Thursday 14 June 2012

Psalm Translations: I was glad

Some medieval translations of Psalm 122 (123), which we've been hearing rather a lot in this Jubilee year, because of its use in the coronation service. I like this psalm very much in its Book of Common Prayer formulation, so I was curious to see how earlier translators had rendered it.

To start with the most familiar version, this is the BCP:

1. I was glad when they said unto me : We will go into the house of the Lord.
2. Our feet shall stand in thy gates : O Jerusalem.
3. Jerusalem is built as a city : that is at unity in itself.
4. For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord : to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord.
5. For there is the seat of judgement : even the seat of the house of David.
6. O pray for the peace of Jerusalem : they shall prosper that love thee.
7. Peace be within thy walls : and plenteousness within thy palaces.
8. For my brethren and companions' sakes : I will wish thee prosperity.
9. Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good.

I was disappointed not to be able to find a version of this set to Anglican chant on youtube; there's at least one particularly lovely setting, and the words really lend themselves to that aesthetic, especially the first declaration "I was glad" and the gorgeous rich alliteration of 6-8: pray, peace, prosper, plenteousness, palaces, prosperity... So much fun to sing!

However, I suppose we ought to have a link here to Parry instead:

And now for some medieval translations. Here's the Latin from which most of the medieval translators were working:

1. Laetatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi in domum Domini ibimus.
2. Stantes erant pedes nostri in atriis tuis Hierusalem.
3. Hierusalem quae aedificatur ut civitas cuius par ticipatio eius in id ipsum.
4. Illic enim ascenderunt tribus tribus Domini testimonium Israel ad confitendum nomini Domini.
5. Quia illic sederunt sedes in iudicium sedes super domum David.
6. Rogate quae ad pacem sunt Hierusalem et abundantia diligentibus te.
7. Fiat pax in virtute tua et abundantia in turribus tuis.
8. Propter fratres meos et proximos meos loquebar pacem de te.
9. Propter domum Domini Dei nostri quaesivi bona tibi.

Here's an Old English translation from the Paris Psalter (online here) - this is from the tenth century. I've inserted verse numbers which match up with the Latin, so you can compare.

(1) Ic on ðyssum eom eallum bliðe,
þæt me cuðlice to acweden syndon,
and on godes hus gange syððan.

(2) Wæron fæststealle fotas mine
on þinum cafertunum, þær ure cyðð wæs,
on Hierusalem geara ærest.

(3) Hierusalem, geara ðu wære
swa swa cymlic ceaster getimbred,
þær syndon dælas on sylfre hire.

(4) þær cneorisse cende wæron
cynn æfter cynne; cuðan þa drihten
and on þære gewitnesse wæran Israelas,
þe his naman neode sceoldon
him andetnes æghwær habban.

(5) Oft hi þær on seldon sæton æt domum;
þu eart ðonne dema, Dauides hus,
þæt on heofenum siteþ heah gestaðelod.

(6) Biddað eow bealde beorhtere sibbe,
ða ðe on Hierusalem gode syndan;
and geniht agun, þa þe neode þe
on heora lufun lustum healdað.

(7) Si þe on þinum mægene sib mæst and fyrmest,
and on þinum torrum wese tidum genihtsum.

(8) For mine broðru ic bidde nu,
and mine þa neahstan nemne swylce,
þæt we sibbe on ðe symble habbon.

(9) And ic for mines godes huse georne þingie,
and to minum drihtne deorum sece,
þæt ic god æt him begitan mote.

