Years ago, before I began studying and translating Old English poetry, I read a collection of medieval Welsh tales referred to as The Mabinogion. In one tale, “The Dream of Macsen Wledig,” a marauding Roman emperor invades an island. Following his victory he returns home, but some of his cohort remain, led by a man called Cynan. Cynan and his friends, the story goes, slaughter the men on the island, and while they spare the women, Cynan cuts out their tongues in the hope that Latin, the language of his own people, will remain uncorrupted. The island, of course, is Britain, and the language Cynan wanted to destroy was early English.
I was shocked that I had never read this story—who is reading this, I wondered, and talking about it (with their tongues intact)? These questions propelled me to doctoral studies to learn more about the earliest poems written in my mother tongue. Old English poems, written between the seventh century and the Norman invasion of 1066, are almost entirely anonymous, often fragmentary, and contain a wealth (a horde, they’d have said) of wonderfully evocative word compounds.
The title of my book of poems and translations, The Unstill Ones, is the translation of one such compound from the “Old English Rune Poem.” The nineteenth rune, e, transliterated as “eh,” represents the horse or warhorse, described by an unknown poet as “always a solace to the un-still ones.” This un-stillness is central to my project, and I hope these translations exist as what Walter Benjamin referred to in “The Task of the Translator” as a text's “afterlife,” which, he wrote, “could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living.” Benjamin argues for the word, rather than the sentence, as the focus of the translator, as well as for the preservation of original syntax.
This is particularly important, I think, when working with texts such as The Exeter Book, which houses the largest number of surviving Old English poems. Many of these are damaged—“The Ruin,” for example, is diagonally scarred from what appears to have been a run-in with a hot poker. This is some of what I had in mind as I translated poems like “Cædmon’s Hymn,” whose syntax is strikingly different than my own, and “Riddle 82,” which was also involved in the hot poker incident, and where I have worked to preserve what remains of the poem as well as its damage.
While I immersed myself in Old English to represent the wonderful strangeness of its poems, I often approach these works from a queer and feminist perspective. This is particularly crucial in poems like “Wulf and Eadwacer,” one of only a very few Old English poems written in the voice of a woman; “Riddle 63,” whose incredibly queer sensibility is both funny and sexy, fragmented as it is; and “The Old English Rune Poem,” where the pagan, pre-Roman runic alphabet is codified by a Christian monk during “depaganization,” and which, of course, includes the runic character for “home” that was later co-opted by the Nazis—and now by their descendants. One of the ways I do this is by including multiple versions of translations in the book. One version of “The Ruin,” for example, is a work of painstaking scholarship, but in another version I reimagine the poem as a kind of euphoric queer post-apocalyptic party.
“Cædmon’s Hymn,” on the other hand, I have translated only once. It is considered the first poem in English, and is essentially a poem of praise for the creator and creation. The poem has many names for God, but one of those names is also the first word I learned in Old English: “scop,” (pronounced “shope”) the word for poet. “Hē ǣrest sceōp,” the poem reads, “ǣrest” meaning “first,” as the poet makes a connection between the word for a maker and creator of poems and casts God as the “first” poet, suggesting that the world itself is God’s poem. Whether or not you believe the Venerable Bede’s story that the narrator, Cædmon, was an unlettered herdsman suddenly moved to poetry by divine intervention, is up to you.
Now we will honor the heaven-kingdom’s keeper,
the measurer’s might, and his mind thoughts,
the work of the wonder father, as he wrought,
boundless lord, the beginning of every beauty.
The first poet made, for the souls of soil,
heaven for a roof, holy maker.
After that, mankind’s keeper made
middle-earth, master almighty,
eternal lord, earth, for everyone.
Wondrous is this wall-stone, broken by fate,
the city burst apart, the giant-work crumbled.
Roofs are ruined, towers ruined,
rafters ripped away, hoarfrost on lime,
gaps in the storm-shelter, sheared and cut away
under-eaten by age. The earth grip holds
the mighty makers, decayed and lost to time
held in the hard-gripping ground while a hundred generations
of people watched, then died. Often this wall waited,
lichen gray and red-stained, through one kingdom after another,
stood against storms until steep, deep, it failed.
Yet even now the [ ] heaped over with [ ]
remains [ ]
savagely scraped [ ]
grimly ground up [ ]
[ ] shone [ ]
[ ] skillful work ancient building [ ]
[ ]g [ ] earth-rind bent
the mind [ ] swift motion
the mind-renowned one bound up in firm rings
house walls wonderfully with wire strips.
bright were the fort-buildings, bathhouses,
a wealth of high gables, much martial sound,
many meadhalls full with joy-days
until the force of fate turned that
bodies died all over the place in battle, days of pestilence came
death swept away all of the sword-brave men
This came to be their strife-place, their waste-places,
their battle places became blasted waste,
the fort-place rotted apart. The repairers died,
armies to the earth. For that reason these houses are failing,
the red expanses, the open places and shelters,
and the woodwork of the roof. The place of ruin fell,
broken to mounds where once many men,
mood-glad and gold-bright, clothed in gleaming,
gold-adorned and wine-flushed, war-gear shining,
and looked on treasure, silver, curious gems
on property, on lands, on jewel stones,
on this bright city, this broad realm.
The stone halls stood, the hot stream gushed
in a wide billow, and a wall held all of it
in its bright breast, and that bath was
hot in its heart. That was fitting.
Then they let flow [ ]
hot streams over old stone
[ ] until the ringed pool hotly [ ]
[ ] where they were.
When is [ ]
[ ] That is a kingly thing
house [ ]
[ ] city [ ]
Often I shall say I am beautifully useful
to the hall-joy when I am borne forth
glad with gold, to where men drink.
Sometimes, in the closet, the good servant
kisses my mouth, where we two are twice as long,
outstretched arms on hands [ ]
works his will [ ]
[ ] filled that I come forth
I can not conceal the [ ]
[ ] in daylight
men are with sound [ ]
[ ] token-marked who [ ] me to [ ]
[ ] the man you two were riding.
Smoother, [ ]
higher than heaven [ ]
[ ] gladder than the sun [ ] [ steel, sharper than salty [ ] more beloved than all this light, lighter now [ ]