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The Ruin (i) - Translation and Commentary

by Sally Hamriding

Polyphony, Volume 2, Issue 2 First published April 2020, Manchester


The Anglo-Saxon elegy The Ruin is often cited as a particularly challenging piece of literature to translate into a modern vernacular due to its archaic dialect, its intense alliterative poetic meter, and the damage to the text's original manuscript. Translators of Anglo-Saxon literature are often confronted with a choice: whether to render the poem in its original format and thereby preserve some elements of meaning, metre and form, or take slight creative liberty in their translation to create new and often more accessible interpretations of the poems they are examining. This translation and critical commentary aims to discuss these problems in both literary and linguistic terms, and provide readers with a new reading of The Ruin enlightened by a critical analysis of Anglo-Saxon poetic conventions, the prosodics of spoken poetry, and the societal conventions of the text’s original context of production. The commentary also aims to introduce readers to the concepts of foreignising and domesticating translations, and how each concept may enable newer translations to be more accessible to modern, younger, and Western audiences.


The Ruin

Wondrous is this wall-stone, weathered by Fate This city has crumbled; giants’ work decayed. Roofs lay ruined, towers in collapse, rime on lime has broken the arched gate, 5. ripped and whipped and stripped by rain, an aged undertone. Where are those Lordly builders, in the grasp of the grave? Perished, they lay in the Earth until a hundred generations of family relations have passed too. 10. Lichen-grey and stained with rust, Through realm-rulers’ reigns, this wall has remained; Weathered under storms, its high gate yields. Yet still, this wall remains, hacked by weapons, 15. Grimly ground down… …the sun shone… …showing skilful, ancient work… …a clay-coated ring… The mind-mighty mason swiftly designed in rings 20. These stout-hearted walls that stand, wound

wonderfully together with wire. Bright were those halls and bath-houses, High the gables, the war-song great. Mead-halls filled with revelries, Until Fate the Mighty changed it all. 25. Corpses fell far and wide, days of pestilence came, And death carried away those fight-famous men; Their fortresses grew desolate, Their kingdoms crumbled, as those who would repair it Lay in the earth. 30. Forthwith these courts collapsed, And these red-tiled roofs shed their tiles From the vaulted ceiling. To ruin, this place has fallen, Shattered to sheer mounds where once many-a-man Glad-minded and gold-shining stood, gleaming, adorned 35. in glistening armour, proud and wine-flushed, and gazed on treasure, on silver, on curious gems, on wealth, on poverty, on precious stones, on this shining stronghold and the broad realm. 40. Stone houses stood, where a hot stream once gushed In a broad burst, a wall enclosing it all In its bright bosom. There the baths were, Heated at their heart. That was convenient, When they let pour forth… 45. Over the grey stones, many hot streams …. Into that round pool, hot… …where there were baths, Then is….. …… …… that is a kingly thing, This house…city.

