Fidbaidæ Fál

Dom·ḟarchai fidbaidæ fál,
fom·chain loíd luin -luad nad·cél-,
hūas mo lebrán ind línech
fom·chain trírech inna ṅ-én.

Fomm·chain coí menn -medair mass-
hi ṁbrott glas de dindgnaib doss.
debrath: nom· Choimmdiu ·coíma,
caín·scríbaimm fo roída r[oss].

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 904

Hedge of Trees

A hedge of trees overlooks me,
the lay of a blackbird sings to me -announcement I’ll not conceal!-
above my lined little book,
the trilling of the birds sings to me.

A clear-voiced cuckoo sings to me -beautiful joy-
in a grey cloak from the fortresses of bushes.
God’s Judgement: the Lord cherishes me,
I write well under the great forest of woodland.

For an eight line poem, this contains a veritable wyrmhord of interest. Look at how luad nad·cél must be rendered in modern English, going from three words and ten letters into something which threatens to completely disrupt the poem. I can sympathise with translators who instead opt to leave the cheville out entirely. If I did not feel an obligation to render the text as accurately as possible, I may well have done the same.

Other interesting things my translation cannot express: medair mass could mean ‘beautiful enjoyment’ or ‘good utterance’ equally; medar means ‘discourse’ as much as ‘social merriment’ or the like. The adjective glas, here rendered as ‘grey’ actually refers to a specific colour in Old Irish, a sort of greenish grey. Other translators render the word as ‘green’ in MnE, but I like the feel ‘grey’ gives me of gentle rain, or the subtle nod to the grey cloaks Galadriel gave the hobbits. Why yes, I am a dork.

The really fascinating part to me is the final word of the poem. I have here r[oss], in deference to the edition I have at hand (a teaching handout from Professor A.A.). Yet the word itself is missing from our manuscipt- indeed, the final letters of roída are themselves faded and blurred almost beyond recognition. Other editors have offered rían, ‘headland’, which would significantly alter both our reading of the poem and any attempt at locating it’s source.

I have been reading about how modern punctuation (amongst other things) alters our reading of medieval texts, and this particular poem slammed that into my face as I typed up this translation. I considered altering the final lines from

God’s Judgement: the Lord cherishes me,
I write well under the great forest of woodland.


God’s Judgement: the Lord cherishes me;
I write well under the great forest of woodland.

Note the difference? The change would grant an interpretation to the final line which may or may not have been intended by our long-dead anonymous author. I suspect he did intend that reading, and one could argue that it is my duty as translator-and-interpreter to make that judgement… but I prefer not to do so where possible. What think’st thou, O Noble Reader? Maybe I just like semicolons too much.

Speaking of the manuscript, this poem resides on the margins of St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 904. It is from the Abbey of Saint Gall, in modern Switzerland, dating from around 845. The manuscript is one of those wonderful Latin works (Institutiones Grammaticae) covered in Old Irish glosses (almost three and a half thousand), enabling scholars to reconstruct much of Old Irish.

In the case of these pages, the manuscript also included a poem and something in Ogham script. Tell me what that says, and I’ll give you a lollipop.

Thanks to the wonders of the modern world, you may view the manuscript here. Our poem runs along the bottom of this page, and the one following, in a beautifully clear script. The Ogham piece is on the top of the second page.