On Old English Translation: Wulf’s Tale

‘Wulf’s Tale’ is a creative translation of lines 9-19 of ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, an Old English poem from the Exeter Book. The translation is followed by an essay on the process, or journey, of Old English translation, as well as a commentary to accompany the translation presented here.

Wulf’s Tale

Of my Wulf’s wide-wanderings		I thought on with hopes
whenever it was rainy weather		and I sat, howl-sounding,
whenever the battle-bold warrior 	afflicted his arms around me,
there was pleasure for me until that point,	there was also for me a hateful pain.
Wulf, my Wulf! 	From my longings for you
a sickness has spawned,		your seldom-comings,
my mourning mind	is not at all from a lack of food.
Do you hear, Wealth-watcher?		A Wulf bears the wretched whelp of us two into the woods.
One may easily sever		that which was never connected,
our tale, together.

Wulf and Eadwacer (Lines 9-19 End)

Wulfes ic mīnes wīdlāstum     wēnum hogode,
þonne hit wæs rēnig weder     ond ic rēotugu sæt,
 þonne mec se beaducāfa     bōgum bilegde,
 wæs mē wyn tō þon,     wæs mē hwæþre ēac lāð.
 Wulf, mīn Wulf!     wēna mē þīne
 sēoce gedydon,     þīne seldcymas,
murnende mōd,     nales metelīste.
 Gehȳrest þū, Ēadwacer?     Uncerne eargne hwelp
 bireð wulf tō wuda.
 Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð     þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs,
 uncer giedd geador.
Wulf's Tale - a painting by Yasmin Howells
‘Wulf’s Tale’, by Yasmin Howells


On the Translation Process:

I get asked quite regularly to explain my ‘translation process’; yet, the idea of a process, at least for me, suggests a neatly organised collection of thoughts, categorised and chronologically sorted by a number of steps. At first, when I initially became acquainted with Old English as a Fresher, I believed this to be the case, too. I thought we’d be given a sort of ‘translation handbook’ and go about this process as if we were dealing with any other modern language. This wasn’t really the case, and our class’ ‘translation handbook’ was actually a much too relied upon copy of Mitchell and Robinson’s A Guide to Old English – in which we scoured the glossary and translated word-for-word until we were left with some alien syntax anagram that barely resembled a sentence. Even though it wasn’t that long ago, I look back at my initial ‘translations,’ if you can call them that, and laugh at the awkwardness of them. At the time, we forgot that the Anglo-Saxons were very much human, just like us – and spoke and wrote and composed in a manner similar to us, as well. That said, we also didn’t realise that the world they lived in, and their perception of that middangeard, was very much different to the one we know now.

9780631136248: A Guide to Old English - AbeBooks - Bruce Mitchell; Fred C  Robinson: 063113624X
Mitchell and Robinson’s A Guide to Old English (Source)


I’ve come to refer to the translation process not as a process, but as a journey; it isn’t a chronological journey, or one with a clear beginning or end. Instead, it’s a tying together of strings – different critical interpretations, contesting translations, possible etymologies, cultural blends, mythological references. You could read over the source material twenty times before uncovering something you’ve missed the last nineteen goes. Even then, reading a paper on another viewpoint could unlock an angle you haven’t considered before. It is because of this that I try to do as much research as I can before translating. Translation is still personal to an extent. This comes across in the final decisions you make, or the word you choose out of the different synonyms, and the critic whose view you agree with. However, translation should also attempt to translate the poem’s current critical reception, and the alternate views surrounding it. That way, you’re not only translating a poet’s composition, but how that piece has been received through time. That is what I sought to express with the journey metaphor. You have to be willing to trace back step-by-step the origins of words and their meanings through history, almost like you are undertaking a trip back to Anglo-Saxon England. Yet, at the same time, you’re also journeying forward and understanding how this meaning has changed and how it can be rendered in modern language, to a current audience, and affect them in the same ways.


To be able to do this, there needs to be a recognition that certain concepts and feelings won’t have a modern-day equivalent. Some words will lack counterparts and broader aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture will be lost, or inexpressible. It is like the common example of the Welsh word ‘hiraeth’ – meaning homesickness or nostalgia. Others may translate it simply as the latter two nouns whilst, to the Welsh, ‘hiraeth’ is a longing, a desire and regret; it is a feeling for a home that never was and an irrational bond felt with a time, place or person. Can you think of a modern-day English equivalent for that? It is the same for the poets of Old English. They come from a culture, or blend of cultures, that struggle to be replicated in today’s standards of language and social understanding. Concepts like magic and charms, that are met with scepticism by modern-day readers, would have been believed in whole-heartedly and perceived as ‘powerful language.’ References that would have been common knowledge to the Anglo-Saxon audiences are still being uncovered today. Skaldic Norse poetry has a kenna system reliant on mythological knowledge; for example, how ‘fire of the sea’ or ‘Ægir’s fire’ means ‘gold,’ based on the myths of the sea goddess Rán and her husband Ægir. Like the riddling aspect of kenna, Old English has its own kennings, which function similarly. Therefore, the dangers of translating in isolation, literally and word-for-word, may cause deeper meanings to be lost.


