Poetic Translation and The Wife’s Lament

Eddy Bodleian_Junius11_p59_cropped
Mourning in the Anglo-Saxon imagination: the death of Malalehel, mourned by his daughters; Genesis A, England, late 10th century; Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius MS 11

The Wife’s Lament is a poem about a zombie. It is also a riddle about a sorrowful woman who has been separated from her husband and exiled into the wilderness. Or is it a song about a vengeful nun’s curse? This spellbinding piece of Anglo-Saxon verse from the Exeter Book does not allow us to settle upon any of the above scenarios, and neither does it allow us to rule any of them out. The poem is remarkable as a rare example of a first-person narrative in a female voice, and its enigmatic quality brings scholars and translators back to it perennially in order to appreciate the beauty and significance of the poem and shed more light on its mysteries. The ambiguity of the poem also makes it a joy to translate, as it opens a space for unfettered creativity. For my contribution to The Chequered Board’s ongoing series on Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation, I have taken on The Wife’s Lament as an exploratory exercise in order to experiment with creative translation as a way of interpreting Old English poetry.

In his introduction to The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, Greg Delanty notes that “We tend to think of Anglo-Saxon poetry as issuing from the uniform voice of the great poet Anonywulf, especially once the poems are translated by the learned Master Olde English” (xv). The uniformity of many Old English poems in translation is due to the collective goal of many translators in producing as accurate a translation as possible. While this style of rendering an ancient poem into modern English is essential for learners of Old English to grasp the sense of the original language, it does not leave much room for the creative or interpretive voice of the translator. In the hands of modern poets like Burton Raffel and Eavan Bolan, however, an Old English poem can take on a new life of its own. When Raffel sets the woman’s exile in “a convent / Of wooden nuns” (15-16) he draws a comparison between the claustrophobic feeling of the woman and practices of enclosure surrounding Anglo-Saxon nuns. Boland highlights the possibility that the poem’s conclusion is an aggressive speech act by translating the wife’s speech as an explicit curse: “Let him be cast from his land alone/ By an icy cliff in a cold storm” (64-65). These versions of The Wife’s Lament add welcome voices to the conversation surrounding the poem, and show that poetic translation that experiments beyond a literal interpretation of the poem can be a legitimate way to approach its complexities from a fresh and intellectually productive perspective.

In my own approach, I wanted to address Delanty’s complaint by using a form that diverged from the imitation of alliterative verse often found in translations of Anglo-Saxon poetry. I settled on the ballad stanza because its regular and repeated rhyme scheme allowed me to approximate some of the sonic effects of alliteration, while also referencing other aspects of the Wife’s Lament that makes it stand out from other Old English poems. An example of a few ballad stanzas from the translation is excerpted below, as well as a reading of the original Anglo-Saxon verse:

I sadly sing this song of mine,
Of my journey of misery.
I tell the tale as I grow old
True now as will ever be.

My exile-journey is full of woe
Since my lord went out to the deep,
My dawn-cares have been full of him
And all I have done is weep.               (1-8)

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Though the late medieval and early modern ballad stanza seems like an anachronistic fit with an Anglo-Saxon poem, the musical verse form represents a centuries-old tradition of female narratives of sorrow, from “Bonny Barabara Allan” to Dorothy Parker’s “The Dark Girl’s Rhyme.” Instead of simply categorizing the Wife’s Lament with all other Anglo-Saxon poems or Old English elegies, the ballad encourages readers to consider the poem in a more thematic genre category.

I also wanted to do homage to Raffel’s brilliant translation by imagining this song as the tale of a woman who is forced into a religious community when her husband leaves on a long sea journey, and is not recalled upon his return. She feels exiled and alone because she has been separated from her kin, and the religious life seems foreign to her. The final section of the text constitutes advice for others in her situation to cope with the monastic way of life. Though the translation is still left open to a variety of scenarios, I have made allusions to Raffel’s “convent of wooden nuns” through the use of “cloister” (17) and the notion of spending one’s time in enclosure in contemplation of heaven (the “Joyous House” [53]) and Christ (“Love” [56]).

The resulting translation is by no means an accurate or aesthetically comparable rendering of the original piece, but I hope it can encourage others to flex their creativity when approaching the translation of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The corpus of Old English poetry is a rich and diverse group of poems, and we can only enhance our appreciation of these works by hearing them retold in a multiplicity of voices that highlight the zombies, nuns, wilderness, and curses in each of them.

