Drifter: A Creative Translation based on ‘The Wanderer’

A painting by author Yasmin Howells representing 'Drifter', or a creative translation from the Old English 'The Wanderer'.
Painting by Yasmin Howells

Believed to be written in the late 9th to early 10th century, ‘The Wanderer’ is a poetic lament from The Exeter Book manuscript, describing the ‘inner-most thoughts’ of an exiled man who eventually finds salvation through God.

In this genre of wisdom-poetry, we see the ‘lone-one’ find security through religious faith, despite imagery of a decaying material world.

Therefore, the opening of The Wanderer is of paramount significance in establishing the ‘first phase’ of its solitary man so that it can be later subverted in a divine realisation.


1. Often the lone-one         longs for

2. the Maker’s mercy         although he with sorrowful heart,

3. beyond expanse water-ways,         must for a while

4. stir with his hands          the ice-cold sea

5. and travel the exile’s track.          It is strangefully predestined!

6. So spoke the earth-stepper,         mindful through suffering,

7. of wrathful slaughter,          the ruin of revered kinsmen:

8. ‘Often must I alone          each night-tide

9. navigate my sorrows.         I’ve not nobody alive now

10. with whom my mind’s         inner-most thoughts

11. I dare divulge.

The Wanderer (Original)

1. Oft him ānhaga.      āre gebīdeð,

2. Metudes miltse,        þēah þe hē mōdcearig

3. geond lagulāde        longe sceolde

4. hrēran mid hondum        hrīmcealde sǣ,

5. wadan wræclāstas.        Wyrd bið ful ārǣd.

6.  Swā cwæð eardstapa,        earfeþa gemyndig,

7. wrāþra wælsleahta,        winemǣga hryre:

8. Oft ic sceolde āna        ūhtna gehwylce

9. mīne ceare cwīþan.        Nis nū cwicra nān

10. þe ic him mōdsefan        mīnne durre

11. sweotule āsecgan.


Critics and translators of Old English alike agree on the difficulties in attempting to render its techniques, archaisms and meter into a modern-day equivalent. Thus, many creative translations have arisen which uproot these traditional devices and alter them to fit a present-day lens. These attempts may include adopting loanwords to invoke etymological and cultural blends; using hyphenated words to emulate compounds or kennings; or a reliance on paronomasia to try and express the ambiguities of ‘untranslatable words.’ These are only a few examples of what may capture the essence of Old English as, ultimately, each translator has different interpretations on the translation process – and how to appropriately construct their own renditions (whether that be to ‘foreignise’ or ‘domesticate’). Thus, this commentary will explain some of my personal choices in rendering a poem that typifies Anglo-Saxon imagery, recounts a literary adoption of Old Norse vocabulary into Old English, and demonstrates a language sophistication of which many modern readers would be unaware; this is, The Exeter Book’s The Wanderer – or, as individually titled, Drifter.

The opening “Oft” of the original can be translated as ‘often’ or ‘always’ – most usually the latter when referring to poetry. However, I chose “often” as to retain the original sound and lyricism of the shortened “oft.” Moreover, ‘always’ has connotations of finality, whilst ‘often’ seems more temporally ambiguous. The hyphenated “lone-one” is also an attempt at emulating the compound word “anhaga,” almost in a tautological way. The difficulty in doing so, however, displays Modern English’s inability to translate the compact meaning of compounds. In a sense, ‘loneliness’ could be considered a suitable compound here and would have maintained the tripled alliteration trope of each Old English line – i.e. [L]one[L]iness and [L]ong. However, I liked the combination of the chiefly poetic ‘lone,’ that reflects the archaisms of Old English, and the solitary ‘one’ as it reinforces the idea of loneliness with each word – almost like the Old English technique of variation. “Gebideð” is only one of the many ‘untranslatable words’ in this passage as its meaning can be interpreted in various ways – i.e. to ‘wait for’ [something to happen] or ‘experience.’ I chose ‘longing’ as it is synonymous with the original and captures the same semantic inference of ‘waiting for [something]’ – i.e. how ‘longing’ is always accompanied with ‘for the [thing]’. This slightly nods towards the dual meaning of the verb “gebideð,” as in both waiting and getting what you’ve waited for – with the foreshadowing of the thing being mercy / fate. Further, the “long” can be seen almost as a paronomasia as it also refers to a ‘long’ period of time, such as in line 3 of the original “longe sceolde,” – once again highlighting an extended metaphor of passing time.

The “Maker’s mercy” rendition maintains the consonance alliteration of The Wanderer – despite not having a typical third ‘M’ word in the second half-line like the original “modcearig.”  This being said, “modcearig” is another ‘difficult-to-translate’ compound, as “mod” can mean ‘heart,’ ‘mind,’ ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ – whilst “-cearig” can refer to being ‘troubled,’ ‘sorrowful,’ ‘burdened’ or ‘weary.’ This specific compound is most commonly translated as ‘sorrowful’ or ‘full of care,’ so I chose “sorrowful” as the ‘ful’ is a common sound in both interpretations. Also, I used “heart” to represent ‘mod’ as, in colloquial Modern-day English, ‘heart’ is used mostly in the same way – i.e. ‘he’s got a lot of heart,’ ‘a big heart,’ ‘heartbroken.’ Although, I didn’t attempt to compound the words here as ‘sorrowful’ is already, in a sense, compounded.

