On Translating

the Old English THE WANDERER and Other Texts


Here are audio-clips from a CD of ‘The Wanderer’ in the original Old English and in my own translation.  The music is my own; the ravens were themselves:-

Old English

Translation 1

The translation was in the main got up by me some twenty years ago as a part of my pursuit of a comprehensive answer to the question, ‘What are the rhythms of English Poetry?’.

The rhythm of this reading of the Old English ‘song’ from the Exeter Book still satisfies me.  My ‘translation’ is in the same rhythmic mode; and, in this respect, it also still satisfies me: however, because I have done much more translation work in Old and Middle English since then, I realise that it is time to make a closer reading of the poem into the same rhythmic mode.  Here is the start to this re-writing and re-speaking of the verses:-

Translation 2

Now, the matter of rhythm in English poetry has for long pre-occupied me: how best to perform the wonderful pieces that we have, starting in the present day and going back to the seventh century.  It is my contention that the way a poem goes ~ that is, how it is formed, what rhythmic structure it has, what ‘soundscape’ it has, shall we say ~ is as important as what is actually conveyed in the meaning of the words.

Schemes for scansion of poetry which are based on what may be termed ‘classical’ or ‘neo-classical’ systems using ‘iambs’ and ‘trochees’ and such, based on procedures concerned with making and analysing ‘quantitative verse’ in other languages, do not seem appropriate and comprehensive enough in the treatment of English verse.

The general idea that poetry is an art closely akin to music has led me to use a simple system in prosodic analysis and performance based upon musical principles and notation.  An assumption may be made that the conscious and unconscious experiences of musical rhythms that makers of poetry over the centuries have had, will have informed the verses that they have written.  And it may be further proposed that these basic formal characteristics of musical organisation have not much changed over two millennia, if at all

A book on a simple method of ‘musicalistic scansion’, together with an illustrative CD, is in preparation.  But I have been applying such a method to the performance of Old and Middle English verse, in the original language and in my own ‘translations’, for many years.  So far I have worked on The Wanderer, The Dream of the Rood, and parts of Beowulf; with the thirteenth century Sir Orfeo; and the whole of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the fourteenth century.

For nearly twenty years I have been making the boast that I have, as it were, uncovered the truest solution to the question as to ‘What is the rhythm of “Beowulf”?’ As some evidence for this I made those recordings of The Wanderer, and also a CD called The Pulse of Flame in which I apply the same theory and practice in the performance of English poetry up to modern times.  With regard to the earlier texts, I sought to make them comprehensible and enjoyable to all sorts of people who like a good song or story but who might not be able to read such pieces themselves, to make such  wonderful poems as ‘immediate’ as possible in both meaning and rhythm.  And, of course, I want to present a theory of rhythmic analysis and performance to those who know much more of Old and Middle English poetry than I do.

But I do not here present a full rhythmic analysis of the lines of verse.  This ‘paper’ is more concerned with matters of ‘translating’ the ‘word-stuff’ in the verses, while at the same time acknowledging that the ‘meaning’ of the words is given an especial temporal flow in the ‘speaking’ of them.  That flow is in a sense a part of the meaning; so it is necessary to indicate a structure of main ‘stresses’ in the verses.  I may then add briefly here that my proposal as to their rhythmic shaping is that they move to something of a triple-time rhythm ~ ‘3/4’ time, or even a slow’6/8’ rhythm.  This theoretical analysis of the rhythm of Old English verses is demonstrated in practice in my recorded performances of them here; and I have ‘translated’ that rhythmic scheme into my own versions of the lines.  I must ask my readers and listeners to ‘use their ears’ to understand the musicalistic setting.


To use a picture: my apprehension of the general rhythmic nature of the Old English verse line is that it is much like a long-boat afloat in harbour.  The swell and chop that lifts and rocks the craft is to some extent regular; but at the same time it is infinitely variable.  I have no time for prosodic systems which categorise lines or ‘half-lines’ into a number of types.  There is to my ear only one, ever-changing line moving to the chop and swell of the ‘sound-and-sense-substance’ of the verse.

