• The Polyphony Team

'Deor' & 'Wulf and Eadwacer': A Translation With Commentary

by Jasmine Ketch-Neumann

Polyphony, Volume 1, Issue 1

First Published March 2019, Manchester


Abstract

As part of a module examining the writings of the Anglo-Saxons, we produced translations of each poem that we covered. Below, I have translated the poems Deor and Wulf and Eadwacer, both from the Exeter Book, from the original Old English into contemporary English poetry. In addition to this, I comment on the process of, and choices made in, my translation. I argue that Wulf and Eadwacer, as a riddle-like poem, should be translated with effort to preserve the ambiguity and mystery of the original, at the cost of some of the gravitas of the original, whereas Deor, a longer and more solemn poem in which the speaker struggles to find consolation over his downfall and exile, should be translated with greater care and with effort taken to preserve the woeful feel.



WULF AND EADWACER


To my people, he would be as a gift.

They would receive him: bear arms.

There is a difference between us.


Wolf sits on an island: I on another.

The island is closed off; surrounded by fen.

And too, on the island — are cruel, savage men.

They would receive him: bear arms.

There is a difference between us.


Wolf, I have followed your sorrowful journey

In rainy weather, while I sat in mourning.

When the battle-bold one enclosed me in his arms,

It was a pleasure: and yet it hurt like a harm.


Wolf, my wolf, it was pining for you

That made me sick: your seldom passing through

and my grieving heart, not lack of food.


Are you hearing me, my watchman? Our wretched son

could be borne by an eagle to woods.

Simple to slit that which was never sewn:

Our song together.


DEOR


Weland, through slithering chains

suffered sorrow.

This resolute man

played host to much hardship:

He had as companion

sadness and longing,

wintry-cold misery.

Woe was often felt

since Nithad

laid fetters upon him,

supple sinew-bonds

on a good man.


That ended one day, so this also may.


To Beadohilde, never was

her brothers’ death

so sore in her heart

as her own circumstance,

once the realisation

became transparent

that she was pregnant.

Never could she think

without fear

of what must come.


That ended one day, so this also may.

Of the affair of Maethild

we have heard:

all bounds were surpassed

by the Geat’s devotion

such that unhappy love

deprived her entirely of sleep.


That ended one day, so this also may.


Theodoric ruled

for thirty winters

The Maering’s stronghold

that was known to many.


That ended one day, so this also may.


We have learned

of Eormanric’s

beastly mind,

that ruled folk of the wide

Goth kingdom.

That was a cruel king.

Many warriors sat,

bound by worries,

ever-expecting sorrow,

wishing often

that the reign

were overcome.


That ended one day, so this also may.


The sorrowing man sits,

cut off from joys

in darkening spirit,

it seems to him

that his suffering

will never cease.

I think then

that throughout this world

the wise lord

causes change often.

To many a man,

he grants favour,

certain success;

to some he deals out woe.


Of that which I will say

of myself, this:

That, I, for a time,

was Hodeninga’s poet,

loved by my lord.

My name was Deor.

For many winters I possessed

a good position,

loyal master,

until Heorrenda came.

The song-skilled man

received the land-entitlements

that the protector of warriors

once gave to me.


That ended one day, so this also may.


COMMENTARY

These two poems, although similar thematically in certain ways, are very different in their tone, and my translations aim to reflect this. Both are poems about loss and sadness — in the case of Deor, a longing for what once was, coupled with a sadness for the present, and in the case of Wulf and Eadwacer, a longing for what perhaps never even was, a relationship seemingly defined by absence. However, Deor’s tone is much more that of a lament, with examples of mythical and historical tragedies that passed by and the refrain of comfort "Þæs oferode, ðisses swa mæg" (translated here as "That ended one day, so this also may".) My translation, as discussed in more detail below, aims to reflect this with a solemn and accurate translation prioritising the meaning of the original and laying the poem out in a format inspired by the original poet’s presentation (with each line having a first and second half). Wulf and Eadwacer is permeated by the language of longing, in this case for the titular Wulf, but follows a much more straightforward narrative, eschewing allusions to specific myth in favour of simple description of the speaker’s feelings. Its placement in its source text before a riddle-hoard, as well as a certain amount of ambiguity to the modern day reader, speaks at a playful and multifaceted side that arouses questions in the reader, and that is something I have tried to capture through my choice of words in the translation.


