Forces of Translation II: Blood of Death

A continuation of the train of thought from Forces of Translation I: Diluvian Description.

Blood of Death

        He þa unræden 

folmum gefremede,         freo-mæg ofsloh,

broðor sinne,                   and his blod agate,

Cain Abeles.                    Cwealm-dreore swealh

thaes middan-geard,      monnes swate. 

Old English Genesis, Ln.982-986

Then he did an ill-advised deed with his hands, killed his close kinsmen, his brother, and Cain spilled Abel’s blood. This middle-earth swallowed up the gore of the killing, a man’s blood.


Cumque essent in agro, consurrexit Cain adversus fratrem suum Abel, et interfecit eum.

Et ait Dominus ad Cain : Ubi est Abel frater tuus? Qui respondit : Nescio : num custos fratris mei sum ego?

Douay-Rheims, Genesis 4:8-9

And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him.

And the Lord said to Cain: Where is thy brother Abel? And he answered, I know not: am I my brother’s keeper?


The story of Cain killing Abel is found three books earlier in the Vulgate Genesis: the Old English version, a fragment from which is given above, is significantly less succinct than the Latin, the latter section.

The personified Earth drinking the blood of the first murder is only found in the Old English telling of the story, which leans into and elaborates on the act itself and the fallout experienced even before God arrives and calls Cain to account for his brother. Once we arrive at the interrogation point in the story, the words track more directly: in every iteration, Cain’s retort that he is not his brother’s keeper is preserved.

There seems to be something inherent in the Old English poetic form, distinct from the Latin biblical verses, which encourages this dilation of the moment of gore. The hapax cwealmdreore, “blood shed in death,” death-blood, linked alliteratively, inextricably, with Cain, precedes the union of the earth, middangeard, and man, monnes, before the poem goes on to describe the vine-like evil which sprouts from this moment, reaching across time and space to put forth fruit, vivified effusions from a Pandora’s-box event. After the shock of the novel “deathblood,” man and earth can still find re-union. Completing the cycle beginning with the formation of his father, Adam – in Hebrew, אָדָם, “earth”  – Abel, as generic “man,” is reunited with the soil.

Murder’s aftereffects are cast as a natural process, blood watering the ground so that a plant may grow. Is this to help us make sense of the act? To, rather than leave the killing at interfecit, rephrase the death as a mirror of the process of growth in the garden of paradise? To, by contrast, show how far humans had fallen, that now their actions do not tend Paradise, but cultivate sorrow and woe? 

I am enjoying asking these questions, making these demands of you, not because I expect a happy, pat answer, but rather because I want to know whether it is even possible to answer them. Language is the encoding of action, internal and external, a desperate attempt to bring our listener, our reader, into our head. To get our mind in enough order that electrical impulses, these little sparks, are made comprehensible to another person, or even to ourselves. 

When something as incomprehensible as murder, especially the first murder, a deed for which there was no name when it was comitted, is put into words, the story has already fallen short, because how could one ever convey the enormity of experiencing death for the first time, when it happened at your own hands and there is no one to explain it to you? I say “you,” since, as Abel is dead, it is only Cain who can bear witness to his own unspeakable deed. Is some vital aspect of the event necessarily lost when we try to verbalize experience? When that story then goes through multiple processes of translation, does it go through further filters of inadequacy, each iteration trying to preserve what little sense the one before was able to make of the act? Or is it made clearer, in that taking the story from the unfamiliar language to the comfortable idiom, the translator must parse the mechanisms by which the horror is encoded, thus bringing them to the fore? Does translation accomplish the process of un-encoding, of re-estranging, the un-tellable action from the words which preserve it?


Old English text and translation from Anlezark, Daniel, ed. and trans. Old Testament Narratives. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Latin text and translation from The Holy Bible, Douay-Rheims Version. Ed. Bishop Richard Challoner. John Murphy Company. Baltimore, MA: Tan Books, 1971. From, ed. Paul B. Mann

One thought on “Forces of Translation II: Blood of Death

  1. You pose a really interesting question about whether the process of translation, even reading, introduces the reiteration of first events–creation, murder, etc. Is the singular or irreducible “first-ness” of the event somehow diminished or changed each time it is read or translated?

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