The Seafarer
after twenty years



Most English translations of an entertaining novel by Alexander Dumas, serialised in 1845, entitled Vingt ans après, render that title as "Twenty years after". I remembered having read the book, approximately 65 years ago, as titled "Twenty years on"; but among the 64 copies (or is it 935 copies ?) currently advertised on ABE books there is only one instance of "Twenty years on". The book is described as used, but its condition as new. There are also two copies titled "Twenty years later", published in America 1889 and 1958. To be different, I thought I'd use "after twenty years" as a subtitle, above. This was mainly to demonstrate that there are at least four acceptably rational ways of translating three French words. I suppose I actually prefer "Twenty years on".

But that isn't the reason I've decided to add yet another page to my ruminations on The Seafarer. This time I've been prompted by the discovery of a ludicrous internet assertion that "many translations of 'The Seafarer' exist, but the best are those of R. K. Gordon, S. A. J. Bradley, and Richard Marsden". This seemed such a ridiculous statement --- positively barmy in fact --- that some answer was called for. The translations by Gordon and Bradley are really not very good at all; and although Marsden makes several sensible remarks, his verbal glosses are surprisingly inaccurate.

"Much of the literature of translation is not about errors in translation; it is about errors in understanding the original." Wise words from E.Bruce Brooks. Here are some more: learn your language; that is, your own language, as well as the languge you are translating from.. Some translators have an indifferent mastery of both. But that could not be said of Smithers. His mastery of Germanic was perfectly sufficient for him to recognise how fatuous the translation of anfloga as "one-flier" had to be, and to re-identify the word as the equivalent of an attacking or on-flying death-chooser, or valkyrie. It followed that he also fully settled the true and basic significance of onwæl weg. Unfortunately he had insufficient mastery of Swedish, or Old Scandinavian, which would have revealed to him the full meaning of the poem's crucial passage.

So near and yet so far.

There is no gainsaying that these lines, 58-64, are, verily, the central crux of The Seafarer, which happens to consist of 125 lines --- if an extended "Amen" is counted as the last line. The dead central line of the poem is therefore line 62 or 63. In those two lines Smithers, by the end of his paper, nails the meaning of anfloga, and of wælweg. But he misses the meaning of unwearnum, misled perhaps by Schuchardt, and some earlier translators. The word unwearnum was ludicrously rendered as das heisst gierig (eager, greedy, covetous) by Richard Schuchardt, in a thesis titled Die Negation in Beowulf, published in 1910 and uncritically followed by not quite everybody else ever since. Smithers also signally fails, like everyone else, to realise that hyge is not a detachable entity, though even modern minds have frequently been known to wander. See here for hyge. Or here. Or specifically here. The true meanings of hweteð and eft also seem to escape him. To which may be added sceatas.

Hopes were raised, not long ago, by learning of a tome concerned with cognition in Anglo-Saxon literature. Not that I've ever known exactly what cognition is meant to mean. Hopes were dashed, however, and my heart sank like a stone, when I read the author's translation of The Seafarer's central crux, as set out below:.

"Publish or Perish" is the beanery motto. To get published, they must be dull, and stupid and harmless.
Marshall McLuhan: Toronto's singular son

Not the slightest effort has been made to penetrate the essence of these lines. Not quite every word has been mis-translated, but they all might as well have been. The following words are wrongly glossed: therefore, turns, confines, chest, sea-flood, over, homeland, expanses, comes back, lone flier, incites, irresistibly, whale-road, over, expanses, ocean. Perhaps chest is not too bad, even reasonably good, in its ambiguity. See here. An incisive review in RES, Vol 64, No 267, exposes the failings of the author, an alumnus [or should that be alumna ?] of Toronto, the Mecca of OE [ugh] incomprehension. The reviewer, Mark Griffith, a member of a reasonably respectable and reputable seat of learning, points out that the study contains a quantity of "verbal junk", and lists several highly amusing examples. It "raises questions about the precise meanings of key Old English words" ... "some of these renditions are arguable (or on occasion contentious), but all are necessarily limited ..." Of what value is a discussion of any aspect of Anglo-Saxon literature, when the original is catastrophically misunderstood ?

