One of the projects I need to finish some day is a translation of the Old English poem “The Seafarer.” It started as a directed studies program when I was an undergrad, and I’ve puttered away at it now and again ever since.
Why, I’m not sure. I have no sympathy for its Christian moral. But the descriptions of sailing have a beauty of their own in the original, and I admire the cleverness with which the vivid description gives way to a moral. As in many of the most moving Old English poems, the description of an outcast’s life in “The Seafarer” has a vividness that comes through even when you have limited understanding of the language.
By contrast, I’m exasperated by the stolid translations others have done, particularly Ezra Pound’s ham-fisted one, which reads like exactly what it is – the work of someone completely ignorant of Old English cribbing from a dictionary and guessing at the grammatical structure. At best, most existing translations seem too literal, hiding some of the complex associations in the poem and giving rise to false issues (such as whether the poem is two or more fragments clumsily welded together) that disappear when you consider the original language.
Translation, of course, is by definition an exercise in the impossible. No matter how hard the translator tries, the best they can ever manage is to recreate an approximation of the original as they conceive it.
Still, someone translating Old English has some advantages that other translators don’t. As in many translations, Old English offers false cognates; “dream,” for example, means something like “joy” rather than the modern “dream.” It also contains what I think of as half-cognates, or words whose meanings overlap with a modern word but aren’t completely synonymous: for instance, “graedig” means “eager” rather than “greedy,” while “lustig” means “longingly” rather than “lustingly.”
However, Old English does have many words that have exact equivalents in modern English. Sometimes, these words may be mildly old fashioned, but often that works well, since Old English poetry does appear to have had some vocabulary that wasn’t used in everyday speech. When no equivalent exists, modern English, with its much broader vocabulary, can often provide several alternatives that don’t seem too jarringly out of place.
Often, translators can even offer a reasonable facsimile of the Old English poetic line. This line usually consists of four accented syllables, of which the first, third, and sometimes the second alliterates. A translator can almost always keep to the four accented syllables per line, and, over three-quarters of the time, to the alliteration pattern as well. When the alliteration pattern can’t be sustained, an alternative such as having the second and fourth accented syllables alliterated gives an acceptable approximation. In general, this meter is far easier to keep up than, say, classical Greek hexameters.
Even so, a completely satisfying translation is a matter of effort. Sometimes, despite modern English’s larger vocabulary, no word exists that fits all the connotations of the Old English original while fitting into the meter.
An especially troubling example is “dryhten,” a synonym for “lord” that implies a leader of warriors. “Lord of hosts” would carry the same sense, especially since the word is used at one point to contrast an earthly lord with the Christian god, but adds an extra syllable to the line, while a coining like “host-lord” looks jarring.
In addition, to make life simple, I want a word that starts with “d,” so that I can easily translate a couple of key passages. Yet nothing really fits. “Director”is too modern-sounding, and “doyen” has the wrong connotations. “Dominus” doesn’t suggest a war-leader. “Dux” wouldn’t be bad, except that it has specific historical connections with the last days of the Roman Empire, and wasn’t used by the Old English so far as I know. Nor could I use “dux”’s modern equivalent “duke,” because, like so many other choices, it lacks the martial implications.
In desperation, I’ve even considered “ordainer” long and hard. Since it contains an accented syllable starting with “d,” it fits the meter, but, unfortunately, is utterly unfitting for an earthly lord. Consequently, I’m starting to look further afield, but, once I get away from the original alliteration, I open myself up to constant problems, because a dodge that works in one place usually doesn’t work in another place where the same word occurs.
And so the translation goes, word after word, trying to balance meaning, sense, and poetry and usually failing to meet at least one of these goals. In retrospect, it’s no wonder that I keep putting the translation away in despair. I often think that I’m trying to do the impossible, especially when I’m driven to considering what I can leave out when I would prefer not to omit anything.
Still, the effort lurches forward. I don’t know that I’ll ever manage the fully annotated version of the poem that I once hoped for, but I hope that before much longer, I will at least have a complete modern English version of the poem that does at least some justice to the complexities of the original.