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ENGLISH 3L03 Old Eng Lit in Translation (C01)

Academic Year: Fall 2018

Term: Fall

Day/Evening: D

Instructor: Dr. Anne Savage


Office: Chester New Hall 326

Phone: 905-525-9140 x 23729

Office Hours: Wednesdays 2:30-3:20pm or by appointment

Course Objectives:

The goal of this course is to familiarize you with the poetry in translation of the Anglo-Saxon period, roughly the seventh to the eleventh centuries, along with its cultural context, which is unique in the history of Western literature. This body of poetry is mysterious and unusual, bridging a pre-Christian indigenous oral poetry and concepts of literature and Christianity from sources originally altogether foreign to Britain.  What kind of culture produced this ‘literature’, and what do our processes of excavating by translation produce? What can we establish about its original and current contexts? We’ll discuss in what ways the originals can and cannot be translated - that somewhere along a continuum a poem becomes ‘a version’ or is ‘based on’ the original rather than ‘a translation’.

The written forms of Old English comprise the earliest written vernacular poetry and prose in Europe. The language is so different from that of the twelfth century and onward that it can’t be read without a course in the language itself, which is different in its lexicon, grammar, and even kind of language. Many translations of the poetry have been done, often very different from one another; and while relatively few people can read Old English, the high cultural status of the poetry as the origins of English literature has constructed a powerful mythos still operative in concepts of the literary canon and the ‘Englishness’ of the British nation.

Bearing in mind that some translations were made for the purpose of assisting students of Old English to read an original, and also that some are couched in the styles of their different poetic periods (which date them, sometimes rendering them ‘out’dated), we’ll try to give each translator their due in terms of our consideration. None of them set out to make the poem unappealing; but what are our own reasons for respecting, liking, or disliking them - and where do these preferences come from? What imaginative processes do we apply, and how are these particularly from our own culture, different from the one we are trying to approach?

In class, close readings of the poems will demand deeply engaged student discussion. Frequent in-class group work will be done to facilitate your participation. Because the poetry was primarily oral, be prepared to read aloud in class – mostly to the group at your table, though occasionally to all. Everyone must be prepared to do so, since an understanding of recitation and performance is integral to the course. Those with accommodations can as always discuss these with me; I have many strategies for thwarting and bypassing anxiety about speaking in class, which have worked for many students over decades. We’ll be in one of the smart classrooms in the Wilson Building, and so you’ll be working onscreen and with each other in small groups as well as taking notes on and asking questions/ participating discussions in lectures.


You’ll have a frame of reference for this little-known very first period of English poetry (600-1000 CE) in terms of history and culture; an understanding of poetry composed without recourse to texts or even literacy; how its translation is both political and personal. You’ll see why and how this poetry has been co-opted by different English-speaking nations which have claimed it as their own while rejecting its ‘cultural appropriation’ by ‘non-native’ English speakers, a question with broader, even global, relevance; what positions Old English poetry has held in the university; how and why it’s understood as belonging to the canon of English literature and also as not belonging.

Apart from the content, you’ll be learning new writing skills as well as those belonging to oral presentation, so that you can speak to a group with confidence and competence.

Method of Assessment:


Short paper 1 (Sept. 19,1200 words)                                        15%

Short paper 2 (Oct. 3, 1200 words)                                          15%

Each of these is a discussion of a translation of a single poem, or a comparison of two translations with regard to a given feature – such as an oral performance versus a silent reading, or the translators’ interpretations.

Final paper (Dec. 3, 2500-3000 words)                                    25%

The paper will be on Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, on an assigned topic. This course has many supporting materials on the poem which will be useful to you. 

In-class participation writing                                                      15%

This is a class participation grade; the assignments must be written or read aloud in class on the specified date. Each is worth 3%.

Final examination                                                                          30%



Please Note the Following Policies and Statements:

Academic Dishonesty

You are expected to exhibit honesty and use ethical behaviour in all aspects of the learning process. Academic credentials you earn are rooted in principles of honesty and academic integrity.

Academic dishonesty is to knowingly act or fail to act in a way that results or could result in unearned academic credit or advantage. This behaviour can result in serious consequences, e.g. the grade of zero on an assignment, loss of credit with a notation on the transcript (notation reads: "Grade of F assigned for academic dishonesty"), and/or suspension or expulsion from the university.

It is your responsibility to understand what constitutes academic dishonesty. For information on the various types of academic dishonesty please refer to the Academic Integrity Policy, located at

The following illustrates only three forms of academic dishonesty:

  1. Plagiarism, e.g. the submission of work that is not one’s own or for which other credit has been obtained.
  2. Improper collaboration in group work.
  3. Copying or using unauthorized aids in tests and examinations.

Email correspondence policy

It is the policy of the Faculty of Humanities that all email communication sent from students to instructors (including TAs), and from students to staff, must originate from each student’s own McMaster University email account. This policy protects confidentiality and confirms the identity of the student.  Instructors will delete emails that do not originate from a McMaster email account.

