Translation of anfloga: J.B.Bessinger, A Short Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon Poetry, 1960, p 3

No infidelities, no liberties taken.

And thanks to William Blake


commentary one

vivere non est necesse, navigare necesse est --- it is not necessary to live, it is necessary to sail.


Two separate but intimately related issues are addressed in this commentary: the transference of a poem from one language to another; and the interpretation of its intrinsic nature and significance. The second issue will normally arise directly from the first, but, in the case of The Seafarer, has perhaps not previously been investigated so deeply. My priority has been to construct a version with the same or almost the same impact on a modern reader or listener as could be imagined for an audience of its own place and time --- in this case the England of over a thousand years ago --- and to achieve this aim with the minimum distortion or recasting of poetic form and content. It is an attempt to recreate the poem the original author might have written had he been alive today. This is a natural and common objective for many translators, but one whose hubris and impossibility of achievement has often been derided. It is currently unfashionable; still, fashions come and go.

Since 1842 The Seafarer has appeared in well over 60 new presentations, prose and verse, partial or complete, in at least eight languages: English, Estonian, German, Italian, Korean, Scottish, Spanish, and Swedish. It lends itself well to the test of translation, for its theme, our apprehension of mortality, has a universal relevance which will last until human beings cease to age and die. Man still toils, suffers, envies, hopes, fears death, and still puts out to sea, although the modern equivalent of the Anglo-Saxon's ship would take him to the outer reaches of the cosmos, and beyond the event horizon. The continuity of the images employed in the poem, over the last four millenia, is the subject of a separate essay [here]. The Seafarer is short, but concentrated, and varied enough to contain a full expression of its theme. Its form is subtle, but can be effectively matched in modern languages --- at least in those with which it shares a common origin --- mainly because it relies on rhythm and alliteration rather than metre and rhyme.

Much of this site is devoted to a close analysis of the source text, and a defence of the solutions applied in the target language. Although my first impulse was to produce an accessible and accurate modern verse equivalent, it soon became plain that what seemed to be a straightforward text was densely packed with a plethora of subtexts charged with multiple meaning. The basic structure of the interpretation, a stanzaic format separating the successive and often abruptly shifting concepts, was hit upon within a few days of starting the project in late March, 1994, but the exact wording and phrasing of each stanza have been subject to constant revision up to the present time. Paul Valéry once remarked that a work of art is never completed, only abandoned; and it is hoped that this venture will not be abandoned before its outcome merits its claim to be a work of art.

Now, June 2007, that I have Valéry's actual words at hand, it is worth citing them:

"I do not know whether it is still the fashion to elaborate poems at length, to keep them between being and non-being, suspended for years in the presence of desire; to nourish doubts, scruples and regrets --- so that a work perpetually resumed and recast gradually takes on the secret importance of an exercise in self-reform.

This way of producing little was not uncommon among poets and some prose writers forty years ago. For them, time did not count; in that, they were rather like gods. Neither the Idol of Beauty nor the superstition of Literary Eternity had yet been destroyed; and belief in Posterity was not entirely abolished. There existed a kind of Ethic of Form that led to infinite labour. Those who devoted themselves to it well knew that the greater the labour, the fewer the people who understand and appreciate it; they toiled for very little --- and, as it were, holily .....

Thus one moves away from the 'natural' or ingenuous conditions of literature and comes little by little to confuse the composition of a work of the mind, which is a finished thing, with the very life of the mind --- which is the power of transformation always in action. One ends by working for work's sake. In the eyes of these lovers of anxiety and perfection, a work is never complete --- a word which to them is meaningless --- but abandoned; and this abandonment, which delivers the work to the flames or to the public (whether it be the result of weariness or the necessity of delivering), is for them a kind of accident comparable to the interruption of a thought annulled by fatigue, an importunate person, or some sensation."

From The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Vol 7, The Art of Poetry, p.140, Concerning Le Cimetière marin, Bollingen Foundation 1958, translated by Denise Folliot. The American spellings have been corrected.

