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

back to commentary one

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Translation of unwearn: Heinrich Leo, Angelsächsisches Glossar, 1872, columns 15, 16

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

Seafarer Veracity & Fidelity
Good is the Life ending Faithfully
Ignoring pertinent information makes one an idiot. Ethan Indigo Smith, 2014, The Complete Patriot's Guide, p 41.

scanned extract from Heinrich Leo. click also for cruxnotes.

A gifted polymath, too famous to mention by name, once asserted that only two things can be counted certainties: death and taxes. There are some who would dispute this: John Donne, for one; and probably the Seafarer, for another. There are other certainties, even more dependable than these. It has, for instance, been established, beyond all shadow of mathematical doubt, that precisely half the population of the globe is of below average intelligence.

Numerous years of studious concentration on the Anglo-Saxon language have all but totally convinced me that a large section of this under-endowed population is occupied in Anglo-Saxonist scholarship, on the continent of North America. On the evidence of their achievements, since about 1910, the year of the first truly grotesque mistranslation of The Seafarer, committed by J.D.E.Spaeth, these people would have found much more useful employment as lumberjacks, cowboys, or college oarsmen. But let us not dwell on this.

Instead, look above for a 100% accurate translation of unwearn, accompanied by a pointed reference to Seefahrer, line 63, produced by a European scholar, revered and true, in 1872, soon 150 years ago.

This word, unwearn, spelt un-vearn by Leo, occupies the dead centre of the Anglo-Saxon poem called The Seafarer; and unless it is correctly understood the whole purpose and meaning of the poem will be missed. The Central Crux of the Seafarer is the title of a paper originally published in Studia Neophilologica, in 1996. My, how time flies --- here we are now, countless years later! Anno Domini 2012 marked my discovery of the following stupefyingly obtuse comment on the site translation: "This one's very poetic, but not very faithful." Enough to make one weep. The translator has "taken an awful lot of liberties with the original text, all in the name of poetic effect." Hell's jingling bells and holy trousers ! Good God ! Why should they mock poor fellows thus ? 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...... True, the gods themselves contend in vain against stupidity, but in these dire and doleful circumstances, resistance is indicated. Silence implies assent, and only a base man will ignore an outspoken affront, even when its utter inanity appears to be recommending disregard.

The Central Crux was written after my initial stab at decoding the language of The Seafarer, and following my first attempt to transport its import into a Modern English equivalent. The impulse to embark on this project had arisen as a result of the sense of nausea experienced by trying earnestly to ingest the disgusting concoction served up by E.Pound. His shabby massacre, or butchery, of the sincere and relatively accurate version composed by Lola LaMotte Iddings had been shown to me many years earlier, by Peter Rawley, when we were both reading Anglo-Saxon at BNC in 1959. I remember feeling I'd been kicked in the head by a deranged storm-trooper --- this was, after all, the man who on 8th May 1945 had told the Philadelphia Record that Adolf Hitler was "a Jeanne d'Arc, a saint" --- but I recovered, and put it out of my mind until almost 40 years had passed. See here for a fuller analysis.

In the early 1990s, at that time still totally uninfluenced by any other versions, or any of the semi-ridiculous academic commentaries on the original Anglo-Saxon poem, it seemed to me that if I translated it myself I couldn't produce anything worse than Pound's near-gibberish. I now realise that I found myself instinctively in agreement with Mr Leman's maxim: "Accuracy is measured by the degree to which users of a translation get the same meaning from it which the original text had." The prime objective, therefore, was to produce a text as faithful as possible to the original text --- one in which no liberties of any material kind would be taken. It might be thought natural to assume that a translator's overriding priority would be to determine the precise meaning of the original text. However, in Pound's "translations" (refractions ?) this seems to have been quite unnecessary, and he, along with many of his admirers, apparently considered the original author's aims to be of virtually no importance. Robert Graves pointed this out in 1953.

Interjection, 17 April 2016. Late in the day. It should probably be noted that the tradition of grotesque mistranslations of The Seafarer was actually started by Benjamin Thorpe, in 1842. His effort is already bad, so perhaps it is a little unfair to blame Spaeth, Pound and the rest for their inanities. Thorpe seems to have mis-transcribed and mis-read the Anglo-Saxon in these crucial lines.

"Suddenly" is also quite wrong, of course.

Selected translations from Clark Hall's Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, 1894
wæl obviously implies death

The Anglo-Saxon text addresses itself to a person about to embark on a one-way voyage, for reasons either of age, illness or, perhaps, impending combat. The author may be thinking of himself, or of his audience. In either case he, or they, will inevitably be vulnerable in undertaking this passage, and are advised to make preparations. "Get yourself prepared for judgement day" reduces the message to six words, and these are powerfully presented to open-eared listeners, here and/or here. 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. [NB] The grammatical fact is that unwearn, as perfectly well understood by Heinrich Leo, is an adjective, strong and singular, and appears here in what Ida Gordon called the dative case of attendant circumstances. It indicates a defenceless, unwary, or uncautious man. Uncautious warrior was perceptively suggested, as applicable to the unfortunate Hondsciō in Beowulf, by J.J.Conybeare in 1826, soon 200 years ago. Significantly, Klaeber's Beowulf, in 2009, edited by Fulk, Bjork and Niles, scrupulously evades any note on this word (line 741), and glosses it as "without hindrance, irresistibly" or "eagerly, greedily" (Schuchardt 1910: 14 Hoops), and then glosses wearn as "hindrance, refusal". Ludicrous, but perhaps it was Klaeber's fault.