With regard to The Wanderer, my earlier perceptions as to the prosodic structure of the Old English verse line have not changed much over twenty years.  In fact my reading of it has become somewhat entrenched as a result of my translation work on Sir Orfeo and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  The latter poem, in the alliterative style, appears to me to be in the same prosodic and rhythmic mode as is The Wanderer ~ and as is Cædmon’s Song, to which I shall come later.

The general structure of the Old English line is not in doubt.  There are four ‘staves’ or main beats or stresses in each verse.  The ‘full’ alliterative pattern is a linking of the first, second and third staves; and this is the most common form of the line.  Otherwise, the first and the third staves, or the second and the third staves will alliterate.  Very occasionally the fourth stave will alliterate with some or all of the others.

It is generally accepted that a verse-line in Old English is in two ‘halves’, with a real or notional pause or break between them.  It appears to me that each half-line has in it one ‘measure’, in a musical sense ~ though it is possible to say that this is one larger measure subdivided into two, or is even two measures.

Considered as one measure, this commences with the first stave in the half-line and consists of two staves together with their ‘associated verbal material’.  A measure may often be preceded by other material that as it were ‘introduces’ it in the same way that the first bar of a musical piece may be introduced by an ‘anacrusis’.  In The Wanderer there are lines with an ‘anacrusis’ in one half-line, or in both, or in neither; and an ‘anacrusis’ may be of up to six syllables.  Here is a group of six verses from the poem to consider, lines 73 to 77:

Ongietan sceal gleaw halle     hu gæstlic bið
þonne eall þisse worulde wela     weste stondeð
swa nu missenlice     geond þisne middan-geard
winde biwawne     weallas stondaþ
hrime bihrorene     hryðge þa ederas

We may set out line 74 with the measures within bar-lines as in music and with diacritics to indicate the staves and unstressed or less-stressed syllables ~ and I take ‘final es’ to indicate definite schwas and thus syllables:

þonne eall þisse   worulde wela     weste stond  

This is  a long ‘anacrusis’ to introduce the main work of the line, but it gives the verse its own especial and individual presence.  Line 75 has an ‘anacrusis’ in each half-line:

swa nu   missenlice   geond þisne   middan-geard  

Lines 76 and 77 simply have no anacruses, and are both fully alliterated:

  winde biwawne     weallas stondaþ  
  hrime bihrorene     hrge þa ederas  

In the performance of these lines we must bear in mind the use in Old English of the word sang or song and of the term sang secgan to describe verse-making and performance.  We know that there was some sort of musical accompaniment when such works as The Wanderer were delivered; but it is unlikely, given the variation in the number of syllables in each line ~ the amount of ‘sound-stuff’, shall we say ~ that there was a fixed tune to a piece, or any full tune in the modern sense of a known and repeatable sequence of fixed, timed notes.  Perhaps the lines were incanted in the way that Old Testament psalms may be now.  My own technique is to recite the lines as notionally equivalent, to give the measures in each half-line as far as possible the same ‘temporal spread’, using any anacrusis as the ‘run-up’ to the measure.  So I deliver the measure gæstlic bið with much the same time-value as hryðge þa ederas.  The overall effect that I try to achieve is of apparent isochronicity between the four staves in each verse-line, and over a series of verses.

Of course, there are some markedly longer and unusual lines in The Wanderer; notably the last four.  We may deal with these after considering a repeated ‘anomaly’ in lines such as 73 above.  In prosodic and metrical analysis of Old English, little account seems to be taken of the number of times that it may be suggested that there is what might be called a ‘fore-beat’ or perhaps ‘fore-stave’.  Line 73 presents one such occasion:

Ongietan sceal   gleaw halle   hu   gæstlic b 

Ongietan is spread into four syllables, and sceal into two, in an ‘anacrusis’ that leads into a measure which gives the grammatically and cognitively important words gleaw and halle their full ‘weight’.  Ongietan, a substantial word in every respect, then carries a ‘fore-stave’ which alliterates with the first and third staves in the measures of the line.  Of course, it is possible to deliver the line in a different fashion:

On   gietan sceal gleaw halle   hu   gæstlic bið  

But this seems to me to rush the delivery of the line in achieving isochronicity of the staves; and it makes the word halle somewhat insignificant.  The ‘sound-shape’ of the original setting seems preferable.