"Finish a work! Complete a picture? How absurd," he [Picasso] once said to a friend. "To finish an object means to finish it, to destroy it, to rob it of its soul, to give to it the 'puntilla' as to the bull in the ring." (Penrose 1981, 474)

The textual analysis is preceded by brief comment on specific aspects which have had to be taken into account. As these topics have been exhaustively studied by scholars elsewhere the remarks are limited to a few salient points. This site is modelled on and inspired by The Seafarer: A Hypertext Edition, a site devised by Corey Owen, 1999. Those seeking a superb summary of the history of Seafarer scholarship, and an introduction to the intricate academic problems connected with it, should visit Corey's website at: [Sadly, this site seems to have been removed. Note: 14/03/2010: I am generously informed that it is now at]



An instructive introduction to the ramifications of poetic translation is Ad Pyrrham, "a polyglot collection of translations" of an ode by the Latin poet Horace, assembled by Ronald Storrs, edited by Charles Tennyson, OUP 1959. This records the existence of 451 translations of Horace's famous ode, into 26 languages, the earliest from about 1620. Six of the collection are from Latin into Latin. (!) 144 versions, representing 25 of the languages, are printed in full. Many new versions have appeared since this publication.

The following well-known quotations have been selected for their relevance to this website:

Examine how your Humour is inclin'd
And which the ruling passion of your mind;
Then, seek a Poet who your way do's bend,
And chuse an Author as you chuse a Friend.
United by this Sympathetick Bond,
You grow Familiar, Intimate and Fond;
Your thoughts, your Words, your Stiles, your Souls agree
No longer his interpreter, but He.

[Wentworth Dillon: An Essay on Translated Verse, 1685.]

Attempts to render a poem in another language fall into three categories:

(1) Paraphrastic: offering a free version of the original, with omissions and additions prompted by the exigencies of form, the conventions attributed to the consumer, and the translator's ignorance. Some paraphrases may possess the charm of stylish diction and idiomatic conciseness, but no scholar should succumb to stylishness and no reader be fooled by it.
(2) Lexical (or constructional): rendering the basic meaning of words (and their order). This a machine can do under the direction of an intelligent bilinguist.
(3) Literal: rendering, as closely as the associative and syntactical capacities of another language allow, the exact contextual meaning of the original. Only this is true translation.
[Vladimir Nabokov; Eugen Onegin; Introduction. p.vii, Vol 1, Bollingen Series LXXII, Princeton University Press, 2nd Printing. 1990.]

It is when the translator sets out to render the "spirit" and not the mere sense of the text, that he begins to traduce his author.
[Vladimir Nabokov; ibid. p.ix]

The first thing I discovered was that the expression "a literal translation" is more or less nonsense.
[Vladimir Nabokov; The Art of Translation, a piece published in The New Republic, 4th August 1941.]


Di Giovanni: I think the work should be looked on as writing in English…. Borges exhorts me to "Fling it aside and be free!" …. anyway, I'm against literal jobs. Some of the greatest translations only touch on the original. Borges: FitzGerald, for example. Di Giovanni: Of course, the freer you are the better you have to be. Borges: I have no Hebrew, but I always think of the King James version as a very fine translation of the Bible. Maybe it's better than a literal translation could be.
[Di Giovanni, N.T.; Halpern, D.; MacShane, F.; Borges on Writing; Allen Lane 1974, p.114.]


FitzGerald took immense trouble to arrive at the literal meaning of each line before he began his process of rearrangement and "mashing together". … The notion that his version of Khayyam is based on a superficial, impressionistic overview of the Persian quatrains, rather than a minute and detailed search for their literal meaning, is therefore quite erroneous.
[Dick Davis, ed: Edward FitzGerald: Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám; Penguin 1989, p.35.]

I suppose very few People have ever taken such Pains in Translation as I have: though certainly not to be literal. But at all Cost, a Thing must live:…. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle.
[W.A.Wright, ed; Letters of Edward FitzGerald; Vol II; Macmillan 1894, p.5; Letter to Cowell , April 27, 1859.]

A translation in any strict sense it is not, but rather, to quote Professor C.E.Norton, "a re-representation of the ideas and images of the original in a form not altogether diverse from their own".
[R.A.Nicholson: "Introduction"; Rubâ'iyât of Omar Khayyâm, translated by Edward FitzGerald; A & C Black 1933, p.29.]


