• The Polyphony Team

The Ruin (ii): Translation and Commentary

by Seren Morgan-Roberts

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

During this commentary, I will discuss my translation of The Ruin (see note 1) and the decisions I made during the translation process. I chose The Ruin because of the burn damage to the original manuscript that left a lot of the poem missing or illegible. In this essay, I will explain my interpretation and translation of the large gaps, and why I believe my choices are the most effective for this translation and its overall tone of loss. One of the most prominent aspects of my translation is that it is written in the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse form; therefore, during this essay I will focus on the challenges I faced due to my decision to maintain that verse form. I will also reflect on whether the translation stands as a domesticated or foreignized piece by drawing on the work of John Niles, who discusses Ezra Pound's translation of The Seafarer. I shall discuss my decision to include hypermetric lines and alliteration that continues through multiple lines because I believe they are important to the overall tone of the translation. In addition to this, I will focus on the alliterative sounds and their effectiveness and significance to the oral poetry tradition.

The Ruin

The wall-stone is wondrous, weathered by fate; The fortresses have crumbled, the creations of giants rot Roofs have collapsed, the columns in ruins. The arches ravaged, rime on the mortar, The storm-defence agape and stripped, perished, Age has devoured it. The Earth-grip holds The Lordly builders, long lost and departed, And the tight grasp of the grave, until a great number of generations Of people have passed away. Repeatedly, this wall has outlasted, Ghostly-grey and blood-stained, battered by the storms, One kingdom after another; but the curved walls fall, now. The remains still declare ........ ............num heaped up, Amid the ............ ................. Grimly ground up.......... ............. ................re shone heo.............. ..................skill-forged ancient buildings........... ............g.......... .......... a clay coated ring Spirit mo............ .....yne swiftly brought forth Steadfast in the links, stout-heartedly bound was The wondrous wall, with wires of iron. Bright were the halls, and bathhouses aplenty, High were the gables, great joyful clamours, The mead-hall full of merry revelries, Until Fate destroyed and demolished it all. All around corpses fell, overcome by days of pestilence The slaughter stole all the sword-skilled men. The bulwards lie broken in bleak and barren places. The cities have crumbled, the constructors cannot repair them, They are idols beneath the earth. And so the edifices collapse And the roof splits from its red tiles, Ripped from its arches. To ruins they have fallen, Shattered to rubble. Once, it was a resting-place for warriors, Cheerful and gold-bright, embellished in splendour, Gleaming in their armour, and greedy for wine. They set their sights on treasures of silver, on strange gems, On wealth, on property, on precious stones, On the bright fortresses, broad and mighty. Stone courts stand, the springs spouted with heat, In sweeping surges, surrounded by walls In its bright bosom, the baths can be found, Hot at their heart. How providential. Then, they let it pour ............. Hot steams flowed over the hoary stones Un..................................................................... .. þþæt ring-pool hot stones...................... ................................... the baths can be found Then is........................ .................................. ...................................re that is a kingly thing, Hū se........................... .........burg.............

The Ruin stood out to me as a poem to translate because of its unique predicament: the gaps in the poem caused by burn damage to the original Exeter Book. As a result, there are significant portions of the poem that are missing. This raised the question of whether to attempt to fill in the gaps or to leave them as blank spaces. Filling in the missing lines meant complete creative freedom, and each interpretation would be unique; however, leaving the gaps blank would add visually to the ruin of the poem that was so appropriately called The Ruin. To me, attempting to recreate the missing lines meant losing the perceived decay that is so prevalent in the poem. The poem is all about the decay of Roman architecture, and the loss of a culture, so it is fitting that one also experiences a decay of Anglo-Saxon culture through the physical decay of the manuscript . Throughout this poem, both the collapse of the Roman Empire and Anglo-Saxon’s cultures can be witnessed, and with this in mind, the decision was made to preserve the gaps caused by damage. As well as this, I believe that leaving the spaces exaggerates the alliterative verse form’s oral effect because the breaking down of the poem due to the physical damage also causes a ‘break’ in the strict verse form. It further emphasises the tone of decay throughout the poem, whilst also exaggerating the effect of the alliterative verse’s caesura by disrupting the flow of the poem. To add further to the sense of loss of Anglo-Saxon culture in the poem, as well as increase the disruption to the flow, fragmented words were also left untranslated. . Again, the fragments in Old English increase the overall tone of decay and loss.