This is a poetic translation, not a literal one, and I'll discuss the vocabulary in a moment; first, let's have two later translations (both from the fourteenth century). This is a Wycliffite translation:

1. I am glad in these thingis, that ben seid to me; We schulen go in to the hous of the Lord.
2. Oure feet weren stondynge; in thi hallis, thou Jerusalem.
3. Jerusalem, which is bildid as a citee; whos part taking therof is in to the same thing.
4. For the lynagis, the lynagis of the Lord stieden thidir, the witnessing of Israel; to knouleche to the name of the Lord.
5. For thei saten there on seetis in doom; seetis on the hous of Dauid.
6. Preie ye tho thingis, that ben to the pees of Jerusalem; and abundaunce be to hem that louen thee.
7. Pees be maad in thi vertu; and abundaunce in thi touris.
8. For my britheren and my neiyboris; Y spak pees of thee.
9. For the hous of oure Lord God; Y souyte goodis to thee.

And this is from the Surtees Psalter:

1. I am faine in þa þate saide are to me:
“In hous ofe lauerd ga sal we”.

2. Standande ware our fete als beme
In þi porches ofe Iherusaleme.

3. Ierusalem, þat bigged als cite isse,
Ofe wham in him-selfe del-taking hisse.

4. Þider sothlike vpstegh on heght
Kinde, kinde ofe lauerd reght,
Witnes ofe Irael þe same,
For to schriue to lauerdes name.

5. For þare sat þai setels in dome with,
Setel ouer þe hous ofe Dauid.

6. Biddes whilke at pais ere Ierusalem land,
And mightsomnes to þe louand.

7. Pais be in þi might esse,
And in þi toures mightsomnes.

8. For mi brethre and mi neghburghs be,
Spake I mikel pais of þe.

9. For hous ofe lauerd, our god es he,
Soght I godes vnto þe.

The first words of this psalm gives us an opportunity to explore medieval terms for happiness - "Laetatus sum!" Last time I did one of these psalm translation posts, I ended up talking about various kinds of curses, and the time before that it was words for sorrow and sadness, but this is a nicer subject! These three translations have, respectively, blithe, glad, and fain, all lovely words. The Old English begins Ic eom bliðe, which means 'I am glad, I rejoice'. Modern English blithe can have slightly negative overtones ('oblivious, careless'), but it was entirely positive in Old English: in this case it means 'glad, merry, joyful', but it could also mean 'kind, mild, gentle, merciful' (cf., I suppose, the last of these terms of endearment). Blithe and glad are both Old English words and together they became a very common phrase in Middle English poetry - "ever he was glad and blithe", says the author of Havelok about the most good-humoured hero in English literature. Fain often appears in these doublet phrases too - glad and fain, fain and merry, blithe and fain, all largely interchangeable. (Mentioning fain means I also have to give a link here to this post about one particularly lovely phrase - 'as fain as a bird when the day dawns'.)

An interesting feature of all three words is that they share a similar three-fold range of meaning, according to the OED: 1) the primary sense, 'glad, joyful', 2) 'kind, mild, gentle', and 3) 'beautiful', literally and metaphorically, and in the case of both glad and blithe, 'shining, bright'. I think it's delightful that these three qualities meet in these words; it's both more vague and more precise than our sense of gladness. It's a bit like how Old English uses 'bright' to describe anything lovely - on the one hand it seems thoughtless and just a meaningless stock phrase (as sometimes it is), but it also expresses something of a sense of what constitutes beauty. Similarly, glad, blithe and fain (and also merry) tell us about what constitutes happiness in medieval literature. Happiness is not exactly a feeling, or not just a feeling - these words all suggest a particular kind of cheerfulness which is also a moral quality, an indwelling sense of joy which is the rejoicing of the angels but also expresses itself in everyday courtesy, simple kindness and generosity. I think that to understand this helps make various things about medieval literature more comprehensible - saints' lives, for instance. A saint like Edward the Confessor is often credited with a mild cheerfulness which doesn't entirely fit with our idea of how a royal saint should behave (in these stories, for instance), and saintly jests are a mini-genre of their own (think of Wulfstan's 'Cat of God' joke). It seems almost undignified to us, but I think it's supposed to express a sense of abiding light-heartedness, a constant rejoicing in God which makes for gentleness and a peaceful spirit.