The cognition book was published in 2011. Its content appears to overlap, to a certain extent, with Richard North's analysis of Christian Words and Pagan Meanings, published in 1991. I can hardly doubt that Harbus had read North, but I'm not immediately about to pay £50 to find out. Compare North's version, p 101, of the crux, below:

There is no physical "movement of faculties of mind or spirit". None whatsoever. Odin has ravens, yes, but man does not. Odin's raven Munin helps the god cast his mind back; his raven Hugin helps him cast his mind forward. I cast my mind back on things past, and I cast my mind forward in anticipation of things to come. This has nothing to do with any "out-of-the-body" experience. The seafarer anticipates his death, and the deaths of his listeners.

The poet's mind does not "materialise" into a "flier". This flier does not "come back". "Eft" means "then". The flier is not "lonely", in sympathy with the lonely seafarer. This flier is the on-flying death-bird, which is also ravenous and yelling. The word, hyge, is not the fylgja nor the hamingja, whatever Strömbäck or Winterbourne may want to believe. It does not require a definite article, which confers upon it a personality it does not possess.

The reason I include North at this point, is because in the footnote on page 91 of his Pagan Words, he actually brushes with the truth, in mentioning the Modern Swedish word håg, whose meaning is identical with Anglo-Saxon hyge. North devotes an inordinate number of pages of puzzlement in seeking to define hyge, which would never have occurred to any Swedish speaker currently familiar with the everyday idiomatic use of håg. The excerpts below should demonstrate to Anglo-American Anglo-Saxonists that analysis of Anglo-Saxon poetic texts without a deep and intimate understanding of the Modern and Old Scandinavian languages will doom them continually to stumble in the academic wilderness. But I doubt that it will. Elof Hellquist, of Lund, is the author of the piece on the left; I've remembered where the other piece comes from --- obviously Bosworth's Anglo-Saxon dictionary, 1838.

Before taking a swift look at what Frans Diekstra had to say in 1971, I am minded at this point to insert my own interpretation, as it has evolved over the last twenty years, of these crucial lines. I am also reminded of what I'd ventured to propose in my 1995 letter to Olof Arngart, in Lund. I see I'd then already suggested using håg. Several words have nonetheless been altered from the first published, incomplete English version.


Reckless of that, my thought is thrown
beyond my heart's cage now. Hot hunger
keenly comes again; my mind is cast
upon the sea swell, over the whale's world,
widely to course creation's coast.

The lone call wails above on wing:
it steels the unarmed soul to start
across the waters where the whale sways.



Reckless of that, my thought is thrown
beyond my heart's cage now. My mind is cast
upon the sea swell, over the whale's world
widely to course creation's coast:
a closing rapture keenly calls

The raptor wails above on wing
it steels the unarmed soul to start
across the waters where the whale sways


What boots it to repeat, how Time is slipping underneath our feet ... and Lo, the Bird of Time is on the wing

There are two kinds of everything; and also two kinds of poetry, or verse. One kind is sometimes called metaphysical, practised by Marvell, Donne and Herbert, as well as later poets. It is relatively brief, highly compressed, concentrated, distilled, and communicates a great deal of matter in comparatively few words. The other kind sprawls, tends to vacuity and repetition, says very little, often at inordinate length, and might be categorised as a form of verbal diarrhoea. Examples are Pound's Cantos and Ginsberg's Howl, and the works of Walt Whitman. William Blake practised both kinds. The Seafarer belongs to the first kind.

The English version offered above, and elsewhere on this site, is not perfect, but it is infinitely more faithful to its source than any similar effort, before or since. It follows the precepts given below by Theodore Savory. It uses 8 lines in place of 7; and 55 words in place of 37. It is constrained to alliterate, and aspires to rhythm and occasional internal assonance. It evades an accurate translation for holma; and retains the undoubted pun in [h]wælweg. The ambiguity would be present in the Swedish equivalent: valväg, death and whale way. The odious hyphen between sea and swell, arbitrarily inserted by an ill-read American editor in 1996, has been removed. The line was intended to echo Eliot's Death by Water. The whale, for the Anglo-Saxon, was a creature apt to drag a sailor down to his demise. This version assigns the yell, as wail, to the ravenous raptor. The Anglo-Saxon lines are positively crammed with meaning, and their English equivalent attempts to match them. But more work is indicated.