The distal deixis translation of “beyond” in the third line maintains the aural ‘quality of the original “ge[ond]” – preserving the historical context of Anglo-Saxon poetry being spoken aloud. I considered shortening it to ‘yond as in an abbreviation of beyond,’ that also nods to the chiefly poetic ‘yonder’ – to try and capture the ‘expansive’ nature of the sea. However, this seemed a forced attempt towards a strangely archaic rendering of a standard preposition. Therefore, I also used “expanse” to reinforce “beyond” – i.e. as another variation. This is because, in the original, both “geond” and “lagulade” are used, with the latter being a compound usually translated as ‘sea-ways’ or ‘water-ways.’ However, although ‘lagu’ means sea, the similar word ‘gelagu’ (with the earlier mentioned prefix ‘ge-‘) means an ‘expanse [of ocean].’ Also, I refer to “expanse” in the adjectival form as it is obsolete now (chiefly poetic) and was mainly used temporally – i.e. ‘expanse years since…’ – so it seemed appropriate as it aligns with the theme of how long the Wanderer has been waiting. In addition, for the translation of the compound “lagulad,” I decided on “water-ways” in order to alliterate with “while” in the second half-line. Considering “for a while,” I also didn’t want to repeat “long” (from line 1), even if they were polyptotonic. Therefore, “a while” was used for variation on the theme of temporality, as well as consonance alliteration with “water-ways.”

Line 5’s “travel the exile’s track” alliterates internally and slightly connects with the dental stress in “s[t]rangefully.” Although it isn’t a compound like “wraeclastas,” the choice to use the possessive genitive marker (apostrophe –‘s) shows the relationship between the two words whilst the abbreviation brings them closer together. “Wyrd bið ful aræd” is most commonly translated as ‘fate is wholly inexorable,’ but I took many creative liberties here. “Wyrd” is another word difficult to translate, but is often done so as ‘fate,’ ‘destiny’ or ‘something that will happen.’ However, it also is a loan-word with Old Germanic/ Norse roots. I found it hard to translate this cultural blend of etymology, but found that ‘wyrd’ is ancestral to the Modern English ‘weird’ –whose original meaning was previously the same as ‘wyrd,’ before it evolved due to Shakespeare’s ‘Weird Sisters.’ Thus, if I couldn’t translate the cultural overlap, I wanted to capture the word’s history in the evolution of language. So, I used “strangefully” (archaic) as a synonym for Present-day English’s ‘weird’ to show this diachronic transition. Moreover, the compound combines the sound ‘fully’ which is similar to ‘ful’ in the original “wyrd bið ful aræd!” Also, by translating ‘araed’ to ‘predestined’ (also has various meanings – e.g. ‘inescapable,’ ‘inexorable’ etc.), I didn’t have to translate “wyrd” at the start of the sentence to ‘destiny,’or something similar, as it is later inferred by this adjective. Even so, the difficulties in rendering this gnomic phrase, even creatively, highlight the challenging nature of “wyrd” as it seems to represent a concept that current English lacks – something like ‘the way things happen’ (from ‘weorthan,’ to happen) or even the way things have happened (when looking back). Therefore, translations like ‘fate’ don’t seem to do justice and even ‘weird’ (the cognate) has changed meaning completely. However, my attempt with “strangefully” tries to capture a sense of the numinous somehow in the predestination of things, or the uncanny.

The above lynchpin explanations provide only a brief insight into the process of creative translation and the difficulties faced when attempting to render Old English into its Modern English equivalents – if there are truly any. Some words are inexpressible through the vocabulary of current English and some archaisms or types of meter have now become obsolete. However, it also stands as a testament to artistic ability in being able to carry across meaning and preserve both the historical and literary essence of an original language – in spite of creative changes. Thus, it is in this journey of translation that we are able to connect with language and understand it on a deeper level, rather than though focusing solely on the end result of the translation process.

Kenning: A compound expression with a metaphorical meaning. E.g. “Eardstapa” (The Wanderer, 6) – translated as ‘Earth-stepper,’ a kenning for ‘traveller’ or ‘wanderer’.

Paronomasia: A pun or play on words, specifically on those that sound alike.

Variation: An Old English technique similar to Modern repetition. Used to emphasise a subject or theme in a way that is memorable (considering the aural and performative aspect of Old English poems), but not directly repetitive. The most common example is the variation of the names for God – ‘Cyning’ (King), ‘Dryhten’ (Lord), ‘Fæder’ (Father), ‘Metod’ (Maker) etc.

With thanks to Pax Butchart for their editorial contributions to this article.

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