Key Terms

Anglo Saxon - AS

The Ruin - TR

Old English - OE

In an examination of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work as an author, and a translator and critic of OE texts, Jane Chance underlines the difficulties facing any translator who, like Tolkien, ‘wants the poem itself and not the scholar’s discussions of anthropology, archaeology, or history to remain at centre stage’ (see note 1). She continues that the ‘danger of misreading and thereby incorrectly rendering the text…subverting the reader – and the artist – increases,’ (see note 2) and as any translator of texts, whether they be historic or cross-linguistic will say, this holds true. As the English language has changed and adapted across time, so has our usage of it. Therefore, as native speakers of Modern English, we naturally find it difficult to parse texts from our language’s ancestry due to its initial unintelligibility. However, through examining the typical conventions of A-S poetry such as meter, rhyme, and its lexicogrammatical and syntactic constraints, we find that we can ‘change the nature of [the text we are looking at]…and justify [our interpretation’s] authority by virtue of its status as an interpretive access to the original' (see note 3). In this commentary, I aim to discuss the challenges I faced when interpreting the A-S elegyThe Ruin (TR). I will discuss the fragmentary nature of the manuscript, the difficulty in preserving the original alliterative verse, and how the complex morphosyntactic and metrical structures of OE verse affect our ability to adequately translate any piece of OE literature into a modern vernacular. I will also briefly address the notion of ubi sunt and how I applied this to my translation. TR is an A-S elegy depicting an anonymous narrator’s reflection upon the ruins of a once-mighty city: scholarly debate surrounding the topic of exactly which city is ongoing, although several critics including Anne Thompson Lee cite the Roman city of Bath, or the allegorical city of Babylon as sources of inspiration for the poem (see note 4). The text’s manuscript can be found in the Exeter Book Codex, amongst several other A-S elegies that ‘focus on loss, separation and the transience of earthly things' (see note 5). Critic Holderness notes that the poem’s manuscript appears on ‘two badly damaged leaves of the Exeter Book: so the original comes down to us, perhaps fittingly, in a dilapidated and fragmentary condition' (see note 6). TR also comes to us in ‘typical’ A-S verse form, as a work pervaded by examples of alliteration, caesura, and repetition. Interestingly, several critics have noted that the manuscript begins with the lexical marker wrætlic or ‘wonderful,’ often used by scholars to identify riddles (see note 7); Exeter Book Riddles that share this stylistic convention include riddles Number 23, 44, and 75 (see note 8). In this translation, I have aligned TR more closely with the genre of elegy, due to the reflective nature of the poem and its subtle references to death, such as eorðgrap (“earthgrip” or “grave”) (6b), decay, as in brodnað (“decays”) (2b), and transience from greatness to obscurity. However, through careful consideration, we can observe that in some ways TR acts as a ‘departure’ from ‘conventional’ elegies such as Wulf and Eadwacer. For example, TR's narrator assumes an omniscient, heterodiegetic stance, rather than the subjective, homodiegetic stance that we associate with elegy.TR also explores the notion of lament in regard to physical transience, rather than the metaphysical internal state explored in elegies such as The Wanderer. The first point I wish to discuss is the alliterative nature of A-S verse. It is well observed that ‘A-S poetry does not create rhythm through the techniques of meter and rhyme derived from Latin poetry [but rather] creates rhythm through a unique system of alliteration' (see note 9). This intense alliterative form can be accredited to the oral origins of A-S poetry, whereby a scop would traditionally recite literary works to a large audience, perhaps in social environments such as halls (see note 10). When observing the orthographic representation of the text, we can clearly see several examples of consonantal alliteration; when reading the poem aloud, we can hear the prosodic effect created by the poet’s choice of words. Several examples of sibilance, palatal [j], and aspirate [h] consonantal alliterations throughout the poem’s 49 lines reflect the oral nature of the poem’s context of production. As a key element of A-S literature, the preservation of this quality was something that I strived to achieve, although it was not always entirely possible. For example, when confronted with the sibilant consonants of line 5 scearde scurbeorge scorene, I found it much easier to create an assonant translation due to the limited vocabulary of Modern English. Partially inspired by R.M. Liuzza’s (see note 11) translation, the assonant repetition of the short vowel /i/ allowed me to preserve the alliterative measure on the first, second and third stressed syllables of the line, as well as follow the A-S convention of providing a contrasting non-alliterative syllable on the fourth stressed syllable of the second half-line. I found that although this provides a somewhat more foreignized translation of TR, it allows contemporary readers to access the historical conventions of the original verse more freely than, for example, a more domesticated translation such as Ruin by Chris Jones (see note 12) where readers are not as readily challenged to consider the phonological consequences of the poet’s word choice. Throughout the translative process, however, I found that there were also several instances where consonantal alliteration was possible, albeit through syntactic rearrangement and some creative liberty. Consider the ‘literal’ translation of lines 9b-11b:

Oft þæs wag gebad
            Often this wall endured
ræghar ond readfah rice æfter oþrum,
            Lichen-grey and red-stained realm	after others
ofstonden under	stormum;
            left standing 	under	storms.

