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Inescapable Error in Translation

"Much of the literature of translation is not about errors in translation; it is about errors in understanding the original."
E.Bruce Brooks

Note how Enoch took care to exercise his refractions on remote, unfamiliar languages.

Luckily, Pound's methods did not require any understanding of the language refracted.

"Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals." George Orwell

Pound's opinions became, fortunately for him, genuinely fashionable.

Anglo-Saxon, Chinese, Egyptian, Hindi, Japanese, Provençal, Latin
Some of Pound's efforts do qualify as translations, but this does not remotely apply to his Seafarer



Around the nucleus of death, dead centre, revolve, elliptically, the several additional and associated notions, reflecting disparate points of view. It's that "dead centre" that is so telling. Those two words, hreþer unwearnum, "defenceless wraith", are literally the exact centre of the poem. It occurs to me here that Bohr-Sommerfeld is a better heuristic model than Howlett-Olsen-Runion. Click here, and here. I take "wraith" to mean whatever may be left of the person after death --- if anything. "Soul", though used below, is too specific.

Quantum theory is about the incompatability of two apparently irreconcilable opposites. The incompatible opposites that require reconciling in The Seafarer are its healthy, realistic, traditional paganism and the novel religion of encroaching, authoritarian Rome. The paganism is one reason the poem retains its appeal today.

An understanding of the nature of the Empsonian ambiguities that have rattled past scholars, soi-disant, in their interpretations of The Seafarer, especially in connection with its central crux, lines 58-68, begins to dawn. Contained in its author's mind are two incompatible attitudes to the future that awaits us all. This may have played a part in the early perception, among some misguided monoglots, that there were "two voices" in The Seafarer. There was obviously only one voice, but it was internally conflicted.

Kine die and kin die
All things must die; but I
Know what does not die
How dead men are deemed.

At left is the rational philosophy of the pagan Anglo. "So any noble spirit will aspire to earn an everlasting epitaph of praise" for "good deeds done on earth, bold blows dealt at the Devil and against fell foe." I use my own translation, as it is enlightened. The nucleus of this molecule is hreþer unwearnum, the "naked soul", when life leaves the inert body to the fecund soil or funereal flame.

This page is clearly and lucidly heading towards a muddled, messy and deplorable concoction of multiple unco-ordinated ideas and observations, notable for their lack of rigour. Its principle ingredients appear to be Widengren's Mani and Manichaeism, 1965, Freud's Moses and Monotheism, 1939, Strathern's little book on Einstein & Relativity, 1997. Remember the war to the adjective !

Before plunging into the pudding, a fifty year old memory has to be got off my chest. In 1958, or possibly 1959, I came to the conclusion that everything was its own opposite. I mentioned this to a friend at the time, Andrew Osmond, now deceased. "How do you come to that idiotic belief ?" he asked. It was, of course, not a matter of calculation, but of instinct. Had I been aware of the mot of Vauvenargues, when he said : Les grandes pensées viennent du coeur, I might have used it, but that maxim has only just been discovered.

Another thought from about the same time was that on a line stretching to infinity, any point might be described as its exact centre. I've later appreciated that space is curved, so that any line stretched out as far as it will go ends up returning to its starting-point. It beomes its own opposite, in fact. So much for Einstein. Move on to Mani.

Extracted from Widengren's Mani & Manichaeism. The first half of The Seafarer is concerned with Matter, or existence; the second half with God, or promise. Try Schopenhauer on The Vanity of Existence, in Hollingdale's remarkably fine translation.

Hollingdale could have taught Pound a thing or two about translation. Since St Augustine spent nine years as a Mani devotee, Mani's teachings lurk under later Christianity. The point I'm laboriously labouring towards is that Matter was demonised. Beautiful Balder, Bel and Belinus, Belle Artemis and Bel Apollo, were turned into Baal and Beelzebub. In their place was elevated jealous Jahve, who hounded His enemies with persecution, and ethnic cleansing. Reality was replaced by delusional fantasy. It can be seen that this is what happened in the two halves of The Seafarer. The first half is realistic actuality, the second is fantastic speculation. The singer is obliged to evangelize, but his sentiment favours real experience. All that survives a man's demise is his reputation.

