The Wife’s Lament (translated from the Anglo-Saxon)

Camille Ralphs

Burton Raffel has made the point that a perfect translation of any poem from one language into another, even if the languages are very similar, is impossible[1]: where the literal meaning is wholly presented, the phonetic effects of the piece must suffer, and vice versa; additionally, the subjective element involved in any form of writing means that each translator will find a different focus for the piece.

The poem that follows, then, is an “approximation” (24) and largely an interpretative translation – intended not as a literal text or an academic source, but as a poetic version for the curious reader.  In certain senses, however, this piece could be placed more safely in the expansive or ‘free’ category of translation, due to the number of liberties I have taken with it.  There is no extended metaphor of ice or cold in the original piece, for example (“moraine of my exile”; “frostly fastened”; “hoarfrost”; “long-embered loves” – from my translation) but in the interests of imagery and cathartic display, I thought it acceptable to include this.  Equally, “caverned loam” and “sculpted gulfs” do not appear in the original, where both are described as “eorðscræfe” or “earth-cave”; this, however, comes across as a mild tautology to the modern reader and becomes repetitive in the context of the stanza in question, and so I chose in this case to sacrifice absolute integrity for two phonetically appropriate – but more linguistically diverse – descriptions.  Contractions such as “I’ll” and “it’s” may also be picked out by some readers as unsuitable, but I would contest this for the sake of scansion and that, in the original, the words under scrutiny are the monosyllabic “Ic” and “is”.  The assonantal rhyme closing my translation is dictated neither by the original poem nor by the Anglo-Saxon form, but provides a decent close for the contemporary reader, to whom the ending of the piece may not have otherwise been clear.

The process by which I went about translating the piece began not with the raw Anglo-Saxon text – I enjoy Old English, but not quite that much – but with various academic and literal word-for-word translations, mainly that given in extracts from The Exeter Book in Old and Middle English c.890-c.1400: An Anthology[2] and an online hypertext edition[3].  Provided with the necessary context and the bare bones of translation, I then went on to attempt a more poetic translation than those given above.

The largest difficulty lay in making this modern translation both coherent and as close in sound and form to the original as possible.  I wanted to create from the resources I had what Raffel would call a “phonemic translation” (25) – a piece that retains, in terms of sound, the qualities of the original.  Modern English has moved far away from its harsher-sounding ancestor, and a translator would be hard-pushed to effectively recreate even a few lines of the poem: as I have written already, one of the possible pitfalls of this kind of translation is a loss of sense or meaning.  However, my phonemic translation is not exact but an acceptable approximation – more the shadow of the original than the mirror-image – in the manner of Ezra Pound’s ‘The Seafarer’[4], and so hopefully both the sense and something of the sound of the original should come across.

Working to the Anglo-Saxon form, of course, was an implicit part of this effort, and meant that huge sections of the literal translations had to be altered to better suit the form.  The modern English “rolling” (for “gelac”), for example, did not seem fit for purpose in the line “over whirling waves; that dawn I ached”, whereas “whirling”, as can be seen, did.

The Anglo-Saxon poetic form (that is, the style and language utilised in English poetry prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066) can be summarised as accentual-alliterative verse divided into two-beat hemistichs[5]. This means, to give a quick elucidation, that there should be a certain amount of stressed beats in each line (the amount of unstressed beats is irrelevant) and that a certain amount of these should be alliterated[6]:  the two-beat hemistichs (a fancy way of saying ‘half-lines’) denote that each line should have four stressed beats, and of these three should be alliterated, and one shouldn’t.  I have bent the rules in my piece so that the alliterative element is not quite so important as the accentual – on the basis that the original poem bends the rules, so why shouldn’t I? – but for the most part, the pattern is still evident.

My attempt to preserve the tone of the original as far as possible has also lead me to mostly avoid more modern Latinate lexis (“aeoned” being a special example, allowed its place specifically for its “ae” sound, found commonly in Anglo-Saxon phonology and known there as ‘æsc’) in my translation as, at the time the original was penned, such language would have been unknown.

Semantically, there are several possibly valid interpretations of ‘The Wife’s Lament’, and a significant amount of academic literature in support of each of these.  Of the interpretations, I have chosen the literal (the poem as a woman’s lament about a man[7]) over the allegorical (Christ and the Church; the dead and the living[8][9]), for the reason that my first impressions of the piece were of a woman’s distress and sense of betrayal – a woman immensely lonely and dim-spirited, but still living, and certainly corporeal.  The reader, of course, is invited to read the text in the light of whichever interpretation they find most appealing.

Overall, the effort and time I have given to this piece has been repaid in dividends.  Playing with prosodic form is always entertaining, even in the difficulty of deciding how strictly to adhere to a form as archaic as this one; additionally, the complexity of attempting a translation simultaneously original and true to the Anglo-Saxon text became a very engaging challenge, and one that I could hardly put down.  This translation proved itself to be at least as time-consuming as a new poem of the same length, but I can say with certainty that it was worth the exertion.  I hope that my attempt at translating this well-known Old English poem is effective to at least a reasonable level of attainment; or if not, that it at least provides some form of amusement.


The Wife’s Lament (original; author unknown)
Ic þis giedd wrece     bi me ful geomorre,

minre sylfre sð.     Ic þæt secgan mæg

hwæt Ic yrmþa gebad,     siþþan Ic up weox,

niwes oþþe ealdes,     no ma þonne nu.

A ic wite wonn     minra wræcsiþa.

