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  • The Polyphony Team

The Wanderer: A Translation with Commentary

by Thomas Hunnisett

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


The Wanderer (1-50)

“Always the lonely one endures,

His mind anxious, awaiting God’s mercy.

Far-roaming the rolling waves;

Stirring the ice-cold sea barehanded.

Travelling his exile’s path - 5

Fate unchanging.”

Thus spoke the earth-stepper;

Recalling miseries of slaughter,

Enemies and dear kinsmen cut down.

“Alone at each dawn 10

I must lament my sorrows.

There are none now living

To whom I would dare plainly express my heart.

I know it is true,

That a man of real value 15

Must bind his thoughts fast,

Must keep close his heart treasures,

Must think as he wants.

But my weary heart cannot resist fate;

Nor my troubled mind provide aid. 20

Therefore as those who are eager for glory

Often bind sadness to their breast

So have I had to hold close counsel.

Careworn, far from friends -

Deprived of homeland. 25

I must bind these thoughts with chains.

It has been thus since long ago;

When I had to bury my liege -

Had to cover my ring-giver with dark earth,

and then, dejected, forever leave that place. 30

I went then winter-sad over the waves.

Homesick I far sought a Lord,

A mead-hall that I might know as my own;

A place for my friendless self to be known,

To be comforted and enticed with pleasures.” 35

The wise know how cruel it is,

To have grief as one’s only companion.

He who treads the exile’s path with frozen spirit,

Lives no gilded life,

Possess no worldly bounty. 40

He remembers the hall-brothers of his youth,

And his gift giving gold-friend,

Who would entertain and feast!

Happiness now all lost.

He knows now he has forgone - 45

All his friendly Lord’s wise teachings.

Then sorrow and sleep combine together,

And the wretched loner is held fast by thoughts of his Lord.

It seems that he embraces him and kisses him,

Lays his head and hands against his knees. 50

Just as in times long past -

As in the days of old-

When he enjoyed the gifts of the throne room.

Then he awakes again, a friendless man.

He sees before him seabirds bathing, 55

Atop the boundless stretch of dark water,

Their feather-tipped wings outspread.

As falling snow and hail mingle to frost.

Then his heart’s wounds grow more grievous,

Paining him as he longs for his beloved. 60

His sorrow is renewed.

The Wanderer is an Old English poem preserved in only one of the four major surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, The Exeter Book, and whilst its basic structure and elegiac tone are widely agreed upon, the exact nature of the speech and number of speakers within the poem remain topics of some debate (see note 1). More generally, as with all Old English poetry, exactly how the piece would have been performed originally and the circumstances surrounding its recording remain murky, although some element of an oral tradition seems likely. With this in mind, any translator approaching the poem must be willing to make certain assumptions and concessions when preparing it for a modern audience; it is these aspects of the translation that my commentary will reflect upon.

Any translator approaching Old English poetry must first decide on what type of translation they are attempting. Different translations will almost always fall somewhere on a scale ranging from literal to figurative; at one extreme would be a word for word transcription of the original into modern english whilst at the other would sit something like W.H. Auden’s 1930 poem ‘The Wanderer’ (see note 2). which, although sharing a title with the Old English elegy, has little else in common beyond its tone and themes. With that in mind, my translation attempts to find something of a ‘middle ground’ through application of modern syntax, punctuation and structure in order to allow a twenty-first century reader to engage with the text whilst retaining elements of the Old English language and tone.

The most obvious visual change between my translation and the original is the usage of stanzas to break up the body of the poem into smaller sections. I did not attempt to adhere to specific rules or a formulaic structure when choosing where to begin or end a stanza. Rather, they were employed in much the same way that a paragraph would be when writing in prose, in order to distinguish separate points or ideas. This serves to make the translation more accessible to a contemporary audience and was a conscious effort to make the text less imposing and difficult to parse. This is in contrast to other translations - such as those by scholars Richard Hamer (see note 3) and Greg Delanty (see note 4) - which, quality of translation aside, can be daunting for an inexperienced reader to tackle due to their unbroken structure. In addition to this, by splitting the poem into stanzas, more emphasis can be placed on certain concepts or images; of particular note here are lines 36-7 of my translation, ‘The wise know how cruel it is, | To have grief as one’s only companion’. By limiting the stanza to just these two lines the lonely image that is conjured through the diction is complemented by the very lines themselves being isolated from the rest of the text.

