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Medieval English Translatathon: How to help stop cancer and get a medieval holiday card at the same time!

By Krista Murchison

Students in Leiden University’s English programmes are raising money for cancer research by translating short holiday greetings into Old and Middle English.

Studying medieval literary works is a key component of both the BA and MA in English here at Leiden. Our students learn to read these works in their original languages: Old English (which was spoken from roughly 500 CE to 1100 CE) and Middle English (which was spoken from roughly 1100 CE to 1500 CE). Students also gain insight into these languages by composing short texts of their own.

Learning the kinds of English spoken before Shakespeare’s day is fascinating and fun, and it also has a practical component: it gives better insight into how Present-Day English works, since many particularities of Present-Day English, like its unpredictable spelling system, irregular plurals and idiomatic phrases, can be traced back to the Middle Ages.

And here in The Netherlands there is an added benefit. Since these medieval forms of English are, in many ways, closer to Dutch than present day English is, learning them helps students explore some of the similarities between Dutch and English. So, for example, just like Dutch, English used to make a distinction between strong and weak adjectives.

Now, our talented Leiden students are going to be putting their language skills to work to help the community, through the 2019 medieval English translatathon! For small donations (starting at 2.50 eur/~ US $), students will translate short holiday messages into Old or Middle English. These can be emailed or mailed out on our specially designed translatathon cards.

We’re going to be following historically-accurate rules of Old and Middle English grammar and syntax along the way. But of course, translating into a language that was spoken over 500 years ago comes with its challenges. For example, a speaker of Middle English would never have experienced a “boxing day sale” (that important holiday tradition in Canada, where I’m from!). So we could write about this experience using Middle English words, resulting in a “boxynge day sal”  (for some of the challenges of creating Present-Day English phrases using Old English words, see my colleague Dr. Thijs Porck’s post: Composing Old English: A Do-It-Yourself Guide).

In fact, evidence suggests that “merry Christmas” was not a common greeting in the medieval period, and the Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded use of the phrase is from a letter dated 1534 (“Lord send yow a mery Christenmas”). English speakers did have similar turns of phrase, though, including this memorable rhyme from a  fifteenth-century carol: “Make we myrth/ For Crystes byrth”.

Since our current holiday greetings differ from those of the medieval period, the translatathon will necessarily involve some creativity and hard work on behalf of our student translators. With that in mind, all the translations produced for the translatathon will be checked by instructors before they get mailed out. Through this process, our students will get practice in Old and Middle English, while raising money for a good cause and giving back to the community.

We decided to donate the money from this translatathon to cancer research because cancer is so prevalent and all of our team members know someone who was diagnosed with it. And on a broader level, we hope that using humanities methods to support cancer research (as our fundraiser aims to do) might offer an example of how the humanities and the natural sciences can work together when tackling societal issues that affect us all.

We invite you to support this goal of helping the community by spreading the word about the translatathon with your friends, or by requesting your own medieval holiday greetings! Together we can make a small (but hopefully meaningful!) difference.

Click here to support the Medieval English Translatathon 

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