More work has now been invested, 2018, thus:

Anon the avid raptor wails on wing
that steels the naked soul to start
beyond the billows on the death-way

The death-way/whale-way suspect pun has been abandoned; wæl means death.

Wayne Leman: "Accuracy is measured by the degree to which users of a translation get the same meaning from it which the original text had." But how does one measure these degrees ?

It might be thought natural to assume that a translator's overriding priority would be, first, to determine the precise meaning of the original text. However, for the majority of translators, this seems to be quite unnecessary, and very many of them apparently consider the original author's aims to be of minimal importance. Robert Graves pointed this out, with reference to Ezra Pound, in 1953. See here for Dr Syntax and Mr Pound

Below is a short selection of the thoughts of F.N.M.Diekstra on the chimerical problems posed by the seafarer, excerpted from Neophilologus, Vol 55, Issue No 1, December 1971. Decidedly off-piste, I'd say.

cuckoo is right

Below is an short selection of the thoughts of M.R.Godden on the chimerical problems posed by the seafarer, excerpted from Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England, 1985.

true; it does seem rather odd
See here for The Meaning of ferð.

Why do I feel as though I'm Christopher Columbus addressing the Flat Earth Society ?
Why do the beanery suits so closely resemble other bureaucratic suits most everywhere else?
Why does the cautiously career-minded Anglo-Saxonist play follow-my-leader ?

Below are three interesting words chosen from È.A.Makaev's Glossary of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions, 1965/1996, Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien. A beautiful translation from the Russian.

Confirmation of the ancestry of an as "on", with an intriguing comment about the deviant behaviour of the proclitic preposition. Fascinating suggestion, if tenuous, about the possibly magical role played by the gowk. Modern Swedish gala tends to mean crow like a cock rather than yell like anything. But, curiously, it can also be used of the cuckoo, according to my modern Prisma Swedish-English dictionary. Could Sieper have known as much ?

Those contemplating undertaking a translation might like to read the sum of what is said by Wayne Leman, here, as well as by E.Bruce Brooks, here. Nothing discredits academics more than when they scratch backs and lick boots. Without a critical approach, guided by integrity, all enquiry is worthless.

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour ! Whom resist, steadfast in the faith ...... The gods themselves contend in vain against stupidity, but intrepid resistance is indicated. Silence implies assent, and only a base man will ignore outspoken idiocy, even when its utter inanity appears to be recommending disregard.

The following guidelines, included by Theodore Savory in The Art of Translation, Cape 1957; new and enlarged edition 1968, are the ones I favour.

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

David Burns noted: "historians seem to dismiss, or not wish to pursue"
the link between Swedish and Anglo-Saxon.

"The greater the labour, the fewer the people who understand and appreciate it". Paul Valéry, 1871 - 1945.

"Every great advance ..... has involved the absolute rejection of authority." T.H. Huxley

" I have been obliged to content myself through life with saying what I mean in the plainest of plain language,
than which, I suppose, there is no habit more ruinous to a man's prospects of advancement."
T.H.Huxley, Autobiography, p 1, Lectures & Essays, Watts & Co, published 1931.

"A" is the same as the letter "A"
Ludwig Wittgenstein

See here for the Central Crux. ll.58-68.

essays & papers
commentaries: one, two, three [60 plus other versions], four, five, six
annotation         main general index
more on unwearnum         more and more on unwearnum
Seafarer: Veracity & Fidelity
Seafarer Birds         Seafarer Cuckoo

nabokovian butterfly

See here for anfloga BC.

""Scholars belong to guilds held together by common opinions, attitudes, and methods … innovation is welcome only when it is confined to surface details and does not modify the structure as a whole." Cyrus H.Gordon

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2015, 2018

Twenty Years On by Alexander Dumas. Published by Heron. Quantity Available: 1. From: Cuffern Books.
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