This is not to say, however, that this method is without flaws and, as Bruce Mitchell notes, applying ‘a system of punctuation designed for an entirely different language’ can contribute to a ‘distorting [of] the flow of OE passages in both prose and poetry’ (see note 5). In this case the application of this style of syntax causes the poem to lose its air of stream of consciousness writing and, as such, an element of its dramatic impact is sacrificed. In addition the incorporation of stanzas further separates the audience from the oral tradition from which the poem appears to stem; as such, certain elements of the alien or different - which may have drawn a reader to the poem in the first place - are also lost in translation.

However, the use of stanzas is not the only significant ‘modernising’ of the poem that I have undertaken. As previously mentioned, the issues of how many speakers are active and which lines can be attributed to which are some of the most fertile grounds for debate amongst scholars. By enclosing lines 1-6 and 10-35 in quotation marks, it is made clearer which lines should be attributed to the poet, which to the ‘eardstapa’, (earth-stepper) (The Wanderer, 6) - who I consider to be one of three speakers within the poem - and which to the ‘anhaga’ (lonely one) (The Wanderer, 1) referred to in the opening line. Burton Raffel uses quotation marks to similar effect in his translation of the poem to make his interpretation clearer. He does this by enclosing lines 8-85 and hence making the distinction between the poet’s initial introductory lines and the monologue which he assigns to another speaker - a ‘lonely traveller’ - more obvious (see note 6). Reading The Wanderer as featuring three speakers is perhaps less common than the interpretations that favour one or two speakers but it is not without precedent. Most notably it was the interpretation favoured by J.R.R. Tolkien in his notes on the poem wherein he writes ‘the eardstapa is not identical with the anhaga of line 1: he is a similar case introduced as an illustration’ (see note 7). My translation distinguishes lines 1-6 and 10-35 via punctuation giving each of these speakers a more clearly defined place within the text. Importantly however an element of the uncertainty which surrounds the original is retained as one could still read my translation as referring to only two speakers and conflate the ‘anhaga’ with the ‘eardstapa’. It seems unlikely that a definitive answer to the question of how many speakers are present within the poem will ever be reached and as such retaining the ability to interpret the poem in various different ways was an important consideration.

Moving beyond the general choices in punctuation and grammar that are used we can now begin to scrutinize the language employed and more closely analyse the translation on a line by line basis. An attempt was made to set the tone of the translation from the very beginning rendering the line ‘Oft him ānhaga are gebīdeð’ (The Wanderer, 1) as ‘Always the lonely one endures’; although a verbatim translation would perhaps read something like ‘Often the solitary one experiences’. Firstly in choosing to change ‘Oft’ from the more literal translation ‘Often’ to ‘Always’ this translation does, unfortunately, do away with the element of litotes which is present in the original and hence could be seen as a detraction from the original work. However the change does emphasise the inescapable nature of the exile of the ‘ānhaga’ and hence the remainder of the stanza is lent more of an air of finality; the implied hope that ‘Often’ would communicate to a contemporary reader is done away with. This sense of finality and hopelessness is further reinforced by the rendering of ‘gebīdeð’ as ‘endures’; this was partly inspired by Greg Delanty who opens his translation of the poem with the line ‘The loner holds out for grace’ (see note 8) which I felt effectively communicated an image of an exile grimly awaiting his fate.