The most important aspect of the translation is the form; I wanted to preserve the sound and rhythm of The Ruin by using the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. Arguably, the oral tradition of Old English poetry is as important as its content, because most critics would agree that the poetry existed to be recited aloud. The alliterative verse was a form used for oral poetry and this is evident from the emphasis on alliteration and stressed syllables. It is also shown through the concept of half-lines (there are two half-lines per line), the pause between the two half-lines is referred to as a ‘breath pause’ during recital, further proving the importance of the alliterative verse’s structure to the oral tradition. However, the decision to preserve the alliterative verse had its difficulties. The most prominent issue was the severe lack of synonyms in comparison to Old English lexicon. The alliterative verse is reliant on alliteration, each line requires at least two alliterated stressed syllables (usually, there are four stressed syllables per line) and each line is made up of two half-lines, typically referred to as verse a and verse b. To maintain the rhythm, each half line requires at least two stressed syllables. With verse a, either or both stressed syllables can alliterate. Whereas with verse b, the first stressed syllable always alliterates - referred to as the headstave - and the last stressed syllable rarely alliterates, and so there are three ways that the line can be presented:

X A / A X
A X / A X
A A / A X
(A = alliterated stressed syllable, X = non-alliterative stressed syllable)

The alliteration is crucial to the form of the poem because, as John. D. Niles states, the two half lines are ‘linked by the similar initial sound of either two or three stressed syllables’ (see note 2). This original verse form is preserved in the translation; it is vital to preserve the poem as a whole and to transcribe the form as well as the content.

Another reason for retaining the alliterative verse form was that translations that were more foreign to the reader better communicated the feel of Anglo-Saxon verse. Any further domestication was unnecessary because the fact it was being translated to modern English was domesticating enough. Therefore, the text is presented in visible half lines, to mimic how the original would have been recited. The separation between the lines would be foreign to readers without knowledge of Old English poetry and the oral-poetical tradition; however, it would encourage them to also read it with a pause between verse a and verse b, meaning that the poem’s rhythm and sound is preserved.

Though foreignizing the poem was a desired effect, I did not want it to be inaccessible to modern readers. language that is too archaic was deliberately avoided, and an attempt was made to make the modern syntax as coherent as possible, all whilst maintaining the alliterative verse. One translation which made use of simple language and clear syntax was Ezra Pound’s The Seafarer (see note 3). It is difficult to read and the complex syntax distracts from the poem’s meditative content. The introductory lines of Pound’s The Seafarer display this effect :

May I for my own self song's truth reckon,
Journey's jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.  
(lines 1-3)

One could argue that Pound is preserving the fluid syntax that is often found in Old English poetry; however, arguably, he is foreignizing the poem to such an extent that it is difficult to read, and the meditative tone of the poem is lost to the complexity of the syntactical arrangements . As Niles discusses in his essay on the alliterative verse, Pound’s translation is difficult to digest. He states that the ‘tortured word order’ and ‘bizarre’ vocabulary creates a ‘[distorted] impression of Old English verse’ (see note 4). As mentioned, the translation of the The Ruin is intended to be foreign yet accessible, so coherent syntax was employed , that was not archaic like Pound’s so that the sentences could be read with relative ease. I would also argue that the flow and rhythm of the poem is affected if the word order is not clear and coherent. A lot of emphasis was placed on the oral traditions of Old English verse, hence why I decided to use the alliterative verse. I believe the sentence structures and word orders are vital to the flow of the poem when it is being recited because if the syntax is ‘tortured’ like Pound’s, then it is difficult to understand and interpret the poem from only hearing it aloud.

The vocabulary used is also relatively modern and simple so that it doesn’t ‘distort’ the poem, like Niles suggests of Pound’s poetry. However, preservation of some of the foreign aspects of the Old English language in the content of my translation was desirable , so an array of compound words were implemented to this effect. Craig Williamson states that he often includes compound words in his translations, even if they sound ‘strange’ because it ‘is a part of the act of reading poetry from another language and culture and appreciating the otherness of that [...] poetic vision’ (see note 5). This important because it is an aspect that is still accessible to a reader, and yet it also brings an air of ‘otherness’, as Williamson points out. An attempt was made to directly translate as many of the original compound words as possible, but due to the restrictions that came with using the alliterative verse, some of them had to be altered. For example, ‘ræghār’ and ‘rēadfāh’ (The Ruin, 10) which directly translate to ‘lichen-grey’ and ‘red-stained’ respectively were altered to fit the alliterative verse form. ‘Rēadfāh’ became ‘blood-stained’ and ‘ræghār’ was altered to ‘ghostly-grey’. Whilst the alliterative sound of the line was the ‘b’ sound - created by ‘blood’ and ‘battered’ (The Ruin, 10) - the alteration of ‘red’ to ‘blood’ made ‘lichen-grey’ feel incongruous to the violence created by the alliterating words. hanging it to ‘ghostly-grey’ made the two compound words more compatible, because they both created an air of death and violence. Even though the decision to alter them was initially made so that they would work with the alliterative verse, arguably they work better than the original compound words throughout my poem because they place more emphasis on decay and loss, and such compound words help to convey that.