By placing the adjectival phrase ræghar ond readfah (10) clause-initially and omitting the adverbial oft, it was possible to place gebad and rice in the same clause and manipulate their semantic meanings. By adding the genitive noun phrase ‘realm-rulers’ and synonymously reinterpreting the meaning of gebad as ‘remained’ (11), I was able to recreate the alliteration of the rhotic-consonant /r/ in a new clause: ‘through realm-rulers’ reigns, this wall has remained (11). This syntactic rearrangement and slight creative liberty allowed me to create a translation that adheres to the conventions of the original alliterative verse, preserves its rhythmic qualities, and remains semantically similar. Although again, this is arguably a more foreignizing translation of the poem in comparison to other poet’s interpretations, I find that this again, allows readers to better access the traditions of A-S poetry, and further consider the impact phonology and syntax can have on the recital and interpretation of a poem. Secondly, a feature inevitably bound to affect the lexical and structural translation of any historical piece of literature, is the condition and appearance of the manuscript it is found within. As previously mentioned, TR is a fragmentary piece, its manuscript marred ‘where fire damage has left two sections of it, including the final lines, largely irrecoverable' (see note 13). When faced with this level of damage, a distinct choice to prospective translators of TR is posed, one which other translators do not often have to make: whether to render the text in its original format, translating only what is available and leaving the indecipherable segments up to readers’ own interpretation, or to attempt to ‘repair’ the text by making sense of its remains, and therefore construct a logical narrative and ‘fill in the gaps’ left by the damage. Whilst many translators such as Liuzza have opted for the former, by simply leaving a series of ellipses or gaps in order to preserve the structure and meaning of the original text, I aimed to ‘fill in the gaps’, in an attempt to shed some light on what could have been part of the original manuscript. Line 12 of TR's manuscript provides us, as translators, with our first challenge. Scholar Anne Klinck notes the difficulty interpreting this line due to scribal illegibility (see note 14). The line is as follows:

Wonað giet se ... num geheapen
     Remains yet still the… num piled high

When interpreting this line, I was careful to note the juxtaposition between the verbs wonað (“decays”), and wunað (“remains”), as a misplaced translation of either would alter the line’s semantic meaning, and impact the overall meaning of the poem. A translation based on the verb wonað (“decays”) would give rise to the discussion of concepts such as wyrd and the transience of worldly things so often explored in A-S literature. I have indirectly embedded the importance of these concepts by referring to them in the proper noun/honorific forms, ‘Fate’ (1) and ‘Fate the Mighty’ (24) respectively. However, it was Kluge’s (see note 15) contrasting reconstruction of l.12 as Wonað giet se wæþnum geheapen that informed my translation. Although Klinck doubts the presence of se as a full word (see note 16), the translation of geheapen (“heaped up”) favoured by Marsden and other critics did not feel satisfactory for my translation, so in similar practice to Michael Alexander (see note 17), I translated Kluge’s se wæþnum geheapen as ‘hacked by weapons,’ in order to emphasise the theme of endurance that is foregrounded throughout the poem, and ultimately explore the A-S theme of Heroism. Klinck notes that Kluge’s scribal interpretation of wunað as opposed to wonað also ‘gives the sense demanded by the adverb [giet]’ (see note 18) (“yet still”) of continuity, and it is this that has enabled me to create a translation foregrounded in the antithesis of physical transience and metaphysical permanence. Another example of damage to the manuscript falls on lines 15a-19b. Klinck notes ‘a gap of 8 3/4 cms follows gerunden, after which fragments of the lower portions of possibly two letters are visible, forming a word before scan' (see note 19). In my translation, I have adhered to the reconstruction suggested by Holthausen: hædre scan heofuntungol (16) (see note 20), or literally, ‘clearly shone the heaven star.’ Like other translators such as McMullan (see note 21), I have interpreted the noun heounftungol as a poetic metaphor referring to the sun. More abstractly, I have interpreted this as an example of A-S kenning, ‘a metaphorical compound word or short phrase that replaces a name or noun, in which the object of the metaphor is…not stated' (see note 22). I found that this translation best complemented the proceeding line, […]g orþonc ærsceaft (“skillfull ancient building”) (17). Lastly, I wish to discuss the notion of ubi sunt and how this has been applied to my own and other interpretations of TR. Sciacca states that ubi sunt, from the Latin ‘where are…[they]?’ is ‘one of the universals of western literature, in particular in late antiquity and the Middle Ages' (see note 23).She further states that this motif is ‘so widely attested and so typical of the elegiac mood…in A-S literature and culture’ that it has been called ‘an obsession' (see note 24). Although ubi sunt is not directly embedded in the original verse, it is something I have implemented in my translation in lines 6-7, as Michael Alexander (see note 25) has in his translation. I have implemented this as a means of creating an interrogative mood that provides readers with an opportunity to interact and engage with the poem in terms of its context: it implores readers to again question the nature of wyrd, and the transience of life that was so important to A-S culture (see note 26). Although some readers may find that implementing ubi sunt in such a way creates a domesticated translation of the text, I would argue that this is necessary in order to encourage readers to properly engage with the text. If readers are confronted with a text they do not understand or cannot gauge the form of, then they will not understand or take away any didactic message from it. I find that my translation of the verse with the application of this ubi sunt technique, again allows modern readers to access the poem in a format that is perhaps familiar and typical of the Western poetry they are acquainted with. To conclude, although it is somewhat difficult to translate A-S literature due to the morpho-syntactic constraints of Modern English, it is important to note that it is not impossible. Although at times my interpretation of TR has been foreignized in comparison to other, often older translations that adhere more strictly to the ‘proper’ English correspondences of the words and meanings of the poem, I have found that the techniques I have employed make the poem more accessible to a modern, varied audience. Where modern readers may find it confusing to read an older translation that favours the preservation of the poem’s ‘ruined’ form, they may find it easier to understand a translation such as mine where the gaps are partially ‘filled.’ Those with an interest in A-S poetic technique may find my usage of vowel alliteration, as opposed to consonantal alliteration, interesting as although it diverges from the A-S norm, it arguably creates a translation that can be described as ‘as an interpretive access to the original' (see note 27). The difficulties of translating any piece of literature, such as incorrectly interpreting meaning, or unintentionally altering the structure of the text, are universal and unavoidable. However, although I was not necessarily able to retain the meter of the original verse due to lexical constraints, I hope that my attempt to ‘fill in the gaps’ of the fragment provides a substantive, satisfactory and informative reading.



