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The Order of the World

January 16, 2010

So the Old English! exam is over. For it, we were set twenty-six lines of Anglo-Saxon that, as far as any of us could figure out, have never been professionally translated – the first twenty-six lines of The Order of the World, a little-known and difficult (‘difficult’ meaning in academic-speak, as previously established, ‘absolutely bastardly hard’) piece of religious poetry.

If Order of the World has ever been Englished, it’s certainly not on the internet. Anywhere. Which considering the general state of the internet is quite an achievement. In light of which deplorable state of affairs I kept a copy of my translation and am now offering it up, in the hope that future generations of Old Anglicists may find it in some small measure useful.

The original Anglo-Saxon may be found here, though the text lacks length-marks. I reiterate that the translation only covers the first twenty-six lines; the full poem is considerably longer. This is, of course, prose – verse translation is a whole other ball game.

My main translation resource was Bosworth & Toller’s An Anglo-Saxon dictionary, available to view online and download here. The text is footnoted and references to B&T duly noted. Whilst on the subject of citations, in the unlikely event that anybody wants to cite this translation in a serious essay, please leave a comment with an email address and I’ll send you my name and institution.

Finally, a disclaimer: approach with caution. I’m a final-year undergrad, and my grasp of Old English – while good relative to my experience – is therefore not as complete as that of real academics working in the field. Add in the fact that even professionals can make wild errors, that the text as it stands supports multiple interpretations (a couple are noted) and the text itself has been damaged and filled in in a couple of places, and you’ve got a whole pile of potential inaccuracies. (This disclaimer may be amended or removed once I find out what mark I got.)

Square brackets show bits I had to put in – usually places where the grammar or syntax of the OE requires extra words in Modern E.

Nonetheless. I give you The Order of the World.

Do you wish, eager man, to address this stranger, this wise speaker, with words – to ask one who has travelled much [1] about the Creation? [Do you wish] to ask that I speak [2] to you about the living, moving generative powers of wide-spread creatures [3] – since [4] on each day, [5] by [6] the decision of God, I bring [7] many wonders to the races of men!

In each of these individual things is a clear sign; by [means of] those, [and] through wisdom, the thinking man knows how to comprehend the whole world [8] in his mind; long ago, by the craft of music, men – resolute men – often recounted this in song. They knew how to speak the truth, [which is] always finding out about the nations of men, and telling about the seduction of arcane lore; [9] they always knew the most mindful of men.

Because he who lives with [10] zeal, the deep-minded man, should ask about hidden things – [in order] to inscribe in his mind the power of poetry, to make his thought[s] secure, [and] to think deeply about tales; nor shall the zealous warrior tire [11] in this,[12] so that he may deal with [13] the world wisely.

Learn these lessons! I shall soon say more to you about the power of the Creator, when you, [being then] powerful of mind, [14] may comprehend [it] in your heart, [and] in your mind. His [15] power is very great.

[1] Bosworth-Toller. The entry on fricgan cites this line, and translates felageong as ‘much-travelled’, understanding –geong as a form of gangan ‘go, walk’. Given that mention is made of the speaker’s foreignness (fremdne monna ‘strange man’) and vast knowledge, this interpretation seems to fit better with the poem than ‘very young’, the alternative interpretation
[2] Subjunctive translated as indicative. First- and third-person are indistinguishable; I have chosen to give first-, and assume that the speaker is the same ic who speaks at l. 23.
[3] Bosworth-Toller renders síd here as ‘wide-spread’ rather than simply ‘wide’, which seems better than the alternative.
[4] Bosworth-Toller cites multiple uses of þá ‘doubled, or combined with þe’ (sense IIIa) and meaning ‘when’ or ‘since, as’, which seems to provide the best resolution of þá þe in this instance.
[5] Lit.: ‘each of the days’.
[6] Lit.: ‘through’.
[7] Translated as indicative, though bringe could potentially be subjunctive.
[8] Lit.: ‘all the world’.
[9] Bosworth-Toller cites gespon [=ge-span] as ‘a prompting, enticing, persuasion, seduction’ which makes sense if one considers searo-rúna ‘arcane lore’ to be some tempting form of witchcraft. It also, however, gives ‘a joining, fastening together’ and renders searo-rúna gespon as ‘web of mysteries’. I have chosen the former but find the latter image attractive as well.
[10] Lit.: ‘in’.
[11] Lit.: ‘nor shall [it] tire the brave warrior’.
[12] Lit.: ‘with regard to these things’ (þæs).
[13] Lit.: ‘engage in/with’.
[14] Lit.: ‘thought-powerful’.
[15] I.e. the Creator’s.


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