The same can be said of Wulf and Eadwacer. The Old English poem can be thought of as a riddle due to its number of ambiguities, and therefore has various competing interpretations and analogues surrounding it. One idea is that the inferred female speaker is Signy from the Volsunga Saga, and that Wulf refers to Sigmund. Others argue that the speaker is Beadohild from the story of Wayland the Smith. Translating the original Wulf and Eadwacer can be difficult according to which interpretation you align yourself with. I tried to eliminate any of my own biases, but ultimately, you can never be entirely sure of the intended meaning. Further still, I have a long way left to go in both my study of Old English and perfecting my own ‘translation journey’; I hope you enjoy this rendering and commentary nevertheless.

A Commentary on the Translation:

‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ is a poetic riddle, found in the Book of Exeter, whose content, message and language remains largely debated to this day. The elegiac stream of consciousness narration is believed to fall in the Frauenlied (woman’s song) genre, in which the female subject grieves over her emotional torment. Whether this riddle has an ‘answer’ or not, or what that answer may be, is relatively undecided. Some critics try to impose Wulf and Eadwacer onto various legends or stories, whilst others try to figure out the significance of the ‘love-triangle’ between the speaker, Wulf and Eadwacer. Other questions focus on the Wulf / wolf aspect, and whether ‘wulf’ is a proper naming noun, or refers to the animal as part of the riddle. The above extract that I translated, lines 9-19 of the original, builds towards an emotional and rhetorical climax. In comparison to the rest of the poem, the lines become hypermetric and more rapid, with syntax more fluid, and we see a beautiful insight into the speaker’s lament as [she] cries out to Wulf.

The Exeter Book that contains Wulf's Tale.
The Exeter Book (University of ExeterCC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


The first line of the translation already encounters a number of ambiguities. “Of my Wulf’s wide-wanderings” seems to capture the essence of “Wulfes ic mīnes wīdlāstum” closely enough, with the only question really arising from the compound “wīdlāstum.” “Wīdlāst” can mean a long, far or wide wandering road/way – when in the noun form. However, the adjectival form can mean ‘making a track that wanders, stretches far or wide’ I chose this adjectival definition for my plural noun rendering, “wide-wanderings,” because the compound alliterates with both itself and “Wulfes” to achieve the characteristic triple alliteration of Old English – i.e. “[W]ulf’s [w]ide-[w]anderings.” I also liked the inference of ‘making a track’ as it complements the man/beast question of the riddle nicely (e.g. a wolf’s tracks versus Wulf’s tracks) – although this possible meaning becomes lost in translation, without knowledge of the different definitions.


The second half-line is where the ambiguities are more clearly seen – especially within the words “wēnum” and “[h]ogode.” “Hogode” can be found originally in the form “dogode” (a hapax legomenon), but has been emended by various critics to “hogode,” as in the above transcription. “Hogode,” from “hogian,” construed with the dative “wīdlāstum” would be rare, but fits better than trying to decipher the ambiguous “dogode.” Thus, by this interpretation, I chose to render “[h]ogode” as “thought” – as it can mean ‘to care for,’ ‘to think about,’ ‘to reflect.’ “Wenum” can therefore be seen as a type of variation of “hogode.” “Wenum” is the dative plural of the strong feminine noun ‘wen,’ which is commonly translated as ‘hopes’ or ‘expectations’ [for something]. I chose “hopes” as not to repeat the earlier “thought” and because many scholars believe that ‘thought’ and ‘idea’ are too general to be meanings for ‘wen’ – instead, ‘hopes’ and ‘expectations’ convey a kind of thought that infers the existence of ‘the thing’ which is being waited for.


The second line from the extract of the original poem above constructs a very aural image – which may seem contradictory. The two half lines are joined by the ‘r/w’ alliteration of “[w]aes [r]ēnig [w]eder” and “[r]ēotugu” – forming the aural connection. However, they are also linked by the imagery of sound and water. The pathetic fallacy of “rēnig weder” (literally “rainy weather”) is re-invoked in the nominative feminine “rēotugu”; the earlier establishment of “rainy weather” helps us infer the meaning of the hapax legomenon “rēotugu.” “Rēotugu” is almost certainly an adjective form of ‘reotig,’ from ‘reotan’ – meaning ‘to bewail,’ ‘to lament,’ ‘to weep’ or to make noise [in grief]. Initially, we may tie “rainy weather” together with “weeping” due to the water imagery of rain droplets and tears – but, it has been argued that the idea behind ‘reotan’ is not tears, but sound. Compared with the Old Icelandic cognate ‘rjóta,’ ‘to sound dully,’ and the ‘reotan’ found in Beowulf 1376 to describe the thundering heavens above Grendel’s mere, this interpretation seems promising. Therefore, I rendered “rēotugu” as the compound “howl-sounding” to capture the aural element of wailing in grief (in “sounding”), and the animalistic wildness of female, possibly maternal, lamentation (in “howl” – also linking the speaker back to Wulf). However, I regret not being able to translate the alliterative connection between my own “rainy weather” and “howl-sounding” – like the original “[r]ēnig weder” and “[r]ēotugu,” which draws a comparison between the similar sounds of the pouring heavens and wailing female figure.