Indeed, it is possible to make a like shaping of these lines in The Wanderer : 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 14, 20, 23, 27, 34, 48, 55, 62, 63, 65, 85, 87, 96, 97, 98, 107, 110 and 111.  So we might say that, overall, one line in five is of an ‘unusual metrical pattern’.  We may attend to three of these here; but before doing so we may introduce the term ‘fore-running’ to replace the word ‘anacrusis’.  This ties in with the term ‘fore-stave’, as above, to indicate a significant beat or stress within any ‘fore-running’.

The three verses that we shall consider are 6, 24 and 1.  The sixth verse is,

Swa cwæð eard-stapa        earfeþa gemundig

The ‘sound-shape’ of the verse suggests that the first two words be presented as a fore-running and that the second word, a verb, is significant enough to require a stressing to make it a fore-stave.  So the line may be presented as,

Swa cwæð   eardstapa     earfa gemundig  

In performance it is quite possible and satisfying to give the two measures more or less equal duration although they appear to differ in the amount of ‘sound-stuff’ in them.  The long vowelling in eard-stapa is easily drawn out, and the syllables in earfeþa gemundig may be ‘danced’ through quickly so as to give the measures and staves approximate isochronicity.

Line 24 is,

wod winter-cearig      ofer waþema gebind

It is possible to make the verb wod a first stave and make winter-cearig occupy the second half of the measure.  But it is less strainful and more rhythmically satisfying to treat wod as a fore-running and fore-stave and allow the compound word to fill the whole measure and better contribute to the ‘mood’ of the piece:

wod   winter-cearig   ofer   waþema gebind  

A long i in gebind, and a schwa to emphasise the d, balance the measure.  (In many cases the scribe may have ‘left as read’ a final e.)

And here is line 1:

Oft him anhaga      are gebideþ

The recitation of this line on the CD is rhythmically ‘ambiguous’.  I could not decide if the first two words should be presented as a fore-running, with a fore-stave in oft, or should be treated as the first half of a measure constituting the entire ‘half-line’.  This now seems to be the best shaping:

Oft him   anhaga     are gebideþ  

By drawing out the sounding of the first part of anhaga a pathos is established which sets the ‘mood’ of the piece.  The alliterative pattern is then an unusual and arresting one in which the fore-stave alliterates with the first, second and third staves.  Indeed, we may call this a ‘hyperalliterative line’ (of a sort that occurs with some frequency in the much later Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), and turn now to one of the four concluding lines of The Wanderer that are often termed ‘hypermetrical’.  These last verses of the poem all have somewhat ‘extended sound-shapes’ shall we say.  Here is line 112 set out to show the considerable fore-running in each half of the line.  There is an alliterative fore-stave in the first, and two possible fore-staves in the second:

til biþ se þe his   treowe gehealdeþ   ne sceal næfre his   torn to rycene  


All this demonstrates an ‘a priori’ theory regarding the rhythmic shaping that the Old English verse-line took, a prosodic method at which I arrived some time ago and to which I have broadly held since.  However, my first ‘translation’ of The Wanderer did not represent very faithfully the shape or the sense of each individual line, its ‘sound-and-sense-scape’.  The best that can be said is that the ‘translation’ conveys the general sense of the verses and that the modern wording is recited on the recording in the same ‘generic’ rhythmic mode given to the performance of the Old English original.

The further translation work that I have done in Middle and Old English has brought me to a more stringent approach to the ‘game’, and to a way of doing things which is more faithful to the original lines and language in every respect.  The intention is to satisfy a number of criteria or restraints in order to represent both the ‘sound-shape’ and ‘sense-shape’ of each verse.

One aim is now to present as much ‘word-stuff’ or syllables in the translated line as in the original: to represent the fore-runnings and any fore-staves, and to imitate the quantity in each measure.  (This has led to a degree of ‘packing’ with such word-syllables as then and so and thus; but it is to be hoped that readers and listeners will find that, with re-reading and re-listening, this verbal stuff will be ‘absorbed’ into the overall ‘sound-and sense-scape’.)

A second aim is to follow the same alliterative pattern in each line ~ not to the extent of trying to use the same key letter, but by following the pattern of alliteration stave by stave ~ as, ‘staves one, two and three’, or ‘staves two and three only’.