This concept of inexorable ‘wyrd’ (fate) (The Wanderer, 5) is not uncommon within Old English writings; it is mentioned in Beowulf several times, notably when Beowulf himself remarks prior to his battle with Grendel ‘Gaéð á wyrd swá hío scel’ (Fate goes always as it must) (Beowulf, 455) and seems reflective of the more fatalistic Anglo-Saxon understanding of temporal existence. Although it should be noted that the representation of ‘wyrd’ in the distinctly Christian texts of Beowulf and The Wanderer is, as B. J. Timmer writes, not that of a ‘blind and hostile Fate ruling men's lives’ but rather ‘inevitability [...] made subject to God’ (see note 9). It is perhaps because of this distinctly Anglo-Saxon mindset that this theme is so fascinating and the final line of the first stanza of my translation is an attempt to communicate this. By separating the Old English line ‘wadan wræclāstas. Wyrd bið ful ārǣd’ (travelling paths of exile. Fate fully determined) (The Wanderer, 5) and assigning the second verse its own line emphasis is placed upon the significance and irrevocable nature of fate. Similarly I chose to shorten the line to simply read ‘fate unchanging’ rather than the wordier but more linguistically accurate ‘fate fully determined’, in order to make this point more concise and impactful. Again, a debt of gratitude is owed to another scholar, Richard Hamer, who translates the phrase as ‘fate is relentless’, (see note 10) an interpretation I found powerful in its simplicity and wished to emulate.

As previously mentioned one of the goals of this translation was to attempt to communicate elements of the original Old English diction to modern readers. One particular idiosyncrasy of Old English is the usage of kennings, compound expressions with specific metaphorical meanings such as ‘hron-rād’ (whale-road) (Beowulf, 10) meaning the sea. None of the translations that I have already made reference to seemed particularly concerned with retaining this device (see note 11). This surprised me because, as James Rankin notes, kennings ‘constitute an important element in the style of Anglo-Saxon poetry’ (see note 12) and as such one way I attempted to communicate Old English diction was through employing this device.

One particular instance where this is shown in my translation is line 42 where the Old English ‘goldwine’ (The Wanderer, 35) has been translated literally as ‘gold-friend’ where perhaps a more suitable modern word would be ‘lord’ or ‘ruler’. In keeping this element of the original not only is a certain aspect of the unfamiliar and alien nature of Old English communicated but one is also required to stop for a moment to ponder and deduce the meaning of the phrase; almost as though it is, in and of itself, a small riddle. In addition, this example in particular, imparts a certain amount of knowledge to the reader regarding the nature of the relationship between lord and retainer in Anglo-Saxon culture. A similar effect is achieved in line 29 of my translation where the same phrase - ‘goldwine’ (The Wanderer, 22) - is translated as ‘ring-giver’ which is itself a literal translation of another Anglo-Saxon kenning ‘béahgifan’ (The Battle of Maldon, 290) with a very similar meaning. Both of these examples communicate to the reader that a lord, rather than being an aloof figure whom one is forced to serve - which a modern understanding of the term might imply - is someone who you are individually devoted to and who distributes gifts to you in return. This suggests a much more personal relationship and helps a contemporary reader understand why the death of the lord is of such central importance to the ‘anhaga’ and directly leads to his exile.

Another important aspect of Anglo-Saxon culture which I attempted to communicate throughout the translation was the symbolic importance of the wilderness and, in particular, the role of the sea as a place of singular loneliness. Banishment was one of the worst punishments that could be meted out to an Anglo-Saxon and the true severity of the situation is difficult for a modern reader to comprehend. In order to emphasise the miserable nature of the exile of the ‘anhaga’ I took special care to ensure that no modern romantic notions of the wild or wilderness would be displayed in the translation.

The penultimate stanza of the translation best reflects this. Here the sea is described in language which - whilst matching the tone of the Old English - places more emphasis on the barren nature of the landscape surrounding the exile. Whereas the original simply describes ‘fealwe wēgas’ (dusky waves) (The Wanderer, 46) the translation takes this image slightly further instead referring to ‘the boundless stretch of dark water’. The reasons for translating ‘wēgas’ as ‘water’ instead of the more exact ‘waves’ is to discourage any image of grandiose seascapes. Rather the image I wished to convey was one of a flat, dark, plain of water stretching as far as the eye can sea, disturbed only by the motion of seabirds upon its surface, a perfect reflection of the absolute loneliness of exile.

