Translating a poem is a tall order. There are many factors to consider and issues which must be negotiated in the process. Which is better—literal accuracy or stylistic approximation? We have asked modern translators from the Medieval Institute and English departments at Notre Dame to share translations of their favorite Old English poems, digitally displayed alongside their medieval counterparts. Recitations, both in Old and modern English, will likewise be featured as complementary audio files, accompanying both versions of each respective poem translated.
Today, we’d like to draw your attention to the first of these translations, which is now available on our site. “Almsgiving” is contained in the Exeter Book, a collection of Old English poetry copied c. 970, and thus the oldest surviving collection of English literature in the world. Jacob Riyeff, a PhD candidate in Notre Dame’s Department of English, has translated this beautiful poem, and you can read it below, as well as hear recordings of him reciting the Old English text and his own modern English translation. We hope you enjoy!
from the Old English Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501)
Translation and Recitations by Jacob Riyeff
OLD ENGLISH ORIGINAL POEM:
Wel bið þam eorle þe him on innan hafað,
reþehydig wer, rume heortan;
þæt him biþ for worulde weorðmynda mæst,
ond for ussum dryhtne doma selast.
Efne swa he mid wætre þone weallendan
leg adwæsce, þæt he leng ne mæg
blac byrnende burgum sceððan,
swa he mid ælmessan ealle toscufeð
synna wunde, sawla lacnað.
ASPR III, 223.
MODERN ENGLISH RIYEFF TRANSLATION:
That disciple is blest whose spirit burns
with generosity, renovating the inner room
of her heart. The world rejoices at her worthiness
and the Lord glories in the welcome glow of her light.
Jesus ben Sirach says a surging
flame will be snuffed, raging fires
put down with welling water—no longer
able to damage dwellings with burning—
when that disciple douses sin, healing souls
with the gracious gift of her alms.
Modern English translation
Department of English
University of Notre Dame