Thursday, October 27, 2005

Bagme Bloma: A Verse Translation

I just recently posted about Tolkien's poetic composition in Gothic, "Bagme Bloma" ["The Flower of the Trees"]. The translations that I've been able to find in English, while to some extent poetic, focus mostly on sense, so they definitely don't have the meter and alliteration and general flow of the original. Since I am very sensitive to sound and content matching or complementing each other, I set out to do my own translation in full poetic form. I'm indebted to the translation quoted in Shippey's Road to Middle Earth, Indûr's translation (about half-way down), and especially The Annotated Bagme Bloma for making sure I understood the basic sense of the poem. Also, check out this analysis (PDF; auf deutsch).

So following are the Gothic original and the first publication of the new Bitter Scroll Translation(tm). I would love to hear suggestions, critique, etc. I think it's pretty good, but I want to know what other people think, especially if I can improve it.


Brunaim bairiþ bairka bogum
laubans liubans liudandei,
gilwagroni, glitmunjandei,
bagme bloma, blauandei,
fagrafahsa, liþulinþi,
fraujinondei fairguni.

Wopjand windos, wagjand lindos,
lutiþ limam laikandei;
slaihta, raihta, hweitarinda,
razda rodeiþ reirandei,
bandwa bairhta, runa goda,
þiuda meina þiuþjandei.

Andanahti milhmam neipiþ,
liuhteiþ liuhmam lauhmuni;
laubos liubai fliugand lausai,
tulgus, triggwa, standandei.
Bairka baza beidiþ blaika
fraujinondei fairguni.


On glorious branches, glittering and
Pale green as she grows,
The birch tree bears her lovely leaves,
The flower of flowering trees,
Fair of hair and lithe of limb,
The mistress of the mountain.

The winds now call, soft winds are stirring,
She lowers her limbs in play.
Sleek and straight and white of bark,
She utters a trembling tongue.
Great mystery, bright token is she,
A blessing on my people.

The twilit sky obscured by clouds
Is bright again with lightning.
And standing strong and faithful while
Her lovely leaves take flight,
The birch will wait there, bare and white,
Still mistress of the mountain.


My goals in translating were as follows. I wanted a poem that came as close as it could to the smooth, flowing beauty of the original. So like the original, the translation has a specific meter (roughly, 3 stanzas each with 3 pairs of lines of 4 and 3 strong beats) and a certain degree of alliteration and internal and external rhyme. Tolkien's original does not quite follow the old Germanic device of one sound alliterating across a whole line (e.g., sometimes the first two beats alliterate with each other, and the second two with each other, as in Fagrafahsa, liþulinþi). So I felt justified in altering the structure slightly myself.

So much for form. As to content, I tried to craft a translation that, if on the surface less literal, is hopefully more accessible. "On the surface" because often ancient languages use one basic word where we have many quasi-synonyms with the same basic sense, but carry also connotations of emphasis or slight variation according to object. E.g., rodeiþ may be listed as "speak" in lexicons, but depending on context and even interpretation, in different circumstances may be better translated with synonyms like talk, declaim, utter, perorate, announce, speak up, speak out, declare, address, communicate, etc. Hence the use of 'great' for goda (good); 'glorious' for brunaim (shining, bright); 'the mistress of' for fraujinondei (ruling). If written in good Gothic, translate into good English. Thus my translation is necessarily a bit more interpretive than the others.

Finally, there are several words in the Gothic that do not exist in any Gothic texts or lexicons. It is very characteristic that Tolkien reconstructed these from words that exist in Old English, Old High German, or Old Norse. See, again, The Annotated Bagme Bloma. My translations differs only in that I interpret lindos as an adjective 'soft' used as a noun (as OHG lindos, 'softly') despite possible problems with form. This has windos and lindos related by both sense and rhyme (as old Germanic poetry often used alliteration to follow sense). I didn't see why Tolkien would, only in that line, talk about any other kind of tree.

For an interpretation of the poem in terms of the Literature-versus-Language (philology) struggle that went on at the U. of Leeds when Tolkien there, see Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle Earth. Literature and Language were labelled respectively Track A and Track B in the English Department, but Tolkien likened them to the corresponding rune-names: A = ác (oak), and B = beorc (birch), or in Gothic, bairka.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Ælfred se cyborg cyning

I found this neat little generator on Speculative Catholic. Heheh. I'm glad that even Alfred's cyborg is about learning.

Kinetic Intelligent Neohuman Generated for Accurate Learning, Forbidden Repair and Efficient Destruction


Saturday, October 15, 2005

Bagme Bloma

"The Flower of the Trees" That's the name of the Gothic poem that Tolkien composed. It's got the alliteration traditional for old Germanic poetry (even though this was composed in 1936), and personally I really do like how it sounds (this page, despite a couple of typos, has .wav files so you can hear it).

To show you a bit of the fun I get from comparative philology, I just wanted to point out how many cognates this poem shares with modern English. Out of 55 words, here are 32 cognates for 34 words (2 appear twice) or 62% of the words in the poem. And this is just what occured to me on first glance (at 1am). The Gothic words below don't all do exactly the same job their English cousins do, but they're in the same field usually. Starring, in order of appearance, are:

bairiþ: bears ("beareth")
bairka: birch
bogum: bough
laubans: leaves
gilwa-groni: pale green ("yellow-green")
glitmunjandei: glittering
bagme: trees ("beam")
bloma: flower ("bloom")
fagra-fahsa: fair-haired ("fair" & "faxen", whence "Fairfax")
fairguni: mountain ("-berg")
Wopjand: calling ("weeping")
windos: winds
wagjand: shaking, moving ("wagging")
limam: limbs
slaihta: smooth ("slight")
raihta: straight ("right")
hweita-rinda: white-barked ("white" & "rind")
bairhta: ("bright")
runa: mystery, secret ("rune")
goda: good
þiuda: people ("Theoden", "Deutsch" [ok so this isn't English])
meina: mine
Anda-nahti: evening ("night")
liuhteiþ: lights ("lighteth")
laubos: leaves
fliugand: flying
lausai: free ("loose")
triggwa: faithful ("true")
standandei: standing
baza: bare
beidiþ: awaits ("bideth")

Some generalities to note in comparison:

In OE, the 'ai' or 'a' of Gothic often became 'æ', as in OE bær (from beran) for Go. bar (from bairan).