A third concern is to be as closely literal in translation as possible, and to avoid ‘expressive’ or poetic ‘flights’.  However, compromises had to be made, of course; which is why, for instance, geoguðe in line 35 has become when young and growing in order to satisfy the alliterative requirements for the line.

And a further aim was to try so far as possible to use words in modern English that have their roots in the Old English.  In this the translation is quite successful.

A crucial act of boldness so far as I am concerned was in replacing the word ‘fate’, that I had earlier used as a ‘translation’ of wyrde, with the word ‘weird’ used as a noun.  So easy!  ‘Weird’ is not used as a noun in modern English; but it is not long ago that it was used as such in Scottish dialects.

This ‘archaistic’ approach made it easier to be more rigorous in another respect.  The aim in this translation is to maintain as much as possible of the original word order ~ not only in respect of the stave-words but with regard to ‘less important’ elements of the language.  This increases the ‘archaic feel’.  (With regard to the stave-words, it is only in a dozen or so half-lines that this intention has not been realised.)  It is hoped that, by repeated listening to the verses, or through performance by reading and isochronously intoning them, it may be found that the ‘archaic feel’ of this translation allows the ‘spirit’ and ‘mood’ of the original to better enter ‘head and heart’.

To help in this respect, the first twenty eight-and-a-‘half’ verses of the poem are here set out in three versions: in the original language (in a ‘normalised’ text); in my first translation; and in the new translation.  I have indicated the staves, in all the versions, and have used a bracketed diacritic for the fore-staves:-

Oft him anhaga      are gebideð
The wanderer always      awaits some kindness
Often the one-on-his own      help does he bide for,

metudes miltse      þeah þe he mod-cearig
The love of the Lord,      although he, heart-laden with grief,
a lord’s own loving;       although, so heart-laden with grieving,

geond lagu-lade      longe sceolde
Must ceaselessly fare       over salt seaways,
Over sea-ways, stretching,      ceaselessly may he

4hreran mid hondum      hrim-cealde
Wrestle the ice-cold      waves with oar-hands,
heave with the oar-hands      icy-cold waters,

wadan wræc-lastas      wyrd bið ful aræd.
Wander his wretch-road:      our fate is fore-written.
wander wretched pathways:      weird is all fore-read.

Swa cwæð eard-stapa      earfeþa gemundig
So spoke an earth-stepper,      steeped in the harshness
So speaks an earthly stepper,      of harshnesses mindful,

wraþra wæl-sleahta      wine-mæga hryre.
of wrathful foe-slaughterings      and the fall of dear kinsmen.
fearsome foe-slaughterings,      fellow-earls’ downfall.

8Oft ic sceolde ana      uhtna gehwylce
So must I, in the depth      of each dreary night,
Often I must, only,       at early-light, each day,

mine ceare cwiþan       nis nu cwicra nan
Breach my breast-load;      but there breathes now none
my own carings disclose;      but now quick is there none

þe ic him mod-sefan       minne durre
To whom I may safely dare      to freely unfold
to whom I the mood of this heart      of mine should dare to

sweotule asecgan      ic to soðe wat
My soul and self.      And I know well enough
freely thus unfold then.  I do fully know now

12þæt bið in eorle      indryhten þeaw
The way that a warrior      must wend to be true;
that which is in a warrior      the worthiest manner;

þæt he his ferð-locan      fæste binde
That he should fasten well      the fold of his soul
that he his heart’s own folding      hasps and binds up,

healde his hord-cofan      hycge swa he wille.
Hoard his heart’s-wealth,      howsoever he may think.
holding his hoard’s-cove-ing      highly as he will so.

Ne mæg werig-mod      wyrde wið-stondan
A wearied mind       may not ward of its lot,
Nor may one weary-minded      weird thus withstand then,

16ne se hreo hyge      helpe gefremman.
And no help may be framed      for a harried heart;
nor the harried heart      help may it come to.

forðon dom-georne      dreorigne oft
And he who yearns for sway      must sadly often
Those then for sway so eager      sorrowfulness often

In hyra breost-cofan      bindað fæste.
keep fast closed      the coffer of his weal.
within their breast’s own cove-ing      bind up fastly.