When translating Wulf and Eadwacer, I endeavoured where possible to maintain the ambiguity of the original and produce a text that would work well when read orally, keeping the listener/reader’s attention. Primarily, this is accomplished through a mixture of rhyme and alliteration. The poem follows a simple a/b rhyme (or half-rhyme) scheme, for the most part, allowing lines to flow from one to the next — see lines 5-6, for example, or the use of the half-rhymes journey/mourning in lines 9-10. While translating, however, I was conscious not to forsake meaning for rhyme: where a rhyme naturally arose, I would use it, but where searching for one would impede the accuracy of the translation, I simply let it be. Assonance and alliteration are also used for poetic effect — for example, "...That made me sick: your seldom passing through..." (14, emphasis added). The intended result is a poem that works both written down and read aloud, with added layers (discussed below) when heard out loud.

Wulf and Eadwacer is placed among riddles in the Exeter Book, and has been the subject of much differing interpretation over time. Critic Peter S. Baker writes of the riddle-like ambiguity of the poem that it is "demanding of a reader’s attention, as a riddle is", before clarifying that the ambiguity is used in this context to increase the tension and emotional power of the poem, as opposed to simply for "good fun". (See note 1) Baker, in fact, produces a reading of the poem that is remarkably unambiguous, arguing (for example) that the ‘lac’ of the first line is in fact merely a ‘gift’, and not a sacrifice or offering as could be interpreted, and asserting that much of the perceived ambiguity arises from scholarly interpretations that assign multiple common meanings to words that in fact change depending on context. While Baker’s argument is assertive and innovative, I find it less than convincing. One of the quirks of humanity is how little we have changed; consider the similarity of graffiti on a wall today to that found on the walls of ancient Greco-Roman ruins. (See note 2) The use of language, then, that could mean something different in a different context (but read ‘properly’ has one meaning) does not necessarily preclude the possibility of a text produced to be intentionally ambiguous. Many modern jokes and lyrics rely on the double meanings of words, even where the second meaning is archaic or infrequently used. There is also evidence that Wulf and Eadwacer was meant to be read with multiple meanings, with its placement in the Exeter Book immediately preceding a collection of riddles. (See note 3) For this reason, I chose to mimic the perceived ambiguity of the original in my translation where possible, producing a ‘riddling’ translation that addresses the ambiguity by simply accepting it as a vital part of the poem. One of the universal difficulties of translation is that it is never possible to do quite the same thing in quite the same way. Thus, I have tried to do the same thing (ambiguity) in a slightly different way in my rewriting. One ambiguity in the original is the phrase a ðecgan (line 2), which can be translated either as the welcoming, "to feed", or the rather more hostile, "to kill", according to Baker. (See note 4) A literal translation would give the idea that were Wulf to present himself, ‘they’ would either kill or feed him. When translating, I found it difficult to identify a word in Modern English that encompassed the possibility of both welcoming and killing someone, so chose to eschew the reference to feeding in favour of maintaining aural ambiguity through the phrase "bear arms"/"bare arms". When read out loud, the nature of the bear/bare/bear homophone allows for three possibilities:


(1) That ‘they’ receive Wulf, and bear arms against him

(2) That ‘they’ receive Wulf, and welcome him with bare arms, unadorned with armour

(3) That ‘they’ receive Wulf, and are partially or wholly ursine


The first interpretation also contains an homage to quasi-contemporary culture in the form of a reference to the 2nd amendment of the US constitution (allowing citizens to bear arms). This ambiguity, as well as the reference to a (increasingly politically loaded) phrase common in contemporary culture, demands the reader’s attention described by Baker above. In addition, it raises questions that rely on personal interpretation for an answer (at the very least, when read aloud). This is one example of my attempt to create ambiguity and to update the original text for a modern day reader. Another is the interpretation of lac in the first line — I chose to use the relatively straightforward ‘gift’ for two reasons. Firstly, ‘gift’, in and of itself, in this context, is inherently ambiguous: Wulf may be ‘as a gift’ to the tribe because they miss him and hope for his safe return, or because he is hated by the tribe and they would welcome the chance to attack him. In this way, some of the original "gift/sacrifice" ambiguity is preserved. Additionally, the use of the word ‘gift’ adds a second layer into the reading to a bilingual reader such as myself: in German, the word translates directly to ‘poison’, either literal or figurative. (See note 5)