After vowels, the 'g' in OE tended to be pronounced like our 'y', so that "fair" was spelled fæger, but pronounced close to our own word. Gothic, however, pronounced the 'g' in fagr.

The OE 'g' also sounded like a 'y' in front of "front vowels" (æ, e, i, y). Hence gear > year; geard > yard; and, above, Go. gilwa- beside OE geolu > yellow ... BUT ... hard 'g' sounds at the front of 'glittering' (Go. glitmunjandei, OE glæteriende) and 'good' (Go. goda, OE gód).

Baza to English bare is an example of s's becoming r's. This is called rhotacization, after the Greek letter.

Finally, isn't it just more fun to pronounce the gutturals in words like slight, right, light, night? My favorite line of the poem, for sheer enjoyment of hearing the sounds, is slaihta, raihta, hweitarinda. Smúúð.

Saturday, October 8, 2005

Leifing through the Web

In honor of Leif Erickson Day tomorrow, here are a few random tidbits:

The Icelandic Saga Centre

Viking Quest Game - How would you do as a viking?

Northvegr - some language resources.

This looks to be an interesting translation of the Elder Edda. Thanks to Scott Nokes.

The Germanic Lexicon Project - Working to digitize dictionaries for Old Norse and other Germanic tongues.

What went wrong with the Vikings' western colonies?

Here's a little snippet on viking swords.

And, of course, any excuse to post Viking Kittens

Friday, October 7, 2005

Some Tolkien for your Friday

Check it out: The Ring poem in Mercian Old English, and the Siege of Gondor in West Midlands Middle English.

Thursday, October 6, 2005

Helping OE to Feel More Familiar

When I study languages, my mind latches onto similarities, even when they're veiled or indirect, of form or of vocabulary. For example, I will never be able to see the word pecuniary and forget that the first syllable is related (albeit 2000 years distantly) to the English word fee, and that while both mean money now, they both meant cattle 2 millennia ago.

That said, I've begun a little experiment. I contend that there is enough of the "feel" of the Germanic linguistic tradition left in English, that you can usually find something in modern English to make aspects of old Germanic languages feel familiar. For example, last week while I was home with my foot up after surgery, I started writing down how I would explain each of the seven classes of strong verbs if I were writing an "Old English for Dummies" book. For each class there are modern English verbs that exhibit the exact same series of vowels across their principle parts--either directly, or once you account for an Old-to-Modern vowel shift, which also can be shown to be an instinctual, home-grown English thing to do.

Obviously there won't be a familiar ring to some aspects of the language--after all, there are things that make it different from its modern form (though less and less, it seems, the more I study it). For example, OE words that never made it much past the Norman Invasion won't seem familiar, although words that at least made it into Shakespeare have a chance of helping out here. Nevertheless, since we generally gain new knowledge by building on, comparing with, and filtering it through existing knowledge, it might be an easier point of access for the average Joe if different points of OE were introduced in terms of what he already knows. The closest I've seen is that many people introduce the language as a whole with examples of similarity, but then dive into the grammar like any other language, not really stopping to point out convergences along the way.

Some examples are in order.

From Old to Modern English, there was a general tendency for [a] to become [o]. We experience the relation between these sounds today. Listen to the two o's in "October". In some American dialects at least, the first 'o' is more like the a in 'farm', while the second is like the o in 'code'. (I've encountered this relationship everywhere from Russian to Hebrew, though I wouldn't include that in my grammar.)

The variation even occurs with the same letter, across dialects: I grew up pronouncing 'progress' with that short ah-sounding o, while many Americans give it a more closed 'oh' sound. So if you see a modern word like 'no', imagine pronouncing it like 'nah'. This should at least familiar. If you've done any bit of travelling, or met people from around the country, you've encountered people that pronounce words like this.

Now then, what if I tell you to pronounce the following words with that same St. Louis-sounding accent--with that real open 'ah' sound? (Like your father-in-law, gaetanus!)


They would probably sound very much like their Old English forms:


Then once you get used to that, it'll make sense to see how who came from hwa and soul came from sawol. It's just a matter of combining two things you're familiar with but aren't used to thinking about together. Like when two of your friends from different circles meet and start to date. Or like when they first invented Reese's peanut butter cups.

One more example: I could tell you that the OE strong verb Class III is conjugated like bindan: bindan--band--bunden. Or I could just get you to think about the verb drink--drank--drunk, and tell you to go conjugate swindan, sinnan, onginnan, winnan like it. Don't have the feel for this verb group yet? Recall how you instinctively change vowels for verbs like sing, sink, begin, ring, spin, sting, swim. They all have i--a--u, but if you're having trouble memorizing naked vowel sequences, then by all means, associate the verbs you learn with verbal clothing you're already used to putting on.

Is it just me? Has someone already done this and I missed it? I know I like to study from boring grammar books, but don't we want to make it easier for more people to learn this stuff--people unlike me?