Swa ic mod-sefan      minne  sceolde.
So am I bound       to bind my breast,
So I in mind and heart      myself should thus

20oft earm-cearig      eðle bidæled
Though so sorrow-worn      and sundered from home land,
often heavy with cares,      from home-land sundered,

freo-mægum feor      feterum sælan
Fastened in fetters,      far from my kinsmen;
fellowship so far off,      fetters then shackling me,

siþþan geara iu      golde-wine minne
Since my gold-giving friend      that far-off day
since those ages ago       that gold-friend of mine

hrusan heolster biwrah      and ic hean þonan
Was hidden in earth’s darkness;      and I, heartsore, then
by earth’s own palling was hidden;      and I, prideless, then on

24wod winter-cearig      ofer waþema gebind.
Fared winter-worn      over waters now ice-bound,
went winter-care-laden      over waters now bound up,

sohte sele dreorig      sinces bryttan
Sought, gutted by my hall-loss,      a giver of riches;
sought a safe-hall, drearily,      a spreader of riches,

hwæ ic feor oþþe neah      findan meahte
Whether, far or near,      I might find such a one
where I, farther or nearer,      find then might so

þone þe in meodu-healle      minne wisse
As who could in the mead-hall      catch my mood,
the one that in the mead-giving hall-stead      myself knew thus,

28oþþe mec freondlesne      frefran wolde
And enfold my friendless      form in care,
or that my friendless being       favour would so,

wenian mid wynnum
Take and tend me.
welcome me to wonder.

Here once more are the recordings of the Old English and this new translation:-

Old English

Translation 2

* * *

Concerning Cædmon’s Song

Cædmon’s Song is a great wonder.  It is a great wonder that we have it at all in the various copies of the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  It is wonderful that its nine lines were written out in the vernacular ‘Old English’ at the foot of the page where, in Latin, Bede tells the story that had come through to him of the unlettered man who, in the time of the Abbess Hilda, had been struck with the power of shaping verses ~ a wonder which we do not doubt actually happened.


I first heard the story at about the age of seven, told by my father at a morning assembly of the small school which he had founded in Sussex, and of which he was the Principal.  (Mother’s ‘school’ was, of course, in the home.)

Forty years later, when I was working to the rhythmic roots of English poetry, I wrote some verses by way of trying to imagine the mood and ‘mind-set’ of the man who could not or would not sing until a dream visitor commanded him to do so.  Here is a performance of that piece:-

Cædmon’s Song

Here now is a ‘normalised’ text of the verses of Cædmon’s Song in a West Saxon version, with a pointing of proposed fore-staves, and staves:-

Nu we sculon herigean      heofonrices Weard,
Meotodes meahte      ond his modgeþanc,
weorc Wuldorfæder,      swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece Drihten,      or onstealde.
He ærest gesceop      eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,      halig scyppend.
þa middangeard      moncynnes Weard,
ece Drihten,     æfter teode
firum foldan,     Frea ælmihtig.

And here is a literal translation, acquired from somewhere a long time ago:-

Now we must praise      (the) Guardian of heaven’s kingdom,
might of (the) Creator      and his mind-thought,
work of (the) Glory-father,      as he ~ of each wonder,
eternal Lord, ~      created the beginning.
He first made      for the children of earth
heaven as (a) roof,      (the) holy Maker.
Then (the) world      the Guardian of mankind,
eternal Lord,       afterwards adorned
(the) earth for men,      almighty Ruler.

This is my own translation of the verses, using the same ‘criteria and restraints’ as in the translation of ‘The Wanderer’:-

Now we should so hail and worship      heavens-kingdom’s warden
masterly in his mightiness;      this his mood’s own thinking,
work of the worthiest father;      as he, with wonders so many,
ever the godly one,      all this did craft for us.
He early did shape up      for earthly bairnings
the heavens on high,      that holy shaper.
This middle-set-earth      mankind’s own warden,
ever the godly one,      afterwards made for us
who live in this land,      a leader almighty.

Here is a recording of the ‘song’ in the Old English, and in this translation:-

Old English


* * *

My thanks go to Dr Stuart Lee, and Oxford University, for the opportunity to put this work on the Woruldhord site.

With their indulgence I append this Postscript and Epilogue:


my father, who was more of the speaker, the sayer;
and for
my mother, who was more of the singer and player;
who both
did of their best for me,
and now
lie in rest for me:

Lastly, I present this work to
Lesley, Emma and Oliver