So why might this person be uncautious, unaware, or, better, vulnerable? Because, sooner or later, he will be set upon by the Bird of Death, the anfloga, the approaching, attacking flier. This site's translations of both unwearnum and anfloga were decided upon at least five years before the discovery of their existence in the glosses given by Leo and Bessinger, but it has naturally been gratifying to find these endorsements. Michael Alexander remarks, in The Poetic Achievement of Ezra Pound, 1979, p 68, that "I could not offer a universally acceptable account of [The Seafarer] without qualification at many points, though the bulk of the scholarship has been done." Oddly enough, although Alexander struggles manfully to understand the poem for at least 13 pages, 66-79, he fails to discover that "the scholarship" had indeed been done, in 1960 and 1872, but these crucial insights had escaped his notice. It also escaped him what Pound was playing at, besides the rip-off of the vocabulary used by Iddings. This is well demonstrated on a fairly recent blog, contributed May 31, 2007, by Alan Watson, here. It is made very clear that Pound was, apart from exploiting Iddings, performing a word-for-word translation, although inventively mistranslating words if they didn't appeal to him. Besides which, as Wayne Leman points out, "Word-for-word translation ..... often reduces [communicative] accuracy." In The oral text of Ezra Pound's "The Seafarer", in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, 1961, 47:2, 173-177, J.B.Bessinger concludes by noting that Ezra's "poem has survived on merits that have little to do with those of an accurate translation".

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

scanned extract from J.B.Bessinger
What is a "faithful" translation?
do not unreservedly believe what you may read if & when you click here
be critical: reserve judgement
it will quite possibly be pretentious rubbish

In 1941, one of the world's most talented linguists, translators and authors, Vladimir Nabokov, wrote: "The first thing I discovered was that the expression 'a literal translation' is more or less nonsense." This contention occurs in The Art of Translation, published in The New Republic, 4th August 1941. This date was erroneously given elsewhere on this site, for about a decade, as 8th April 1941. This has now been corrected.

By 1990 the roguish genius had apparently swung a full 180° in the opposite direction, claiming 'literal translation' --- the exact contextual meaning of the original --- as the only form of true translation. Is it worth trying to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory statements? Not really.

Vladimir was given to strong, healthy, robust, opinions; and one of the most invigorating of these was his condemnation of: ''the pretentious nonsense of Mr. Pound, that total fake." That opinion is worth repeating: ''the pretentious nonsense of Mr. Pound, that total fake." I forget who it was that described Pound as "half genius, half charlatan". An interesting verdict, but only half right. Pound is reported by E.Fuller Torrey, in The Roots of Treason, 1984, p 44, as having announced in 1908 to William Carlos Williams: " I happen to be a genius". He said this more than once, and also proclaimed that he was the greatest poet since Dante. Anyone who wants to know the be-all and end-all about Pound should read Fuller Torrey from cover to cover.

Another authority, Wayne Leman, who has given the matter serious thought, has this to say: "Accuracy is measured by the degree to which users of a translation get the same meaning from it which the original text had." I believe I have mentioned this already, but there is no harm in repeating it, in case you weren't paying attention. Leman also asserts, correctly, that "Word-for-word translation does not necessarily increase [communicative] accuracy. In fact, it often reduces [communicative] accuracy." My italics.

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. The only point on which I would disagree with Mr Leman is his instruction: "Do not question anyone's intelligence, spirituality or motives." If these merit questioning, they should be questioned, savagely. Nothing discredits academics more than when they scratch backs and lick boots. Without a critical approach, guided by integrity, all enquiry is worthless.

It is also advisable to be clear about which of the opposing principles proposed by Theodore Savory (in The Art of Translation, Cape 1957; new and enlarged edition 1968) you favour, before you even start to pass on your judgement of the interpretation of a literary work from a different place and time:

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

Translation Two
more on translation

Now, for a constructive exercise, compare, contrast, and comment on the translations below