Leanne MacDonald
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Boland, Eavan. “The Wife’s Lament.” The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, ed. Greg Delanty and Michael Matto. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Delanty, Greg and Michael Matto, The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Raffel, Burton. “A Woman’s Message and the Husband’s Message.” Prairie Schooner 32.2 (1958): 125-127. Print.

 

Almsgiving

Eddy Harley2904_f3v_cropped3
The Virgin Mary, at the crucifixion; the Ramsey Psalter, last quarter of the 10th century, England; BL Harley 2904, f. 3v

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!

 

Almsgiving
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.

Previously published in Dappled Things 9.3 (2014) and “Lofsangas: Poems Old and New,” a chapbook by Jacob Riyeff (Franciscan University of Steubenville Press, 2015).

Old English
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Modern English translation
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Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

The Slaying of Abel in Apocryphal Tradition

The account of Abel’s slaying in Genesis represents one of those moments where the desire for more detail is frustrated utterly by Scripture’s silence. How did Cain murder his brother? Where did he learn to kill? What did he do with the body? And so on and so forth in this manner, without recourse to satisfactory answers from the primary sources.

Much like Nature, however, ancient and medieval scriptural commentators abhorred a vacuum; wherever lacunae existed in the biblical narratives, many were more than happy to fill the gaps with clever conjecture, rationalistic explanations, and apocrypha sourced from a variety of traditions. Perhaps the grandest example of this taste for a veritably encyclopedic concatenation of biblical trivia is what Bernard Bischoff economically called Das Bibelwerk (or the Reference Bible), the massive eight-century Irish biblical commentary bearing the Latin title Pauca problesmata de enigmatibus ex tomis canonicis (“Little Questions on Obscurities from Canonical Books”). Unsurprisingly, then, there arose in both the early Jewish and Christian textual communities a number of traditions dealing with the precise method of Abel’s murder.

The neck or head, for example, is identified in a number of early Jewish sources, including the Genesis Rabbah, as the anatomical locus of Abel’s murder. Similarly, the Babylonian Talmud explains how Cain, unfamiliar with the mechanics of death, effectively unleashes a flurry of wild blows until he finds the sweet spot of the neck. The neck and its vital organs are further implicated in the act of strangulation or suffocation, a method alternatively suggested both in Ambrosiaster’s Quaestiones Ueteris et Noui Testamenti CXXVII and the Reference Bible.

Cain strangling Abel. Ivory panel from Salerno Cathedral, c. 1084, now in the Louvre.

Tucked away in a quirky little sermon on tithing dating from at least the eighth century (a copy of which survives in British Library, MS Royal 5. E. XIII, ff. 9r-11r ), we also find the jarring explanation that Cain both suffocated and decapitated Abel with the jawbone of an ass, perhaps even implying that he used animal’s remaining teeth to saw off his brother’s head. Yikes! In fact the earliest literary source to specify the jawbone of an ass as Cain’s murder weapon is a comment on Genesis IV. 8 found in glosses originating from the Canterbury school of Theodore and Hadrian in the seventh century.

Cain striking Abel with a jaw-bone. The “Taymouth Hours.” British Library, MS Yates-Thompson 13, f. 28r, s. xiv (2/4).

Among others, J. E. Cross and T. D. Hill have also noted the presence of this tradition both in the later Old English prose dialogue Solomon and Saturn, as well as in the mid twelfth-century Irish Lebor Gabála Érenn, where the jawbone is said to be that of a camel.

Cain striking Abel with a jaw-bone (of a camel? ass?). The “Huth Psalter.” British Library, MS Additional 38116, f. 9r, s. xiii ex.

The extra-scriptural tradition that Cain used a jaw-bone (whether that of an ass, camel, or otherwise) to slay his brother may ultimately derive, as M. Shapiro and A. A. Barb have suggested, from his designation as a tiller of the ground. In trying to account for the murder-weapon, early literal-minded commentators may have sought an instrument germane to Cain’s agrarian occupation, such as a scythe.

Cain killing Abel with a scythe. Bible historiale. British Library, MS Harley 4381, f. 10r, 1403-1404.

Such an implement would not, of course, have been made from metal, since the forging of metal tools only began generations later with Tubal-Cain, as any early biblical scholar worth his salt would have remembered. In the absence of metallurgical science, then, a scythe or sickle would have been made of animal bone, perhaps even a jawbone (or so the argument goes). As it happens, excavations of Near Eastern palaeolithic settlements have discovered just this sort of object, animal jawbones inset with flint blades as a replacement for the original teeth.