Absent from the gods adhered to in the deserts of the East is any sense of the adventurousness which informs the gods of the North. Delight in discovery and exploration of the material world began with navigation over the seas circling Scandinavia and the isles of Britain, spreading eventually to the rest of the world. With this appetite for exploration came the progress of science and eventual technical mastery, placing its practitioners far in advance of the god botherers. In 1992 the Vatican, having subjected Galileo to house arrest in 1633, concedes that in his case, 350 years after his death, "errors were made".

At left is an excerpt from Freud's "epoch-making" 1939 book Moses and Monotheism, Vintage paperback, p. 39. Note the deplorable origin of Jahve, Jehovah, Jove.

The many gods of Greece and Scandinavia offered refreshing relief from this oppressively jealous monotheism. For a start, these gods were more human. Forgive the irony. They laughed and had a sense of humour, a trait completely absent from the tyrant of biblical scripture. They were exceptionally sensitized to beauty. Armstrong mentions Apollo. Associated lords and deities, sons of the sun, include Bel, Belinus, Balder, and presumably Baal, though excoriated by some and converted into a demon: Beelzebub. Check Wikipedia.

So what was the ethnicity of the conflicted Seafarer author ? Most readers feel he identified more with the realism of the first 58 lines, than with the forced piety of the final 57.


"Bohr would never forget Rutherford's Manchester laboratory. This was how science should be done: in an atmosphere of camaraderie and fruitful argument, in which all took part." This is, of course, how debate among Anglo-Saxonists should also take place, but in my experience it doesn't. Not all members of the faculty are ill-mannered boors; I just seem to have exclusively encountered the ones that are.


"The duality of interpretation proposed for the projected voyage in The Seafarer has its counterparts not only in the ambivalence of attitude expressed by the speaker toward that peregrination in the passage itself, but in a deliberate ambiguity of diction throughout the poem." P 156, The Old English Elegies, Greenfield, 1966.

Here are some comments from Shippey, Old English Verse, 1972, that could be profitably explored. "The Seafarer contains several problems ..... all of them contribute, some might think deliberately, to make it a poem of considerable ambiguity." p 68. "Wisdom grows out of experience alone ..... the poet can rely on the very looseness of much Old English verse." p. 70. "Even his vocabulary shows signs of deliberate ambiguity." p. 71. These remarks seem a cut above what is otherwise turned out by the Anglo-Saxon faculty

Familiarity is encouraged to be acquired with Professor S.B.Greenfield's remark (in The Old English Elegies, an essay in Continuations and Beginnings, Nelson 1966: "...the Seafarer poet approaches a more complex Empsonian type of ambiguity in his use of equal and opposite semantic values of the same word to underline ambivalences in attitudes and levels of meaning", Page 158.

Gaut         Getae        Goth

ridicule                opposition                 acceptance
It is dangerous to be right when established authority is wrong. Voltaire.
Anyone who claims that quantumizing The Seafarer makes everything clear, doesn't really understand it.
Henry Sweet is the Aristotle of Anglo-Saxon studies.
The Horace Walpole of Linguistics.
Errors in Understanding.

The following comment is undeniable:

"Accuracy is measured by the degree to which users of a translation get the same meaning which the original text had."
Wayne Leman

Click for fidelity, integrity and truth.

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2018

all rights reserved


An edition was published June 2005, limited to 125 copies: ISBN 0-9550 126-0-0

The published text has since been repeatedly revised

anglo-saxon text         manuscript
annotation         essays & papers
swedish angle-names
ambiguity         ambiguity again
ancient scandinavia
other versions         main index
mail here
a summing up

The following words have direct equivalents in modern Swedish, but not or seldom in modern English.

anfloga, burgum, ceole, eft, fægrieth, ferd, gomene, haegl, holma, hrusan, hyge, mæg,
onwæl weg, sceata, scurum, siþas, slat, sorge, unwearnum, waco, wat, wine, wongas, ytha

anflygare, borg, kjöl, efter, fager, färd, gamman, hagel, holme, grus, håg, må
å valväg, sköte, skur, sätt, slet, sörja, ovärn, vaka, vång, vän, yta

Ezra haunts and cloys The Seafarer