Translating “The Wife’s Lament”

I made this translation of “The Wife’s Lament” for a class in Translating Anglo-Saxon poetry. It was meant to be a poetic translation, so I took the musical and lamenting nature of the poem and turned it into a ballad.

“The Wife’s Lament” is one of the most enigmatic poems in the Anglo-Saxon corpus, a body of literature that is never transparent at the best of times. Each critic that approaches the poem highlights the disputation about its meaning, and Murray McGillivray admits that “because the number of actors in this sad drama is unknown … and because the current situation of the speaker is so mysterious … we are free to speculate about who the speaker is and what her situation entails” (162). Since the meaning of the source text is far from clear, a so-called ‘faithful’ translation has little chance of making sense to its translated text audience. In this translation, I have transposed the wife’s song into a popular ballad form, and accepted McGillivray’s invitation to speculate on the speaker’s situation. Following Stacy Klein’s notion of the lament as a critique of the restrictiveness of female claustration, I have imagined 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.

The Wife’s Lament

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.              (8)

A friendless wretch, I went to seek,
A household for my need.
But the man’s kin thought to part our ways,
And set out to do the deed.

They willed us to live hatefully
Spread far across the land,
And while I yearned to be with him,
They did as they had planned.                        (16)

My lord ordered them to cloister me,
Where I had no faithful friend,
My lonely thoughts consumed my heart,
My spirits did descend.

I found my suited man was sad,
And thinking of a crime,
In joy we said we’d part at death,
But that was a different time.             (24)

Near and far I must take heed
Of my dear one’s enmity,
He made me live in an earthen cave
Beneath an old oak tree.

This old earth-hall has saddened me,
Its locale is dark and dim:
The valleys, hills and brambles
Make this dwelling very grim.            (32)

My lord’s departure seizes me,
When I think on it each day;
I know out there are lovers,
But it is here that I must stay.

There I must sit the summer-long day,
There I may curse my ban;
I might not rest my thoughts and cares
From longing for my man.                  (40)

If anyone shares my sad lot
May he harden his heart and mind,
He needs a glad demeanor,
His breast-care for to bind.

If he takes joy in his worldly self
Or is wrenched from his native soil,
Then he will sit in sorrow,
His heart in deep turmoil.                   (48)

His roof will be a stormy slope
All full of frosted stone
In dreary hall mid waters,
My lord will stand alone.

He’ll be thinking of the Joyous House
And so much sorrow will bear,
All woeful is the lover,
Who abides his Love with care!         (56)




Klein, Stacy S. “Gender and the Nature of Exile in Old English Elegies.” A Place to Believe In: Locating Medieval Landscapes. Ed. Clare A Lees and Gillian R Overing. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. 113-131. Print.

McGillivray, Murray. Old English Reader. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2011. Print.


Filed under Monasticism, Old English, Poetry, Translation, Women

2 responses to “Translating “The Wife’s Lament”

  1. Burbling Jubjub

    Excellent post.

    It always seemed to me that translating poetry from Old English is especially tricky due to its richness/ambiguity and its closeness to modern English (well, because it is close, but not close enough). It necessitates that a facet of the original is taken, and much is left behind. In any case, I like this specific take on the poem, and I’m particularly fond of the translation, “I know out there are lovers, / But it is here that I must stay.”

    I’m curious what you think about, or what you mean by, the last section of the poem. Is there a (direct) message to her husband?

    I like a good ballad, and while it might be a bit inappropriate here, I can’t help that there are a couple of fun tunes going through my mind as I read this.

    • percivalssister

      Thanks! I’ve been reading a lot of modern English translations of Old English poetry, and it seems that the more they try to stay close to the original, the less successful they are in the translation. I tried to avoid that by do something completely different formally.

      In the last section, I thought of it less as a message to her husband than general advice to those who are unhappily cloistered. Basically, she says it is necessary to grin and bear it rather than dwell either on the worldly existence that one leaves behind or anticipate Heaven too eagerly (the Joyous House). The cloister will seem colder and drearier if you compare it to the hall of one’s youth, and I thought about the (perhaps anachronistic) spousal imagery of Christ in the end passage about abiding one’s Love. I’m not sure if “my lord” in line 52 messes that up by seeming like a reference to the husband, as it uses the same vocabulary in the original, but I thought of it as a deferential address to the general “geong mon” or “anyone” of line 41.

      I imagine the fun tunes going through your mind are the same ones I had in my mind when I was writing it and checking the scansion. I tried to make sure there were a few extra unstressed syllables here and there so that it matched older popular ballads like Bonny Barbara Allan and nodded to the Anglo Saxon meter that allows any number of unstressed syllables in the four stress line.

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