During the translation process, it was assured that the tempo reflected the content of the poem. To achieve this, hypermetric lines were used, which were also commonly used in Old English poetry. By increasing the number of stressed syllables the tempo is slowed down and the lines become more reflective in tone. An example of this would be the lines:

The lordly builders, long lost and departed,
And the tight grasp of the grave, until a great number of generations
      (lines 7-8)

The first line is translated from ‘waldendwyrhtan, forweorone gelēorene’ (The lordly builders, perished, passed away) (The Ruin, 7). Due to the decision to preserve the alliterative verse, ‘perished’ was altered to ‘lost’ to alliterate with ‘lordly’. However, it didn’t quite convey the exact feeling that ‘perished’ did. An exaggeration of the sense of loss and death was ideal, so it was changed to ‘long lost’. Having both ‘long’ and ‘lost’ stressed brought more attention to the sense of time that had passed. This focus on time is significant to the overall tone of decay and neglect. This is emphasised further by the following line, where the translation reads ‘a great number of generations’ have passed away. Once more, it is placing focus on the neglect of the buildings and their decay due to the death of the ‘lordly builders’. The second line is also considerably longer than most other lines. Initially, it could be perceived as a sacrifice to maintain the alliterative verse; however, upon reflection, I believe it to be vital to the reflective tone of these lines. It slows down the tempo substantially, and by doing this, the reader is forced to reflect on just how much death and decay has occurred during the time that has passed.

As mentioned, the alliteration is vital to Old English due to the tradition of oral poetry. So, the sounds created from orally reciting the poem were an important aspect to the translation. In the line ‘The bulwarks lie broken in bleak and barren places’ (The Ruin trans., 27), the amount of alliterating stressed syllables was increased with the introduction of more ‘b’ sounds. It achieves a harsh and imposing effect, bringing focus to the sense of physical damage caused by the decay, and the extra alliterative syllable further highlights the jarring ‘b’ sound. Another example of the use of alliteration to achieve a desired effect would be in the following lines:

And the roof splits  from  its red tiles,
      Ripped from its arches.  To ruins they have fallen, 
  Shattered to rubble. Once, it was a resting-place for warriors,
         (The Ruin trans., 30-33)

Here, a decision was made to use the same alliteration sound through the three continuous lines. The line ‘Hrōstbēages hrōf. Hryre wong gecrong’ (Ripped from its arches. To ruins they have fallen) (The Ruin, 30) has a strong ‘hr’ alliterative sound and in the translation the mimicry of this rasping ‘r’ sound brings attention to the forceful nature of decay. To further emphasise this, the alliteration through three lines continues and when it is read aloud, the harsh ‘r’ sound is unmistakable and really emphasises the intensity of the decay.

Throughout this commentary, it has been shown why certain decisions were made during my translation of The Ruin and how they contribute to the overall tone of loss I believe the poem conveys.The poem was translated whilst maintaining the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse rules, and in doing so, the mimicry of the sound and rhythm of the original poem. It was important to maintain the form as well as the content because of the contextual Old English tradition of reciting poetry aloud. Preserving the alliterative verse was difficult because of the restricted synonyms in Modern English lexicon; however, the poem was translated faithfully and without compromising the tone and content of the original. The alliterative verse was effective to the tone of the poem as well, through the different alliterative sounds used. An element of the foreign was desired, and so I decided to keep a majority of the compound words found in The Ruin. it was intended that this translation was foreign but still accessible to a modern reader and I believe the combination of the alliterative verse rules and the use of compound words were effective in achieving this ‘middle ground’.


1: Richard Marsden, ‘The Ruin’, The Cambridge Old English Reader, 2nd edn. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) pp. 370-374.

2: John D. Niles, ‘The Old Alliterative Verse Form as a Medium for Poetry’, Mosaic; A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 11, no. 4 (Summer 1978), 19-33 (p.19). <https://www.jstor.org/stable/24777593?seq=11#metadata_info_tab_contents> [accessed 17th of January, 2019].

3: Ezra Pound, ‘The Seafarer’, The Translations of Ezra Pound, ed. by Hugh Kenner, (London: Faber and Faber, 1953) pp. 207-209.

4: John D. Niles, p.22.

5: Craig Williamson, ‘On Translating Old English Poetry’, Beowulf and Other Old English Poems, (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania University Press, 2011) 1-18 (p.8) <https://www-jstor-org.manchester.idm.oclc.org/stable/j.ctt3fhdd8.6?refreqid=excelsior%3A4080823230b02733a34e6a642f500c78&seq=8#metadata_info_tab_contents> [accessed 18th of January, 2019].

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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