That his agrarian occupation did encourage other creative conjectures, however, is clear enough from the statement, found in the eighth or ninth-century Vita Anstrudis, that Cain killed his brother with a hoe; or from Benzo of Alba’s Ad Heinricum Imperatorem Libri VII where, this time, Cain is said to have used a shovel.

Cain cleaving Abel’s head with a shovel. The “Psalter of St. Louis.” Bibliothèque nationale, Lat. 10525, f. 2r, 1270-1274.

Yet by far the most macabre explanation comes to us from the thirteenth-century Joca monachorum (“Monks’ Jokes”) dialogue. There, in response to the question how Cain decapitated his brother, the interrogator is told matter of factly that, since he didn’t have a sword, Cain used his teeth, and then buried Abel twelve feet deep. One of the very earliest sources to allude to this outrageously primal method of killing is the apocryphal Latin Life of Adam and Eve (or the Apocalypse of Moses in the Greek version), a collection of texts largely considered to be Jewish in origin and dating to the first century AD. Here Eve is said to have dreamt of Abel’s murder, seeing in her vision Cain mercilessly drinking up every drop of his brother’s blood and vomiting it forth upon the earth. A striking depiction of this scene can be found in the so-called “Alba Bible” from Maqueda, Spain (c. 1430).

Some such source as this must also lie behind the account given in the Zohar (a thirteenth century collection of esoteric and Kabbalistic scriptural exegesis), where Cain is said to have bit his brother like a serpent because he did not know how to separate body and soul.

It is worth pointing out as well that the Book of Enoch, an apocryphal Jewish text dating from around the third to first century BC, describes the antediluvian giants of Genesis 6 as cannibalistic monsters who drank the blood of their own race. These very giants, according to the tradition preserved in both the Irish Reference Bible and the Old English poem Beowulf, among others sources, had sprung directly from the murderous seed of Cain. The Book of Enoch, or at least a fragment of its Latin translation, was also definitely known in Anglo-Saxon England by the tenth century at the latest, and it is perhaps this very bit of apocryphal lore that the Beowulf poet had in mind when describing the monstrous kin of Cain, among whom the blood-drinking horror of the marches—Grendel—numbered.

While certainly not exhaustive, the above little discussion will have shown, if nothing else, how wonderfully (or frightfully) imaginative and diverse apocryphal tradition could be in the face of Scripture’s silence. For questions remained, and answers were demanded—and when every detail, no matter how seemingly trivial, potentially held deep symbolic significance, such silence was indeed unacceptable. Luckily, there existed a robust inheritance of extra-biblical sources and authorities to satisfy even the most inquisitive of minds.

Christopher Scheirer

PhD Candidate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Further Reading:

Bischoff, Bernard and Michael Lapidge, eds., Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian (Cambridge, 1994), p. 499.

Barb, A. A., “Cain’s Murder-Weapon and Samson’s Jawbone of an Ass,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 35 (1972), pp. 386-87.

Cross, J. E., “Cain’s Jawbone: Earlier Allusions” in KM 80: A Birthday Album for Kenneth Muir, Tuesday, 5 May, 1987, ed. A. Kettle (Liverpool, 1987), p. 33.

Cross, J. E. and T. D. Hill., The Prose Solomon and Saturn and Adrian and Ritheus (Toronto, 1982).

Henderson, G., “Cain’s Jaw-Bone,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 24.1/2 (1961), pp. 108-114.

Mellinkoff, Ruth, “Cain’s Monstrous Progeny in Beowulf: Part I, Noachic Tradition,” Anglo-Saxon England 8 (1979), pp. 143-162.

Orchard, Andy, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript (Toronto, 1995), pp. 58-85.

Shapiro, M. “‘Cain’s Jaw-bone That Did the First Murder’,” The Art Bulletin 24.3 (1942). Pp 205-212.

W. Suchier, ed. Das mittellateinsche Gespräch Adrian und Epictitus: nebst verwandten Texten (Joca Monachorum) (Tübingen, 1955), no. 23, p. 124.

Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary to the Book of Genesis. A New American Translation, trans. J. Neusner (Atlanta, 1985), p. 248.

Sanhedrin, ed. I. Epstein, trans. Jacob Shachter, 2 vols. (London, 1935), I, 37b, p. 237.

Vita Anstrudis Abbatissae Laudunensis V, 25-26, ed. W. Levison, MGH: Scriptorum Rerum Merovingicarum 6 (Hannover, 1913), p. 68: “Semper enim pars malorum infesta est parti piorum, ex quo Cain fregit sarculo guttur fraternum.”