Seafarer Essays & Papers

A translation is faithful when it conveys the meaning, not merely the words, of its original.
The aim of the translation on this site is to achieve the closest fidelity to its source, in both manner and meaning.
This text is subject to continuous experiment and improvement.

a summing up


May I recommend a book entitled The Art of Translation ? This is by Theodore Savory, 1957, and it is an excellent study, basically because it is by a well-educated Englishman. Savory sensibly asks 3 questions:

1 What does the author say ?
2 What does the author mean ?
3 How does the author say it ?

Below, right, is the opening passage of an exemplary article dealing with a variety of aspects of The Seafarer, especially those that might be judged to address its author's meaning. This article is well and deeply researched, and is annotated with reference to numerous substantial and irreproachable authorities recorded in 67 instances of its 13 pages. Nevertheless, at the risk of being thought hypercritical, not to say insulting, I believe that its author has regrettably transposed the first two steps recommended by Savory in his Art of Translation. With its opening sentence the article pre-emptively ascribes a definite meaning to the passage it subsequently sets out to translate. This meaning, which I strongly query, is one that has gradually evolved in Anglo-Saxonist circles during the decades since the poem was first misread by Benjamin Thorpe in 1842. Consequently, the author of the article feels obliged to manipulate his interpretation of the words of the Anglishman's original text, in order to make what it says comply with this pre-conceived meaning. It might be thought better, however, first to establish what the text is saying, before elucidating its meaning.

Paul Dowswell

contested lines

Hyge certainly does not mean "soul"; it means "mind", "inclination" or even "desire" or "longing". The modern Swedish word håg is its exact equivalent. It has no substance. It quite definitely does not escape like a bird from its cage. Hweorfeš certainly does not mean "soars"; it means "twists" or "turns", "is thrown" or "is cast". Cf: "my mind is cast." Ofer hrežerlocan means "beyond the bounds or limits of my person". Hrežer might approximate to Scottish "wraith", meaning, according to Partridge, a person's "ghost". The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology claims wraith to be of "unknown origin". The idea of a descent of "wraith" from hrežer is nevertheless engaging. Modsefa barely means "spirit", but rather "sense or senses"

Earžan sceatas: sceatas quite certainly does not mean "regions". It is cognate with German Schoss and Swedish sköte, meaning "lap" or "bosom". The implication is that the voyager is about to return to the lap of nature from which he first emerged. Again, hweorfeš does not mean "soars". Cymeš eft to me does not mean "comes back to me". Eft means "then", and decidedly here not "back" or "again".

"Eager and hungering": These words might describe a soul that had been soaring over earth's regions after escaping from its cage, and that was keen to return. However, "avid and greedy" would be the preferred words characteristic of the Bird of Death and Time, descending in its onrushing onslaught upon its defenceless prey; in other words the anfloga, which cannot possibly mean "one-flier". Anfloga and unwearnum are the two key words whose correct translation provides a true understanding of the meaning of this passage, and the essential meaning of the entire poem. Unwearnum, which has consistently and ludicrously long been translated as "irresistibly", is an adjective which means "unguarded", "vulnerable" or "defenceless", and accurately describes a man at the point of death.

Finally we come to hweteš onwęl weg, which happens to be incorrectly transcribed in the text of the article reproduced above. A later Anglo-Saxonist, writing in the same vein as the above, comments that Smithers, at line 63, made an "unpersuasive attempt to leave węlweg unemended". It's a sorry scholar, and linguistically challenged, who thinks that węl sounds like whale, and emends accordingly. Comment below. The emended translation here offers "impels to the road of the whale". Hweteš does not mean "impels", but "prepares". Further words fail me. The poet preaches that a man should prepare for his death --- by turning to the Christian god.


Anyone who thinks the scribe forgot to insert an h between on and węl must be off his rocker.
Węl means Death.

The Saxon Shore

In order to discover precisely what has been meant by the term "Saxon Shore" I have consulted the following publications: The Saxon Shore, 1989, edited by Valerie A. Maxfield; The Roman Shore Forts, 2002, by Andrew Pearson; Rome's Saxon Shore, AD 250-500, 2006, by Nic Fields. The titles seem curiously undecided whether the forts were to be thought of as Roman or Saxon.

Until about 600 AD a Saxon was any man, non-Roman, from anywhere, who carried a sax. Not necessarily a German at all. A sword man, most probably Anglian, but could also be Belgian, Dutch, Friesian or from Gaul. Here's an interesting site: How old is English ? Not sure I agree, entirely. English vocabulary is very close to Modern Swedish. Significantly closer than to Modern German. In any case I do not believe the Anglo-Saxons "mainly came" from Germany.

"It is dangerous to be right when established authority is wrong." Voltaire.
Henry Sweet is the Aristotle of Anglo-Saxon studies.
The Horace Walpole of Linguistics.
Errors in Understanding.

The following comments are undeniable:

"Accuracy is measured by the degree to which users of a translation get the same meaning which the original text had."
Wayne Leman
"Much of the literature of translation is not about errors in translation; it is about errors in understanding the original ."
E.Bruce Brooks

Click for fidelity, integrity and truth.

An Earlier Look at the Central Crux. 1960

From the standard mis-transcription onwards, somewhat subject to muddle and confusion.
But some good points. Every word boxed in red needs commenting on.
Comes back ? Irresistibly ? Huh ?

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2018

all rights reserved


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

The published text has since been repeatedly revised

essays & papers
anglo-saxon text         manuscript
word word sword         land & language
annotation        swedish angle-names
smithers        lactantius
other versions         main index
translation & immortality
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a summing up