Monday, September 28, 2009

Yet the sweet mead of Suttung may mold the mind-speaker in many ways sly and slippery

Language is a fluid thing and thus can be very tricky when translating from one to another. A concept might be translatable into the target language in several different ways, or not at all. And often times, the words available might have shades of meaning that are not available in the other. Thus, it is my philosophy that when translating a piece for someone else (henceforth, the client), I will keep them involved in as much of the decision making as possible. It allows for the meaning that they want to come through, and thus hopefully leads to a more satisfactory end translation for the client. And to help the client in making that decision, I will research all the different possible translations that I can find into the target language and then explain the choices, including etymology (if I can find it). I like to include the etymology because it can sometimes help show the shade of meaning that cannot otherwise be clearly expressed. A pleasant byproduct is that sharing this information helps teach the client about a new topic, a topic I myself find fascinating. And often, it teaches me more about the language and introduces me to some new vocabulary.

Below, is a project I was honored to be a part of -- a friend of mine was being elevated to the Order of the Laurel, which is one of the highest awards one can be given in the Society. It is given to people who excel in the Arts and Sciences, in this particular case for Bardic Arts, and who have given a great deal of time, energy, and skill to the Society. After being elevated, they are considered a Master. As a skáld, my friend Ingus has a marvelous gift for words, and so provided me with what he wanted to say in his oath to the royalty of our kingdom, to be translated into Old Norse:

Hail, Hrodir King, Storm Rider, Wind Master
You have called me and I have come
Hail, Giulia Queen, Truth Seer, Land Keeper

Hear me as I mark this verse.

Wordcraft is my vessel and I am her Captain.

Stories are my canvas and Songs are my keel.

So, too, are these words my anchor and moorings.

To this land, my home, and to its Sovereigns

Do I swear fealty.

All my talents and efforts are yours to command.

My eyes shall not see but to look for the best in all things.

My back shall not bend but to support Northshield, her people, and her Leaders.

My heart shall not wander but to seek justice and nurture kindness.

My hands shall not be idle but to hold fast any trust or secret or to guide those who seek my aid.

You have marked this course, and evermore shall I sail it.
So say I….

My task then was to as accurately and grammatically translate his words into the target language (Old Norse) as I could, and in enough time so as he would be able to memorize his oath to speak to the then king and queen. I kept in contact with him as I set about translating, and I had many revisions as I checked and double checked the grammar, vocabulary, and semantics of the words we were choosing. Below is the end result:

Heill Hroðir Konungr, Stormsriddari, Vindsdróttinn
Þú kallaðir mik ok ek kem.

Heil Giulia Drottning, Sannleiksvörðr, Landsgæzlumaðr

Heyrðu mik þá er ek segi upp þetta ljóð.

Orðfimi er mitt skip ok ek em þess stýrimaðr.

Mál eru mín segl ok söngvar eru minn kjölr.

Ok þessi mín orð eru bæði mitt akkeri ok mínar landfestar.

Fyrir þessu landi, mínu heima, ok fyrir þessum Höfðingum

Ek vinn hollustu-eið.

Öllum mínum gáfum ok öllum mínum iðjum þit stjórnið.

Mín auga skulu sjá ekki, en skulu leita eftir því besta í öllu.

Mitt bak skal vera boginn ekki, en skal bera Norðsætr, þess fólk, ok þess Leiðar.

Mitt hjarta skal ráfa ekki, en skal leita réttvísi ok fóstrar gæzka.

Mínar handar skulu sitja um kyrt ekki, en skulu halda trúnaði eða skulu leiðbeina einhver er leitandi minnar hjálpar.

Þit vildið þessa leið, ok ek ætla at sigla hana.

Svo segi ek…

I rely heavily in all my translations on the Cleasby-Vigfusson An Icelandic-English Dictionary, which can be found online. I also use E.V. Gordon's An Introduction to Old Norse and Alan Bower's A synopsis of Old Icelandic morphology. In addition I use my Íslenk-Ensk Órðabók and an online English to Icelandic to English Dictionary. The latter I use because I don't always know the appropriate word in Icelandic -- and it's hard to find such a word without a dictionary that I can input the English word -- and because Icelandic is very similar to Old Norse. I then always check the Gordon and the Cleasby to make sure the word I found in Icelandic was around in Old Norse and had the same meaning. Now, neither the Gordon or the Cleasby is infallible, but they are currently my best resources. Another trick I've found most helpful when I need to find a very particular word in Icelandic (for instance, the Icelandic translation of the Atlantic Ocean) is to look up the Wikipedia article on that word, and then switch languages to Icelandic.

Ingus spoke this oath using the reconstructed (and thus hypothetical) pronunciation of Old Norse rather than the Modern Icelandic. I thought it would be 1. more appropriate since we are trying to recreate something closer to the Viking Age (hence the use of Old Norse spelling and grammar rather than Modern Icelandic) and 2. simpler in some ways (no pre-aspiration to explain and teach to produce, for instance).

Below are some of the details on the translation (referencing gender, number, declination, tense, and conjugation -- which I'm sure is only helpful to a select few) and some commentary on specific vocabulary choices.

