIONS:
The ENGLISC List in Action

by Sarah Higley, Univ. of Rochester

[Editorial Note: for an account of the formation of the ENGLISC listserv discussion group and for details on how to join the list, see OEN 30.1 (Fall 1996):16.]

     On February 5, Cathy Ball sent a request to ENGLISC from Murray Spiegel at Bellcore Laboratories, New Jersey. He and other linguists have been compiling translations of "The Four Questions" of the Seder Ceremony in an educational, non-profit international project that will feature over a hundred and thirty different languages. They intend to publish this in book form with some kind of audio-accompaniment (including a video for American and Hebrew Sign Language), and, eventually, with proceeds from the volume, to mount a webpage. Spiegel expressly requested a translation into Old English and a volunteer to record it. He accompanied his request with a modern English translation of the Four Questions:

Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights we eat either leavened bread or matzah.
     On this night, only matzah.
On all other nights we at all kinds of herbs.
     On this night, only bitter herbs.
On all other nights we do not dip even once.
     On this night, we dip twice.
On all other nights we eat either sitting up or reclining.
     On this night we all recline.
On all other nights we eat in any ordinary way.
     On this night we dine in special ceremony.

     Members of ENGLISC were galvanized. It constitued our first joint translation exercise. We decidd that Duncan Macrae-Gibson was the obvious person to do the recording of the finished product, given his work on the Þa Engliscan Gesiðas. Meanwhile, we were faced with some interesting problems on a lexical and a conceptual level.

     What were we to do with "recline"? OE licgan, "lie," obviously presented itself, but it has uncomfortable connotations of "to lie prone," or "to lie dead." So Duncan suggested hleonian, "to lean," which is what one does (in Old English) "in the bosom of Abraham." Could dyppan be used of a vegetable (as well as baptism)? "Dine in special ceremony" was likewise problematic. Looking through dictionaries, readers, and the corpus, we could find no appropriate expression in Old English for this phrase: þeaw means "custom," gerihte means "religious rite," but neither of these words is used in Old English in a dative construction or a prepositional phrase to express the more abstract "in ceremony." Nor did any of us have the original version to match it against. Sarah Higley suggested that we cast it thus: "On all other nights we eat in an ordinary way; tonight we eat in a special way"--and after deliberation we came up with: On eallum oþrum nihtum we etað on gewunelicre wisan. On þisse nihte we etað on ænlicre wisan. Even the word "question" was a difficult one. Sarah had proposed frignung, and that is how it is being recorded. Cathy, with the corpus on hand, warned that frignung occurs much less frequently than axung, but Duncan protested that he had already committed it to open reel.

     Conceptually, there was the difficulty in trying to understand the structure of the Four Questions from Spiegel's translation. Many of us were confused by the alternative fourth question, which looked to us like a fifth one, until we learned that it was a Russian variant. Since this project celebrates the international practice of the Seder, no variant was to be slighted. So we talked about the Four Questions as questions, and not one question with four answers, as the paradigm seemed to suggest. We were also faced with the obvious difficulty of imagining how the words of this part of the ceremony could be expressed in a tenth-century English culture most likely unfamiliar with Jews and Judaism, let alone the Haggadah, and whether that mattered. Melissa Bernstein suggested that we look to the original Hebrew, imagining that a brilliant Anglo-Saxon Hebraicist, a "Jerome" among the English, had participated in or read the ceremony and had translated it into Old English poetry. Old English poetic tradition lends itself well to chant and repetition, but we decided that the poetic form was too complicating. We debated whether the first line should more closely follow the original--Hwæt todæleð þas niht fram eallum nihtum? "What separates this night from all nights?"--and decided on the present form, not only because it follows the translation Spiegel had given us, but because it expresses the "why" of the questions instead of the "how." To maintain something, however, of the melodic quality of the sung Questions, we had also thought to repeat this first line four times, the way several contributors know the chanted tradition in Hebrew, and which clarifies the status of these lines as questions and not answers:

Mah nishtanah halaileh hazeh michol halailot, michol halailot?
Shebechol halailot anu ochleen chametz umatsah, chametz umatzah.
Halaileh hazeh, halaileh hazeh, kulo matzah.
Halaileh hazeh, halaileh hazeh, kulo matzah.

Mah nishtanah halaileh hazeh michol halailot, michol halailot?
shebechol halailot anu ochleen sh'ahr y'rakot, sh'ahr y'rakot.
etc.
[Melissa's transcription, as she remembers it sung]

"What separates this night from all nights, from all nights?
On all nights we eat bread or matzah, bread or matzah.
This night, this night, only matzah.
This night, this night, only matzah.

"What separates this night from all nights, from all nights?
On all nights we eat any herbs, any herbs."
etc.

     To our disappointment, Spiegel insisted on our sticking to the English translation he offered, discouraging us from matching our words to the sung Hebrew. This added a new complication to our debate over whether the target or the original language was to be privileged. Were we honoring the original Hebrew? in Old English? through Spiegel's English translation? What about fidelity vs. elegance? To what were we being faithful at the expense of graceful Old English? Should we translate what was given us to the letter, writing ne dyppað we swa oft swa anes, to render "we do not dip even once," or the simpler ne dyppað we nealles, "we don't dip at all"? Ultimately, as requested, we kept our work consonant with the guide that was given us in order to maintain consistency with other translations submitted to the project. And ne dyppað we swa oft swa anes is a closer match to the Hebrew anyway: ...ayn anu matbeeleen afeelu pa'am echat: "we don't dip even one time."

Here is the final result:

ÞA FEOWER FRIGNUNGE (AXUNGE)

For hwi is þeos niht ungelic eallum oþrum nihtum?
On eallum oþrum nihtum we etað hlaf swa gehlafene swa þeorfne.
On þisse nihte, þeorfne anan.

On eallum oþrum nihtum we etað mislice wyrta.
On þisse nihte, bitree wyrta anan.

On eallum oþrum nihtum ne dyppað we swa oft swa anes.
On þisse nihte, we dyppaþ tuwa.

On eallum oþrum nihtum we etað swa sittende swa hleoniende.
On þisse nihte, ealle we hleoniað.

On eallum oþrum nihtum we etað on gewunelicre wisan:
On þisse nihte, we etað on ænlicre wisan.

THE FOUR QUESTIONS

Why is this night unlike all other nights?

On all other nights we eat leavened and/or unleavened bread.
On this night, unleavened only.

On all other nights we eat various herbs.
On this night, bitter herbs only.

On all other nights we don't dip as often as once.
On this night, we dip twice.

On all other nights we eat sitting and/or reclining.
On this night we all recline.

On all other nights we eat in an ordinary way.
On this night, we eat in a special way.

CONTRIBUTERS:

Cathy Ball, Linguistics, Georgetown University, Washington, DC.
Melissa Bernstein, English, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.
Patrick Conner, English, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV.
Edwin Duncan, English, University of Akron, OH.
Sarah Higley, English, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.
Joyce Lionarons, English, Ursinus College, Collegeville, PA.
Duncan Macrae-Gibson, English, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland.
Miriam Youngerman Miller, English, University of New Orleans, New Orleans, LA.

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