Modification of course outlines

The University reserves the right to change dates and/or deadlines etc. for any or all courses in the case of an emergency situation or labour disruption or civil unrest/disobedience, etc. If a modification becomes necessary, reasonable notice and communication with the students will be given with an explanation and the opportunity to comment on changes. Any significant changes should be made in consultation with the Department Chair.

McMaster Student Absence Form (MSAF)

In the event of an absence for medical or other reasons, students should review and follow the Academic Regulation in the Undergraduate Calendar Requests for Relief for Missed Academic Term Work. Please note these regulations have changed beginning Fall 2015. You can find information at If you have any questions about the MSAF, please contact your Associate Dean's office.

Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities

Students who require academic accommodation must contact Student Accessibility Services (SAS) to make arrangements with a Program Coordinator. Academic accommodations must be arranged for each term of study. Student Accessibility Services can be contacted by phone 905-525-9140 ext. 28652 or e-mail For further information, consult McMaster University's Policy for Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities.

Academic Accommodation for Religious, Indigenous and Spiritual Observances

Students requiring academic accommodation based on religion and spiritual observances should follow the procedures set out in the Course Calendar or by their respective Faculty. In most cases, the student should contact his or her professor or academic advisor as soon as possible to arrange accommodations for classes, assignments, tests and examinations that might be affected by a religious holiday or spiritual observance.

Topics and Readings:

SCHEDULE:  Subject to adjustments during term. Updates will be posted on Avenue. ‘Classroom activity’ will generally be group work and discussion at your tables in the smart classroom; annotating texts on NowComment; discussion with the class; readings of poems; participation writings.


5 Introduction to the course, materials, classroom activities and assignments; introduction to the electronic classroom.

Classroom activity: ‘What’s information?’ ‘What’s an intellectual framework?” Myth-busting session! Make sure you’re signed up on NowComment; if you haven’t received an invitation, let me know right away.

“Maxims II” and “Deor: two translations. What kinds of poem are these? What kind of world performed and listened to them? Why were they written down?        

10 WORDS: introducing semantics.

Recognizing some common features in Old English next to a translation: a discussion of vocabulary choices in translations. OE & current English: two different ways in which word-meaning functions.

Classroom activity: using the Complete Oxford English Dictionary with an OE poem

12 A quality of voice: “The Wife’s Lament” / Courseware pages 7-12 / Online translations “The Wife’s Lament”'s%20Lament%20Translation%20by%20Michael%20R%20Burch.htm's%20Lament.pdf

            Classroom activity: comparison of different translations in your groups.

17 “The Wife’s Lament” continued.

            Classroom activity: participation writing to be submitted on Avenue (observations of the different translations)

19 Dying well: “The Battle of Maldon” / Courseware pages 43-58


24 Syntax: how grammatical units come at us. “The Battle of Maldon"

26  Semiotics: things and meaning; walking through the world apart: “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer”


1 “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer”

            Classroom activity: participation writing to be submitted on Avenue

3 SHORT PAPER 2 DUE. Workshop on oral poetry and performance: “Beowulf at Kalamazoo,” Benjamin Bagby (see

and the study of oral poetry in the 20th to the present. Over the midterm break, read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. Also acquaint yourself with my site,

While you’ll be reading and we’ll be discussing the whole poem, it helps our discussion for us all to focus on different translations of three sections of text:

Lines 1-52, the rise of Scyld and his funeral

            702-835, the fight with Grendel

            3110-82, Beowulf’s burning

The tone of each is very different, and so we can consider how each translator deals with this.

Reading week 8th-14th

15 Beowulf: the Monsters, the Critics and the Students (

            Classroom activity: participation writing to be submitted on Avenue

17 Courseware passages: pages 59-66. Discussing modes of attack on translating the poem.

22 The shape of the poem: a century of perspectives and opinions - and yours.

24 Workshop on Beowulf: questions about the poem, performance, translation, and reading.

29 Anglo-Saxon England preChristian and Christian

31 The origins of Christian poetry on OE: Bede’s account of Caedmon (translation posted on Avenue).


5  PreChristian and Christian artifacts: a visual tour. Class activity: observing and reading images from an ancient culture.

7“The Dream of the Rood”

12 “The Dream of the Rood” continued

Classroom activity: participation writing to be submitted on Avenue

14 Workshop on final papers.

            Classroom activity: bring outlines, ideas, rough drafts; questions, problems, to discuss with your classmates. These can be about writing on the poem, but also about writing in general.

19 “Whose Poetry is Old English Anyway?” (Courseware pages 67-76)

21 The uses of the past: reforming and reshaping history; inventing origins; loss and universality.

26 Assessing Old English poetry in translation (This class will be directed by your questions and comments, based on a collection of questions and comments of my own posted on Avenue.) Poetry readings/ performances by class members, discussion.        

28 Poetry readings and performances by class members, discussion.

Classroom activity: participation writing to be submitted on Avenue



Discussing performance-based research; exam workshop.


5 Beowulf’s film versions: different from translation? Implications of differences? Where is the poem for you now?