The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Wanderer continued

Posted on: November 14, 2007

Another nagging puzzle is the words chosen to express ideas that are conventionally expressed in intellectual vs emotional terms. For “The Wanderer” this means whether the translators choose to depict internal actions as happening in his mind or his heart/gut. The first instance occurs when the exile tells what an honorable man should do in dire circumstances. (Lee & Solopova’s translations are in brown, Michael Alexander’s in blue.)

Nor may the weary spirit withstand fate,
nor the troubled heart bring about help.
Therefore, the ones eager for glory, often binds fast
the agony in their heart

No weary mind may stand against Wierd
nor may a wrecked will work new hope;
wherefore, most often, those eager for fame
bind the dark mood fast in their breasts.

Lee and Solopova go with a metaphysical approach, describing the spirit and the heart, while Michael Alexander translates the same thoughts as “mind” and “will”. I found an Old English equivalent for “spirit” and “mind” — both were “mod”. šŸ™‚ (None for “heart” or “will” though, not online anyway, which is the only kind of search for which I had time.) I imagine that the context ruled the meaning and I’m keen to know what led their choices in this instant, especially since similar instances occur two more times, and in each one both translators always pick the opposite meaning. If Alexander picks “heart”, L&S go with “mind” and vice versa.

Aside from translation issues though, I can deduce the poetic logic behind Alexander’s. (Maybe something similar is present in L&S and I’m giving it short shrift, but it boasts few elements that encourage me to analyse it in a similar fashion.) In the example above, the wanderer shares with us his experience of waking up each day and facing anew his sorrowful position, followed by the template he knows he should follow to meet his Wierd. In the second instance, the 7th stanza of Alexander’s translations, he is referring to painful memories that resurface in the dreams he has (though he switches to third person).

oft sorrow and sleep, banded together,
come to bind the lone outcast;
he thinks in his heart then that he his lord
claspeth and kisseth, and on knee layeth
hand and head, as he had at otherwhiles
in days now gone, when he enjoyed the gift-stool.

For moments of sleep, to express the speaker’s more vulnerable state and perhaps to imply the less easily controlled emotions he goes with “heart”. It certainly brings a poignancy to the scene, properly appreciated when it’s compared to L&S’s.

…sorrow and sleep both together
often bind the wretched solitary man.
It seems to him in his mind that he, his liege-lord,
may embrace and kiss, and on the knee lay
hands and head, as he sometimes before
in days of yore enjoyed the gift-stool.

I should state that I had no problem with their first instance of choosing heart over mind. But here it seems when pathos was needed most they opt for more distance. It could be explained by the Old English, which has “mode” this time, but they do it again with “mod” a few lines later. The exile, mired in sorrow after he awakes to find it all a dream, later imagines that he sees his kinsmen and greets them eagerly, only to have the ghosts “swim away”. They write “the mind considers” and it just doesn’t seem to capture what I’m sure the poet wanted to say. That whole bit is rendered kind of awkwardly.

Sorrow is renewed,
when the mind considers the memory of kin;
it greets joyfully, [and] eagerly examines
the companions of men; [but] they always swim away.
The seafarers’ spirit never recalls many
of the remembered speeches.

Doesn’t it kinda sound like the man’s brain acquired eyes and popped out of his head at the excitement of seeing ghouls first hand? Alexander’s may be less but there’s a unity to his thought that makes it more coherent, accessible, and thematically loyal.

Remembered kinsmen press through his mind;
he singeth gladly, scanneth eagerly
men from the same hearth. They swim away.
Sailor’s ghosts bring not many
known songs there.

I do question why he used “singeth” — OK, I won’t whine again about my ignorance of Old English — but overall it works. It reads better, the idea is more clearly expressed, even if it isn’t as exact, and the ghosts’ “songs” are a continuation of an earlier thought, so I’m not slightly baffled and reading earlier lines, before I get what “remembered speeches” is supposed to mean. It’s like in the first few lines where L&S have the man stirring the “ice-cold sea” with his bare hands.Wtf? I thought. Alexander solved it by giving the poor guy some oars. There are similar instances of confusion in Beowulf though, when the title character answers Unferth of the Scyldings by defending his win in a swimming race with some dude. Apparently they swam out into the sea fully armed, to protect themselves from dangerous sea creatures. I wondered how they managed to stay afloat.

I’ll wrap this up as it was more exciting when I did all this close reading the first time into my notebook than having to write it all out again for you wonderful folk. I’m also aware that these posts are really for me in a way, and not you, since I have the poems here in full and you don’t. I’m selfish (and occasionally care about copyright) sometimes. I wonder if I e-mailed the publishers they’d give me permission to write it all out? I see lotus doing that all the time!

One thing L&S do get right, which I charitably attribute to the merits of the original itself, is the tension in Old English poetry. Its traditional style and oral delivery encourages repetition of thoughts through apposition and variation. (The Homeric epics, for example, does something similar with the repetition of descriptions and phrases.) Variation conveys the most tension since the two ideas aren’t adjacent but separated by sentences, so when you read it’s as though the poet has reeled you back in a bit before he lets you go on to the next bit of info. It’s an effect that’s hard to capture when you quote it on its own since it’s dependent on the progression of thought in a larger body of work. Still, I’ll quote two examples.

Always for himself the solitary man waits for grace,
the mercy of the creator, although he, sad at heart,
throughout the seaways must for a long time
stir with his hands the ice-cold sea


He will understand, he who discovers
how cruel is sorrow as a companion,
to that person who has few beloved friends for himself.

The first has apposition — “the solitary man waits for grace,/ the mercy of the creator” — and the second, variation where the third line modifies the man described in the first. I think that Alexander had to sacrifice one or two of such instances, if my opinion that L&S’s is more literally accurate, in order to translate lines as he saw fit. If I ever do another post on Beowulf I shall have to quote some.

The rest of the poem in style more or less follows what came before. Their translations of the famous ubi sunt work equally well for me. Alexander’s last lines before the epilogue are, as expected, more dramatic, and because of the way he structured the poem, the epilogue’s difference in tone is more sharply felt. It is clearer to me now why John D. Niles wrote that his translations are not as suited to the classroom. If anyone were learning Old English I’d send them to Lee & Solopova’s text first.


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