I chose to render “Þonne” as “whenever” both times as, although in the original there is argument over when this time period is referring to, I feel as though lines 10-11 are paired temporal clauses describing a period when Wulf is away. Therefore, the speaker is lamenting his absence in the “rainy weather” or when the “battle-bold warrior… afflicts his arms around [her].” The compound “beaducāfa,” often translated as ‘battle-quick’ or ‘bold in battle,’ I translated as “battle-bold” to try and replicate the aggressive plosives of the original “[b]eaducāfa [b]ōgum [b]ilegde.” However, I wasn’t able to carry this alliteration over to the second half-line, and instead used assonance to invoke the surrounding entrapment of “[a]fflicted his [a]rms [a]round me.” Although some choose to render this half-line tenderly – as in the beaducāfa embracing the speaker – “bilegde,” from ‘belecgan’ (to surround), often has negative connotations of ‘to afflict’ or ‘to accuse.’ Therefore, the violent choice ‘to afflict,’ when accompanied by the following “pain” of the next line, suggests the beaducāfa’s physical power over the speaker – possibly in a sexual way.


In the next line, after the speaker cries out for Wulf, I translated the plural “wēna” as “longings” in an attempt at variation regarding the earlier “wēnum.” I originally considered ‘wishings,’ to be able to tie it together alliteratively with “Wulf” – as in the original. However, I felt that “longings” was more suitable, as the aural connotations of ‘long’ capture the temporal aspect of how long the speaker has been waiting. “Sēoce gedydon” I translated as “a sickness has spawned,” despite “gedydon” usually meaning ‘to occur,’ ‘has come about,’ ‘has caused’ etc. “Spawned” maintains the sibilant alliteration of “[s]ēoce gedydon, þīne [s]eldcymas” whilst also having connotations of reproduction – which foreshadows the coming lines. Moreover, the compound “seldcymas” translated well into “seldom-comings,” as both the meaning and aural aspects remained similar.


The direct address of “Gehȳrest þū, Ēadwacer?” translated as “Do you hear me, Wealth-watcher?” is pretty self-explanatory; “Ēadwacer” is usually rendered as the proper noun “Wealth-watcher,” as ‘ead-’ can mean ‘wealth, prosperity or happiness,’ and the adjective ‘wacor’ means ‘watchful’ – i.e. someone watchful of the speaker’s wealth or happiness (like a guardian or jailer). The ‘w’ alliteration of the original is maintained through “[W]ealth-[w]atcher” connecting to the second half-line “A [W]ulf bears the wretched [wh]elp of us two into the [w]oods.” Moreover, I attempted to continue the riddling aspect of man/animal imagery of “hwelp bireð wulf” with “A Wulf bears the… whelp.” The preposition “A” would suggest the following “Wulf” to be the animal noun ‘wolf,’ yet I capitalised it and used the same spelling as I had been for the proper noun name ‘Wulf’ to invoke the dual meanings – although Old English would not have this distinction. Moreover, “bireð,” from ‘geberan’ meaning to ‘bear, carry or give birth to,’ I translated as “bear” for a similar aural quality and for the animal imagery that later ties with “hwelp” – meaning ‘whelp, cub or puppy.’ This intermingling of animal/human attributes and birthing imagery are key aspects of the riddle, so I wanted to attempt to keep the dual meanings of some words.


The concluding line is said to echo Matthew 19:6 “Quod ergo Deus coniunxit, homo non separet” – a sort of gnomic which I translated as “One may easily sever that which was never connected.” This may suggest that the speaker is stating that she is not married to Eadwacer (more likely, she is married to Wulf), therefore, they can easily be separated as they were never truly connected [by marriage]. The final half-line, “uncer giedd geador,” I translated as “our tale together” since “giedd” can mean ‘song, riddle, story, tale’ etc. The homophone “tale” also invokes animal imagery (with the inference ‘tail’), and I think it calls the man/beast riddling aspect to mind once again – making for a nice conclusion. It is also slightly reminiscent of Old English riddling tradition, where the riddle ends with ‘what am I?’ or ‘say what I am called’, reminding you of the riddle and often hinting towards the answer with prosopopoeia (e.g. what am I?).