Dick Davis opens the introduction to his edition with: "Edward FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is the most famous verse translation ever made into English". Its immense popular success is indisputable, but it is a rather different poem from the scattered quatrains on which it is based, as well as being in some sense a one-dimensional interpretation of their original import. An Iranian student once remarked to me that FitzGerald's poem was "better" than Khayyam's verses.

Vladimir Nabokov's extraordinary translation of Pushkin's masterpiece is one of the curiosities of literary scholarship. Its prime value would seem to be as a unique aid to the serious student of the Russian language, for a casual reader of his freestanding English version of Eugen Onegin will hardly be rewarded with the aesthetic experience enjoyed by the native Russian. Life is too short for the majority of us to learn an entire language in order to read the great works of literature in their original form. Between 1941 and 1990 Nabokov seems to have changed his mind.

The English translations of the works of the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, composed in Spanish, are widely judged to be exceptionally successful, and they also read excellently well. His translators had the benefit of working closely with their author, and it has been pointed out that Borges in any case had a special feeling for English literature, and was perhaps virtually bilingual before he started writing.

This version of The Seafarer seeks to unite the virtues of the above translations, affirm or reject the opinions voiced, and be clear about which of the opposing principles proposed by Theodore Savory (in The Art of Translation, Cape 1957; new and enlarged edition 1968) it favours:

A translation must:

give the words of the original
read like a translation
be in the style of the translator
read as a contemporary of the original
never add to or omit from the original
translate verse into prose

A translation must:

give the ideas of the original
read like an original work
reflect the style of the original
read as a contemporary of the translator
sometimes add to or omit from the original
translate verse into verse

Quoted by Ernst-August Gutt, Translation and Relevance, Blackwell 1991, p.120

Translation Two

more on translation

"Translators have freely contradicted one another about almost every aspect of their art."
The Art of Translation, by Theodore Savory, The Writer Inc 1968, p.9

There is an excellent essay on translation by T.F.Higham, in The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, edited by T.F.Higham and C.M.Bowra, OUP, 1938. "Assuredly one of the most intelligent anthologies which has ever been published"; Harold Nicolson. It is depressing to reflect on the decline in both scholarship and intelligence since the days when this book was published. The shoddy standards achieved by the OUP in the 21st century are lamentable; as is the widespread dumbing-down of academe in general.

vivere non est necesse, navigare necesse est

[Scyld filled the North with grain, the sea with ships]

Image modified from Fädernas Gudasaga, by Viktor Rydberg

"Pompey ........ was ready to start on his voyage home, (when) a great storm arose upon the sea, and the captains of the ships were reluctant to set sail. But he led the way himself and ordered them to weigh anchor, shouting out to them: "We have to sail, we do not have to live". So, with good fortune assisting his own daring and energy, he filled the sea with ships and the markets with grain. In fact he provided so much of it that there was a surplus left over for the use of people outside Italy, the supply overflowing, as it were from a welling fountain, in all directions."

This was in 56 B.C. Although Plutarch's text is in Greek, Pompey presumably spoke Latin. Apparently the Latin version, something like navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse, first appeared during the Middle Ages. According to Büchmann the form navigare est necesse, vivere necesse non est occurs in Antonius Tudertinus' translation [of Plutarch presumably], Venice, 1478.

Some say the quote served as motto of the Hanseatic League (which operated during the late Middle Ages), which statement appears to be founded on its decorating the gate - around a century ago, at any rate - of the 'Marine Building' in the German city of Bremen.

Fumagalli states that Mussolini, at a conference on aeronautics in Rome in 1923, modified it to volare necesse est.

According to a Dutch dictionary of quotations the phrase also serves as the motto of Rotterdam (which was not a Hanseatic city).

Main sources:

Tosi, Renzo, Dizionario delle sentenze latine e greche (1993)
Büchmann, Georg, & Hofmann, Winfried, Geflügelte Worte (1993)
Fumagalli, Giuseppe, Chi l'ha detto? (1934)

With many thanks to Nigel Rees, "Quote, Unquote", BBC, London; and to his sleuth, Jaap Engelsman, who have supplied me with all this information.

Quotation from Plutarch, Life of Pompey, 50; in The Fall of the Roman Republic, Six Lives by Plutarch, translated by Rex Warner 1958, Guild Publishing/Penguin Books, 1992; also available in translation by A.H.Clough, at Project Gutenberg. [here:].


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