1: Jane Chance, Tolkien's Art: A Mythology for England, 2nd edn (Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky , 2001), p.27

2: Robert Stanton,The Culture of Translation in Anglo-Saxon England (New York: D.S. Brewer, 2002), p.9

3: Richard Marsden, ’The Ruin’ in The Cambridge Old English Reader, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 323-6

4: Anne Thompson Lee, 'The Ruin: Bath Or Babylon? A Non-Archaeol ogical Investigation', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 74.3 (1973)

5: Michael Bintley, The Elegies of the Exeter Book (2018) <https://www.> [accessed 9 January 2019]

6: Graham Holderness, Anglo-Saxon Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.40

7: Richard Fahey, Ivory in the Rust: Reading the Old English “Ruin” in South Bend (2017) <> [accessed 12 January 2019]

8: The Riddle Ages (2019), s-by-number/ [accessed 12 January 2019]

9: New World Encyclopaedia, Anglo-Saxon Poetry (2016) <http://www$_$Poetry#Specific$_$feat\\ ures$_$of$_$Anglo-Saxon$_$poetry> [accessed 12 January 2019]

10: Samantha Glasswell, The Earliest English: Living and Dying in Early Anglo-Saxon England (Marlow: NPI Media Group, 2002), p.125

11: 'The Ruin', trans. R.M. Liuzza, in The Broadview Anthology of British Literature (Plymouth: Broadview Press, 2009)

12: 'Ruin', trans. Chris Jones, in The Reader, 28 (2007)

13: Marsden, p.370

14: Anne L Klinck, The Old English Elegies (Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2014), p.212

15: Friedrich Kluge, 'Zu altenglischen Dichtungen', Englische Studien 8.472–9

16: Klinck, p.212

17: 'The Ruin', trans. Michael Alexander, in The Earliest English Poems (London: Penguin, 1966)

18: Klinck, p.212

19: Klinck, p.212

20: Ferdinand Holthausen, Zur ae Literatur XIII (1912)

21: Luke Mcmullan, ‘Homophonic Translation of “The Ruin” (Old English)’, Datableed (2015) <> [accessed 12 January 2019]

22: Michelle M. Sauer, The Facts On File Companion To British Poetry Before 1600 (New York: Infobase Pub., 2008)

23: Claudia Di Sciacca, Finding The Right Words: Isidore's Synonyma In Anglo-Saxon England (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), p.105

24: Sciacca, p.105

25: 'The Ruin', trans. Michael Alexander

26: Keith Healing, Wyrd Life (Morrisville: Lulu Press, 2010)

27: Stanton, p.9

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