ærest min hlaford gewat     heonan of leodum

ofer yþa gelac;     hæfde Ic uhtceare

hwær min leodfruma     londes wære.

Ða Ic me feran gewat     folgað secan,

wineleas wræcca     for minre weaþearfe.

Ongunnon þæt þæs monnes     magas hycgan

þurh dyrne geþoht     þæt hy todælden unc,

pæt wit gewidost     in woruldrice

lifdon laðlicost;     ond mec longade.

Het mec hlaford min     her heard niman;

ahte Ic leofra lyt     on þissum londstede,

holdra freonda;     forþon is min hyge geomor.

Ða Ic me ful gemæcne     monnan funde,

heardsæligne,     hygegomorne,

mod miþendne,     morþor hycgendne,

bliþe gebæro.     Ful oft wit beotedan

pæt unc ne gedælde     nemne deað ana,

owiht elles;     eft is þæt onhworfen,

is nu     swa hit no wære

freondscipe uncer.     Sceal Ic feor ge neah

mines felalcofan     fæhðu dreogan.

Heht mec mon wunian     on wuda bearwe,

under actreo     in þam eorðscræfe.

Eald is þes eorðsele,     eal Ic eom oflongad;

sindon dena dimme,     duna uphea,

bitre burgtunas     brerum beweaxne,

wic wynna leas     Ful oft mec her wraþe begeat

fromsiþ frean.     Frynd sind on eorþan,

leofe lifgende,     leger weardiað,

þonne Ic on uhtan     ana gonge

under actreo     geond þas eorðscrafu.

Þær Ic sittan mot     sumorlangne dæg,

þær Ic wepan mæg     mine wræcsiþas,

earfoþa fela;     forþon Ic æfre ne mæg

þære modceare     minre gerestan

ne ealles þæs longaþes     þe mec on þissum life begeat.

A scyle geong mon     wesan geomormod,

heard heortan geþoht;     swylce habban sceal

bliþe gebaro     eac þon breostceare,

sinsorgna gedreag;     sy æt him sylfum gelong

eal his worulde wyn.     Sy ful wide fh

feorres folclondes     þæt min freond siteð

under stanhliþe     storme behrimed,

wine werigmod,     wætre beflowen

on dreorsele,     drogeð se min wine

micle modceare;     he gemon to oft

wynlicran wic.     Wa bið þam þe sceal

of langoþe     leofes abidan.

The Wife’s Lament (translation)

I wreathe this song upon my sorry self,
my heart’s hardships.  I’ll capably convey
the woes I have withstood since growing wise –
of new and old, and never more than now.
Unendingly I have endured the moraine of my exile.

First, my lord took leave of his people
over whirling waves; that dawn I ached for
where my people’s leader walked the land.
Then I too set offshore to seek shelter,
forlorn in banishment, my woeful wish.
My king’s kinsmen began to imagine
through hidden thoughts they would unweld us –
that we, wideness-widowed by the world
should lean to loathe each other; and I longed otherwise.
My harsh lord commanded me herded here.
I lacked loved ones on this stead land,
loyal friends; for them my mind mourns.
Then I found my full-proficient man to be
ailing-fated, sad of mind,
a heart pretending, murder-intending
but with a blithe bearing.  Often we both said
that we would not unweld, except in death
and nothing else; afterward, that was unwoven.
It’s now as if it never were,
our friendship.  I shall, far and near,
face the fierce feud of my beloved.

He bade that I abide in the wood’s bawn
under an oak tree in the caverned loam.
This earth-belly is old; I am aeoned with desire.
Here dwell dim valleys, dunes upheavened,
bitter tree-bastions waxed black with briars:
a joyless place.  Often here my lord’s leaving
has frostly fastened me.  Friends set on the earth
lovers living, gentle-bedded
while I alone walk youngling dawn
under the oak tree, through these sculpted gulfs.
Here I must sit out the summerlong day –
here I merely weep over my exile,
my froth of frustrations; thus I can never
ease this heartache with a hush,
nor all the longing bequeathed me in this life.

Ever must a young man be grim in mind,
hard-hearted in thought, just as he must have
a blithe bearing despite his breast’s cairn
of assorted deathless dismays – be it that at his disposal
are all the world’s wonders, or that far and wide
he is outcast, outcountried; that my oft-kissed sits
under scathing cliffs, salt-rimed in storm –
a lord of rigoured heart, billowed in wet
in a dread hall.  My dearest suffers
much a mental churn, remembers too often
a higher, lively home.  It is hoarfrost for those who must
bide lifetimes for long-embered loves.

[1] Burton Raffel, The Art of Translating Poetry (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988), p. 11.  All further references to this text will be given parenthetically.

[2] Anonymous, Old and Middle English c.890-c.1400: An Anthology, 2nd Edition, ed. by Elaine Treharne (Blackwell, Oxford, 2002) p. 76-79

[4] Ezra Pound, Selected Poems (Faber and Faber, London, 1975) p. 35

[5] Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled (Arrow Books, London, 2007) pp. 98-9

[6] John Hollander, Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1989) pp. 21-2

[7] Robert P. Fitzgerald, ‘The Wife’s Lament and “The Search for the Lost Husband”’ JEGP 62 (1963) pp. 769-77

[8] Elinor Lench, ‘The Wife’s Lament: A Poem of the Living Dead’, Comitatus 1 (1970) pp. 3-23

[9] Joseph Harris, ‘A Note on eorðscræf / eorðsele and Current Interpretations of The Wife’s Lament’, English Studies 58 (1977) pp. 204-8


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