However, the ambiguity of the text may, at times, resolve itself into a narrative that is in essence quite tragic. A woman weeps over the loss of her loved one, no matter the form her loved one takes. One example of this comes in the problematic lines 16 and 17, referring to the ‘wretched whelp’. We may ask ourselves who the ‘whelp’ is, but none of the possible answers take the form of a satisfactory ending to this song-riddle. Seiichi Suzuki argues that Wulf is the son of the narrator, fighting in the military faraway, that Eadwacer is her husband, and that the narrator fears that her son may be destined to die in war. (See note 6) He argues that the ambiguity of lines 16-17 arises from a grammatical misinterpretation, suggests that the ambiguity can be resolved by a grammatical re-structuring that presents ‘earnme’ (wretched) as ‘earne’ (eagle), producing the line: "Please listen, Eadwacer. An eagle may carry away our son, Wulf, to the wood." (Here, Suzuki argues, the carrying away by an eagle is a metaphor for the son being fated to die in battle). (See note 7) Taking inspiration from this interpretation, I have used it in my own translation, presenting the lines as a worried wife addressing her husband ("Are you hearing me, my watchman?"). I chose to use the word ‘watchman’ in my translation both due to ambiguity over whether it was a given name or a role, and because I wanted to create the dichotomy of the one who is in danger and absent, versus the one who is present and ensures safety. Turning to my translation of Deor, the more serious and solemn narrative of the original text (compared to Wulf and Eadwacer) drove me to produce an accordingly more serious and solemn translation. This is evident even from the presentation of the poem: whereas Wulf and Eadwacer is laid out much as a modern poem might be, for Deor I chose to use a structure roughly imitating the a-verse/b-verse that edited versions of Old English texts are frequently laid out in. (See, for example, the poem’s presentation in Marsden’s Old English Reader). (See note 8) Rather than attempting to modernise Deor somewhat - as a did to an extent with Wulf and Eadwacer, trying to create a bridge between the modern world and the past - I decided to present the poem in keeping with its traditional layout, and keep as close to the original meanings of words as possible, favouring literal translations.


Craig Williamson writes on the difficulty of translating an unspeakable language with an invisible author, using the analogy of a dance. While we can analyse the poetry left behind, listen to and engage with it — while we can dance with this other author, follow their steps, imitate and update — something of this dance will always remain a mystery. (See note 9) This is true with Deor. There are a number of problems with trying to translate and understand the poem from a modern perspective and as a modern reader, with the foremost being the multiple references to figures and events of history, many of which we know little or nothing about today. As readers and listeners, we can engage with the poem, enjoy it, discuss its structure — but we are left with a number of questions, regardless of our understanding. Who is the speaker? Where is he writing from? Who are the figures he references, such as Maethild and her devoted Geat? As a translator, I felt there were two options available: first, in an attempt to update the original poem, to make the enigma more accessible and understandable to a modern reader, or second, to simply translate what was in front of me as best I could, understanding where possible and leaving mysteries where they stood. The former would involve a great deal of conjecture, something which, because of the amount of historical canon involved would beat best disrespectful (and at worst a simple failure, because of the amount of understanding that I, as a modern day reader, lack), I chose the latter, and left the Anglo-Saxons with history impenetrable but intact. This is not to say, however, that I did not update the poem in other ways. While I endeavoured to produce a translation that had aural appeal, as in Wulf and Eadwacer, a literal approach to translation meant that a great deal of alliterative appeal was lost in the process. In some places, part of the original survives, and I tried to preserve this where possible— for example, line 6 of the original’s "swoncre seonobende on syllan monn" (emphasis added) becomes "supple sinew-bonds on a good man". However, elsewhere this alliteration was lost entirely: line 24 of the original, "Sæt secg monig sorgum gebunden" (emphasis added) becomes "Many warriors sat / bound by worries".


