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Chapter 19: Translating Tricks

Now that you have mastered the fundamentals of Old English grammar, you are ready to learn a few tricks for translating that will make your tasks easier.

Modal plus Infinitive

The modal plus infinitive combination is very common in Old English poetry. Remember a modal is a helping verb such as "could," "would," "should," or "must." While in Modern English a modal would be followed by a verb in the correct number for the subject ("I should go to the store"), Old English speakers would use an infinitive ("I should to go to the store"). Remember that the infinitive ends in "an" or "ian."

Once you can recognize the modal plus infinitive construction, you'll start seeing it everywhere in Old English poetry:

The modal and the infinitive can be in either modal+infintive or infinitive+modal order:

The modal and the infinitive do not always need to be next to each other in the sentence:

Mæg ic be me selfum soð-giedd wrecan ("I can about myself a true song to sing" = "I can sing a true song about myself")

Partitive Genitive

The partitive genitive is a construction used to indicate one or more things which are a subset of a larger group. We still use the partitive genitive in Modern English in phrases such as "five of them" in the sentence "Five of them approached the king," but we would find the phrase "Seven of people approached the king" to be ungrammatical. In Old English, however, the equivalent of "five of people" would be perfectly idiomatic. Thus we get sentences like

Þær wæs madma fela ("There was many of treasures" = "There were many treasures")

Fela ðæra wæs wera ond wifa ("There was many of men and of women" = "There were many men and women")

Note that the word "fela" ("many" ) is used very frequently with partitive genitive nouns.

Tips for the Dative Case

When in doubt, translate the dative case as “with.” A fairly high percentage of dative-case nouns that you encounter can be translated as “with + noun.” “With” also works for most translations of instrumentals.

Locative Dative: In Chapter 6: Word Order and Cases, we discussed the ways the dative can be translated using Modern English prepositions. We also noted, in our discussion of the accusative case, that the accusative can be used to indicate "motion towards" something. The dative case is often used to indicate a location (hence "locative") with the idea of something being stationary rather than moving. You will almost always get this sense of the dative correct by translating with "in," or "on," but it can sometimes help to remember that a dative without a preposition may simply be indicating location. Thus in the sentence Þær æt hyðe stod hringedstefna (“There at the harbor stood the ring-prowed ship”), hyðe is dative singular because the ship is not moving.

-um is your friend. The dative plural ending -um is one of the few near-constants in Old English. When you see um, it is nearly always dative and usually dative plural.

The "ge" Prefix

Many verbs have the prefix "ge" appended to them. "Ge" often indicates a perfective form of a verb (something that has been done once and is finished), and is frequently found when the past participle is used.

You notice the prefix "ge" when you are looking up verbs in a glossary or dictionary. Usually the dictionary will list the verb alphabetically under the infinitive without including the "ge" prefix. Thus "geþolian" would be listed under "ðolian" and "gemanian" under "manian." Words that take a "ge" prefix may be listed in a form like "(ge) ðolian" but nevertheless alphabetized under "ðolian."

But a few dictionaries will alphabetize some verbs with "ge" prefixes under "ge" (usually this is only done with the few verbs that always take a "ge" prefix).

Thus when looking up a verb in the dictionary you should first subtract the "ge" prefix and search for the infinitive. If you can't find it, then look under "ge."

There is the additional confusion that some nouns can take a "ge" prefix as well. This usually occurs in the plural and indicates some sort of jointness or togetherness about the noun: "gebroðru" ("brothers"). Again, your best bet is to mentally delete the "ge" and look up the root of the word first, only searching for the "ge" form if you don't find a root.

Þa and its many meanings

Þa can be an adverb that means “when” or “then.” It can also be a plural demonstrative pronoun in the nominative or accusative cases (meaning “those” or “to those”). It can also be a singular feminine demonstrative pronoun in the accusative case. Þa can also be part of the idiomatic expression, for þa þe, which, like for þam þe, means “because.” Use other information in the sentence (for example, the case and gender of the noun to which þa is attached) to help you determine which form of þa is being used in a given sentence. Also, when you come across “îa þa,” you can almost always translate it as ‘then when’.

A few common idioms

It is best simply to memorize that for þam þe in its various inflected forms (see above under Þa) means “because.” Here are a few other common Old English expressions:

When you get stuck

There will be times when you simply get stuck translating. Here are a few tips for getting through these bl0cks.

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