THE longe love that in my thought doeth harbar
And in myn hert doeth kepe his residence,
Into my face preseth with bold pretence
And therein campeth, spreding his baner.
She that me lerneth to love and suffre
And will that my trust and lustes negligence
Be rayned by reason, shame, and reverence,
With his hardines taketh displeasure.
Wherewithall unto the hertes forrest he fleith,
Leving his enterprise with payne and cry,
And there him hideth and not appereth.
What may I do when my maister fereth
But in the felde with him to lyve and dye?
For goode is the liff ending faithfully.
Wyatt [1503 - 1542]
AMOR, che nel penser mio vive e regna,
E 'l suo seggio maggior nel mio cor tźne,
Talor armato ne la fronte vźne:
Ivi si loca, et ivi pon sua insegna.
Quella ch' amare e sofferir ne 'nsegna,
E vōl che 'l gran desio, l' accesa spene
Ragion, vergogna e reverenza affrene,
Di nostro ardir fra sé stessa si sdegna.
Onde Amor paventoso fugge al core,
Lasciando ogni sua impresa, e piange e trema;
Ivi s'asconde, e non appar piś fōre.
Che poss' io far, temendo il mio signore,
Se non star seco infin a l' ora estrema?
Ché bel fin fa chi ben amando more.
Petrarch [1304 - 1374]
LOVE, that liveth and reigneth in my thought,
That built his seat within my captive breast ;
Clad in the arms wherein with me he fought,
Oft in my face he doth his banner rest.
She, that taught me to love, and suffer pain;
My doubtful hope, and eke my hot desire
With shamefaced cloak to shadow and restrain,
Her smiling grace converteth straight to ire.
And coward Love then to the heart apace
Taketh his flight; whereas he lurks, and plains
His purpose lost, and dare not shew his face.
For my Lord's guilt thus faultless bide I pains.
Yet from my Lord shall not my foot remove :
Sweet is his death, that takes his end by love.
Surrey [1517-1547]

Although neither of the versions by Wyatt or Surrey could be called unfaithful, note the much greater effectiveness of Wyatt's version.
Wyatt's obvious superiority is largely because of his mastery of rhythm, pace and feeling.
Wyatt was writing in Old English, of course. Some 60 years later William Shakespeare [1564 - 1616] would be writing in Early American.

Next, turn to a mistranslation, tragic and multiple, of The Seafarer's central crux; and compare it here with the fidelity of the site version.
Always keep firmly in mind that Anglo-Saxon is NOT "Old English". The language is no more English than Latin is "Old Italian".

Foržon nu min hyge hweorfeš
ofer hrežerlocan
min modsefa
mid mereflode
ofer hwęles ežel
hweorfeš wide
eoržan sceatas
cymeš eft to me
gifre ond grędig
gielleš anfloga
hweteš onwęl weg
hrežer unwearnum [l 63]
ofer holma gelagu
Anglo-Saxon text [35 words]
And now my spirit twists
out of my breast,
my spirit
out in the waterways,
over the whale's path
it soars widely
through all the corners of the world --
it comes back to me
eager and unsated;
the lone-flier screams,
urges onto the whale-road
the unresisting heart
across the waves of the sea.
Name protected [53/55 words]

Foržon nu does not mean "And now". In this context foržon implies "yet". Hyge means "thought", not "spirit". Hweorfeš means "throws", rather than "twists", although "turns away" is acceptable. Ofer means "beyond". Modsefa does not mean "spirit", but rather suggests "state of mind". Mereflode implies "sea swell" [see TSE], not "water way". The hwęles ežel is the whale's "domain", or "element", not its "path". Hweorfeš no more means "soars" than "twists". For eoržan sceatas see here. Cymeš eft to me means "then comes to me", not "back to me": click here, to see how schmoop's chosen translation has been influenced by Benjamin Thorpe. Thorpe gives "eager and greedy" for gifre ond grędig. "Unsated" seems to be a substitute, would-be poetic but highly inaccurate, for "greedy". For anfloga see above. Hweteš cannot mean "urges". Węl weg means "death-way". Hrežer barely means "heart". For unwearnum see above. Gelagu does not mean "waves". In spite of what the dictionaries say, "sea" is an inexplicable gloss for holma.

Enormous liberties are taken in this translation, but they are thoughtless, uncreative and conventional liberties. Tired, dull and shoddy.
Most mistakes came early in the poem's translation history; and have then been repeated until they've become almost ineradicable.
A common characteristic of the translators has been their virtually congenital monolingualism. Foreign languages simply sound funny to them.
A good illustration of word-for-word translation is The Awful German Language, by Mark Twain, 1880. Hilarious: just like Pound.
Why didn't Pound favour us with a word-for-word "poetic" translation of Mein Kampf?

See here for more translations of the Central Crux. ll.58-68. Or here, for even more atrocious versions.

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

commentaries: one, two, three [more than 60 other versions], four, five, six
annotation       essays & papers       main general index
more on unwearnum             more and more on unwearnum
The Seafarer: after twenty years
Seafarer Birds             Seafarer Cuckoo
atrocious crux versions
error demolition

top: graphic image courtesy William Blake

It is not who is right, but what is right, that is of importance. Thomas Huxley, 1825-1895

nabokovian butterfly

Ignorance, Mr Pound. Your ignorance is pure, Sir.
The Anglo-Saxon word for "schmoon" is sceatas.

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2012, 2013, 2016, 2018