Creating an Old English poem in Modern English, I felt it important to copy my old dance-partner’s moves, and mimic some of the quirks of Anglo-Saxon texts: here I am thinking in particular of the compounds and double meanings, although I tended to refrain from litotes due to wanting to make the poems relatively accessible to a modern day audience, who would be likely to miss the understatement in favour of a literal understanding, and favour ambiguity allowing for multiple interpretations. Wulf and Eadwacer, but nevertheless has a number of areas in which a word can be translated in two or more ways. For example, the opening line "Weland, him be wurman...", in which ‘wurman’ is presumed to stem from ‘wyrm’, serpent/worm, may also be presumed to be a metaphorical reference to bonds or swords restraining Weland. (See note 10) I wanted to keep a respectful and sombre tone, but also wanted to maintain the original poetic ambiguity and metaphor, so used the translation "through slithering chains" (line 1). The original metaphor is preserved, as is the mental image of serpentine bonds restraining and sorrowing Weland: the physical objects seem to come to life, taking on the states of both animal and object at once. Elsewhere, I have endeavoured to nod to dual meaning and ambiguity by creating plays on words from the original Old English. The original Old English of line 10 reads (in reference to Beodohilde’s pregnancy) "ðæt heo gearolice ongieten hafde", or "once it had been clearly realised" [that she was pregnant]. I played on the idea of gearolice, ‘clear’ of sight or of knowledge/understanding according to the Bosworth-Toller, using the phrase ‘became transparent’ to encompass both meanings of the original Old English. (See note 11) In this way, I copied my partner’s dance moves - even if not perfectly.


Lastly, I wish to turn to the section of the poem I spent the most time on: the narrative refrain of "Þæs oferode, ðisses swa mæg." The phrase has been translated in a number of ways, by a number of people; the venerated Heaney, for example, translated it as "That passed over, this can too." in his version of Deor. (See note 12) I felt this lacked a certain poetic and aural appeal, and wanted to create something more emotive and lyrical, while maintaining the detachment of ‘ðisses swa mæg’ as the "statement of probability, expressing future surmountal of trouble"identified by L. Whitbread, who asserts that the refrain is absolutely impersonal - recommending the translation "Old troubles have passed, and present ones may." (See note 13) To this end, I settled on the phrase "That ended one day, so this also may", trading the idea of movement/passing by for a more hopeful (but still ultimately impersonal) idea of the ending of misery, and producing an a/b verse that both rhymed and had an equal number of syllables in each half.


Overall, the translation process was highly fulfilling, if difficult. I tended to opt for remaining close the original Old English when in doubt, but tried to inform my translation using critical theory, or at least understand why I disagreed with it. Where possible, I used Old English quirks such as compounds and double meanings, although I tended to refrain from litotes due to wanting to make the poems relatively accessible to a modern day audience, who would be likely to miss the understatement in favour of a literal understanding, and favour ambiguity allowing for multiple interpretations. The result is a portfolio of poems, two of which are shown and discussed above, that meld Anglo-Saxon and contemporary poetic tradition.

References


1. Peter S. Baker, ‘The Ambiguity of Wulf and Eadwacer’, Studies in Philology, 78.5 (1981), pp. 39-51 (p. 41)

2. Roger S Bagnall, ‘Informal Writing in a Public Place: The Graffiti of Smyrna’, Everyday Writing In The Greco-Roman East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011) pp. 7-26 (p. 11)

3. Richard Marsden, ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, The Cambridge Old English Reader, 2nd ed (St Ives: Cambridge University Press, 2015) pp. 383-386 (p. 383)

4. Baker, p. 43

5. Collins German Dictionary [online], s.v. ‘Gift’, online at: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/german-english/gift [Accessed 21/05/2018]

6. Seiichi Suzuki, ‘Wulf and Eadwacer: A Reinterpretation and Some Conjectures’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 88.2 (1987), pp. 175-185 (p. 182)

7. Ibid, p. 183

8. Richard Marsden, ‘Deor’, The Cambridge Old English Reader (pp. 365-369)

9. Craig Williamson, ‘On Translating Old English Poetry’, "Beowulf" and Other Old English Poems (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2011) pp. 1-18 (p. 2)

10. Marsden, ‘Deor’, p. 367

11. Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary [online], s.v. ‘gearolice’, http://bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/047114[Accessed22/05/2018]

12. Seamus Heaney, ‘Deor’, The Word Exchange, ed. Greg Delanty and Michael Matto (New York and London: Norton, 2012) pp. 47-49

13. L. Whitbread, ‘Text-Notes on Deor’, Modern Language Notes, 62.1 (1947) pp. 15-20 (p. 20)


Polyphony, n. 
The style of simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other.

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