The abbreviations are:
  • m. 'masculine'
  • f. 'feminine'
  • n. 'neuter'
  • sing. 'singular'
  • pl. 'plural'
  • 1p. '1st person'
  • 2p. '2nd person'
  • 2p.d. '2nd person dual'
  • 3p. '3rd person'
  • c. 'conjunctive'
  • p. 'preposition'
  • nom. 'nominative'
  • acc. 'accusative'
  • dat. 'dative'
  • gen. 'genitive'
  • inf. 'infinitive'
  • prt. 'present tense'
  • pst. 'past tense'




Riddari means 'rider' and was especially used for the equivalence of 'knights'. I thought this was particularly appropriate as Hrodir is a knight. According to Cleasby, the term itself did not enter into Old Norse until the 13th century.

Dróttinn means 'lord, master', and was specifically the leader of a drótt 'household, people', and was probably at one time the masculine cognate of dróttning 'queen', but dróttning some time in the past was paired with konungr 'king'.




Giulia is of course the spelling of the queen's name in her persona's language, Italian, and Ingus pronounced it the common way her name is pronounced in the Society. However, this is not the way a Norse speaking person would have pronounced the name, of course, and I did do a transliteration of her name in how I thought a Norse speaking person would have pronounced it: Júlía. Transliterated (and possibly translated when the foreign word has a native cognate) foreign names are commonly seen in Old Norse. Aðalráðr for Anglo-Saxon Æðelreð, Tristram for Old French Tristran.




Norð-sætr literally means 'north-shieling'. A shieling is a small hut up in a mountain pasture that a herder uses as a base when he's retrieving his flock from the mountains. I used this as my translation of Northshield, my home kingdom, because I had heard that the -shield suffix actually was a form of -shieling. It was several weeks after the fact that I got the full story on the history of the name Northshield from a first-hand witness to the naming.

When the area that would become Northshield was being named, one of the least disliked suggestions was North-shield, named for the Preambrain or Canadian Shield -- a geologic feature that runs through the area. It was some clever herald a bit later who found a precedent in an England town that used -shields (South Shields) as a contraction of -shielings. Well, using back-formation, if there is a plural -shields 'shielings', there could, therefore, be a singular -shield 'shieling'. But it was not this example that originally inspired the name of the kingdom.

There is also a kingdom bardic tradition that I should have guessed at from my own readings, but didn't know at the time I was working on this project: the use of some Beowulf terminology. In the Anglo-Saxon (henceforth AS) poem there is the term Scyldingas, literally 'shield-ings' or 'shield-ers' (shield as in 'sword and shield' not 'to shield (e.g. 'to protect') the weak'), that is used to reference the Danes. I was familiar with this term because it was talked about in Snorri Sturlusons Prose Edda, the Old Norse version being Skjöldungar (sng. Skjöldungr). The Danes were called this because of their mythic founder Skjöldr (AS Scyld Scelding) 'shield'. The bards of Northshield have therefore applied this term for the Danes to the residents of Northshield.

Between these two traditions (the inspiration for the original naming and the bardic tradition), I have been convinced that the Old Norse rendering of the name Northshield should be Norðskjöldr, not Norðsætr, and its people referred to as Skjöldungar. I have yet to find that Old Norse had a specific word for the geological shield (The Canadian Shield). The English, I would assume, just borrowed the common word shield since the geologic feature looks vaguely shield-shaped (but etymology is a slippery beast and can surprise you -- and I admit I have not done the research on it). An interesting note is that the Wikipedia article, while it does not have an Icelandic version of the page, does have a Norwegian version, in which the Canadian Shield is translated to Det kanadiske *skjold* (emphasis mine).





Here the dual 'you' þit is used to indicate that both and only the king and queen have willed the course. Indeed, after the initial address to the king and queen, whenever both are referred to ('you' in the translation), the dual form of the pronoun is used.

Also note that leið, being a feminine noun, takes the feminine pronoun hana when referencing back. Gender agreement between pronouns and their nouns is of course necessary in Old Norse. But this gender agreement can form some unusual sentences when the right combination (say the noun gender and the person's actual sex come into conflict). For example:

The official, literal translation (the English translated to Norse translated back into English) is as follows:

Hail Hrodir King, Storm-rider/knight, Wind-lord
You called me and I come.
Hail Giulia Queen, Truth-warden, Land-guardian.
Hear me when I declare this verse.

Word-skill is my ship and I am its captain.
Stories are my sail and songs are my keel.
And these, my words, are both my anchor and my moorings.
Before this land, my home, and before these Rulers
I swear (lit. work) a faithful oath.
All my gifts and all my doings you (two) command.
My eyes shall see not, but shall look for the best in all things.
My back shall be bent not, but shall bear Northshield, its folk, and its Leaders.
My heart shall wander not, but shall seek justice and foster kindness.
My hands shall sit at rest not, but shall hold trust or shall guide anyone who seeks my help.
You (two) will this course, and I intend to sail her.
So say I...

Project begun in mid-July 2007.
Translation finished August 2nd, 2007.
Oath spoken September 8th, 2007.

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