In addition to the description of the sea itself my translation also preserves the element of pathetic fallacy that is present in the Old English. The line ‘hrēosan hrīm ond snāw, hagle gemenged’ (falling frost and snow, mingled with hail) (The Wanderer, 48) is rendered as ‘falling snow and hail mingle to frost’ which - whilst remaining very close to the original - changes the verb ‘gemenged’ to the present tense ‘mingle’ hence creating an image of the wanderer himself becoming frost covered due to the inclement weather. This is another image that is seen elsewhere in Old English poetry, namely The Wife’s Lament, wherein the speaker describes her lover being ‘storme behrīmed’ (frost-coated by the storm) (The Wife’s Lament, 48) and the phrasing of my translation is a conscious attempt to conjure this distinctly Anglo-Saxon image in the mind of the reader.

To conclude then, the stated aim of my translation was to attempt to transcribe the Old English diction and tone of The Wanderer into a form that would be appealing to a modern reader. I was aided in this by the translations of other scholars; I did however seek to achieve something unique by applying modern forms of grammar and punctuation whilst using phrases and imagery that, if not adapted from the source text itself, would be representative of the themes and motifs present in Anglo-Saxon literature and culture as a whole.



1: Stanley B. Greenfield, ‘“The Wanderer”: A Reconsideration of Theme and Structure’, The Journal of English and German Philology (Hereafter JEGP) (Vol. 50, No. 4, 1951) pp. 451-65.

Robert Bjork, ‘Sundor Æt Rune: The Voluntary Exile of the Wanderer’, Neophilologus (Vol. 73, No. 1, 1989) pp. 119-29.

Robert Lumiansky, ‘The Dramatic Structure of the Old English Wanderer’, Neophilologus (Vol. 34, No. 1, 1950) pp. 104-12.

2: W. H. Auden, Collected Poems ed. by Edward Mendelson (London: Penguin Random House, 2007), p. 62.

3: ‘The Wanderer’, trans. Richard Hamer, in A Choice of Anglo Saxon Verse (Hereafter ASV) (London: Faber, 2006), pp. 176-85.

4: ‘The Wanderer’, trans. Greg Delanty, in The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, ed. by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto (hereafter TWE) (London: Norton, 2011), pp. 57-66.

5: Bruce Mitchell, ‘The Dangers of Disguise: Old English Texts in Modern Punctuation’, The Review of English Studies (Vol. 31, No. 124, 1980) pp. 385-413 (pp. 25-6).

6: ‘The Wanderer’, trans. Burton Raffel, in Poems and Prose from the Old English, ed. by Burton Raffel and Alexandra H. Olson (Hereafter PPOE) (London: Yale University Press, 1998) pp. 7-9.

7: Stuart D. Lee, ‘J.R.R. Tolkien and The Wanderer: From Edition to Application’, Tolkien Studies (Vol. 6, No. 1, 2009) pp. 189-211 (p. 200).

8: ‘The Wanderer’, trans. Greg Delanty in TWE (p. 57).

9: B. J. Timmer, ‘Wyrd in Anglo-Saxon Prose and Poetry’, Neophilologus (Vol. 26, No. 1, 1941) pp. 24-33 (p. 25).

10: ‘The Wanderer’, trans. Richard Hamer in ASV (p. 176).

11: ‘The Wanderer’, trans. Greg Delanty in TWE.

‘The Wanderer’, trans. Richard Hamer in ASV.

‘The Wanderer’, trans. Burton Raffel in PPOE.

12: James Walter Rankin, ‘A Study of the Kennings in Anglo-Saxon Poetry’, JEGP (Vol. 8, No. 3, 1909) pp. 357-422 (p. 359).

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