This question reminds me a little of what Chesterton says about pre-modern joy as embodied in the works of Dickens, and C. S. Lewis talks about this somewhere when he describes medieval ideas of what it is to be 'jovial'. We tend to denigrate medieval merriment as the stereotyped jolliness of Errol Flynn's Robin Hood - contrived tricks and schemes, and sudden bursts of slightly forced laughter. Medieval gladness is somehow 'lighter' than that - if the Green Knight is jovial, Gawain is constantly glad (and not just because it alliterates with his name!). In the romances such gladness belongs to courteous heroes, good-humoured and humble, generous and open-handed. In an utterly characteristic passage, Langland describes Charity as follows, while riffing on 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:

He is glad with alle glade and good til alle wikkede,
And leneth and loveth alle that Oure Lord made.
Corseth he no creature, ne he kan bere no wrathe,
Ne no likynge hath to lye ne laughe men to scorne.
Al that men seyn, he leet it sooth, and in solace taketh,
And alle manere meschiefs in myldenesse he suffreth.
Coveiteth he noon erthely good but heveneriche blisse...
For Charite is Goddes champion, and as a good child hende,
And the murieste of mouth at mete where he sitteth.
The love that lith in his herte maketh hym light of speche,
And is compaignable and confortatif, as Crist bit hymselve:
Nolite fieri sicut ypocrite tristes &c.
For I have seyen hym in silk and som tyme in russet,
Bothe in grey, and in grys, and in gilt harneis -
And as gladliche he it gaf to gomes that it neded.

[He is glad with all who are glad [i.e. 'rejoices with those who rejoice'] and good to all the wicked, and gives freely and loves all whom Our Lord made. He curses no creature, and bears no grudges, and never takes delight in lying or laughing men to scorn. All that people say he trusts to be the truth, and takes it as comfort, and he bears every kind of injury with mildness. He covets no earthly good, only the bliss of heaven... For Charity is God's champion, as gracious as a well-behaved child, and the merriest in conversation at dinner wherever he goes. The love that lies in his heart makes him light of speech, and he is sociable and cheerful, as Christ himself taught: 'Do not be sad like the hypocrites [Matt. 6:16]'. For I have seen Charity in silk and in woolen cloth, both in rich furs and in gilt armour - and he gave it away gladly to anyone who needed it.]

That says it all - no sour-faced saints here! St Paul doesn't actually mention cheerfulness and good dinner-table conversation as expressions of Love, but in my experience they really can be. "The love that lith in his herte maketh hym light of speche" - how beautiful.

Oh right, the psalm. I'll just point one or two more things:
- Note that in the Old English Jerusalem is a ceaster, which is the OE word for a fortified city like a Roman castrum, and therefore the source of many English place names of towns which had been Roman settlements: Chester, Worcester, Gloucester, Colchester, etc.
- I like how the Surtees Psalter has the psalmist standing "in the porches of Jerusalem"! Seems like a perfectly reasonable translation of atrium to me...
- a funny piece of linguistic history is illustrated in verse 7. The word to be translated is abundantia, 'abundance' (the BCP's splendid plenteousness). The Wycliffite translation logically renders it abundaunce. The Old English equivalent is tidum genihtsum, 'plentiful seasons'; this latter word means 'plentiful', and the Surtees Psalter's mightsomnes is sort of derived from the Old English word, but in an odd way. In Early Middle English the word genyhtsumnes became inihtsumnesse, which was rare and seems to have been misunderstood by the medieval scribes who copied it; if you imagine inihtsumnesse written in a manuscript, with all those joined-up minim strokes, you can see how a scribe unfamiliar with Old English might think the word was mihtsomnesse. Such a word had never existed in English, but in this way it was born - though it only appears in this one Psalter, a number of times. You have to sympathise with those poor scribes...


Regina said...

thanks for this: language you can sink your teeth into!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Indeed it is! Thanks for commenting.