Translation Tuesday: “The Seafarer,” from the Book of Exodus

Translated from the Old English by Spenser Santos

The Seafarer 


May I utter truth for myself,

to say of trials, how in the times of toil

I often withstood wearisome times,

bitter breastcare, how I have bided,

come to know on a ship, abode of much care,

the terrible seawave’s rolling often held me there,

anxious nightwatch at the boat’s prow,

when it pitched against cliffs. Pinched by cold

were my feet, frostbound

with cold fetters, there the sighs of care

were hot around the heart; hunger tore from within

the mereweary mood. That the man,

to whom the most pleasant on earth befalls, knows not

how I, wretched and sorrowful, on the ice-cold sea

dwelled in winter in the paths of an exile,

bereft of beloved kinsmen and

hung with icicles; hail flew in showers.

There I heard naught but the sea to roar,

the frigid wave. Sometimes the swan’s song

did I take for entertainment, the gannet’s cry

and curlew’s sound for men’s laughter,

the seagull’s singing for mead.

Storms there beat the stony cliffs, where

the tern, the icy-feathered one, answers him,

very often the eagle screamed round about,

the dewy-feathered one; not any protecting kinsmen

could comfort the wretched spirit.

indeed, few admit to themselves, who possess life’s joy

experienced in towns, few bitter trials,

high-spirited and wine-gay, how weary I often

had to stay on sea-passage.

The shadow of night darkened, snowed from the north,

frostrime bound the land, hail fell on the earth

the coldest grain. Therefore now thoughts

importune the heart; that in deep streams,

I test myself against the tossing of the salt-seawaves;

mind’s desire urges through each of times

the spirit to journey, that I seek

the land of foreign nations.

There is not so mind-proud a man over the earth,

nor generous of gifts, nor so gallant in youth,

nor so brave in deeds, nor so friendly to a lord,

that he in his sea voyage never did have sorrow,

as what the Lord will do to him.

his mind cares neither for harpsong nor the receiving of gifts—

or toward wife-joy or earthly pleasure—

nor about anything else except the rolling of waves;

but he who finds himself on the sea always has longing.

the groves burst into bloom, beautify the manors,

brighten the meadows; the world hastens on;

all those remind the eager of spirit

a mind to a journey as he who thinks

to go far on floodways.

likewise the cuckoo reminds with sad speech,

summer’s lord sings, announces sorrow

bitter in the breastchamber. The man knows not,

blessed with comforts, what those ones endure

who pursue the farthest paths of exile.

Because now my thought turns over the breast,

my heart with ocean-stream

turns wide over the whales’ home,

the expanses of the earth, comes back to me

ravenous and greedy; the solitary flyer calls out,

whets on the whaleway irresistible to the heart

over the expanse of the seas;—for hotter to me

are the Lord’s joys than this brief life

on dead land. I believe not

that earthly riches remain forever.

Always one of three things to each thane

before his last day becomes cause for uncertainty:

sickness, or old age or the sword’s hatred

wrests away the passing soul fated to die.

Therefore, speaking of men after their deaths,

praise for the living of the best legacy left behind.

let him bring that about, before he must go away,

good deeds on earth with malice of enemies,

valiant deeds against the devil,

that him born of man may live with angels

forever and ever, the eternal life’s joy,

joy with the heavenly host. Days are departed,

all glories, kingdoms of the earth;

now are neither kings nor emperors,

nor were the gold-givers of old likewise,

ns performed with him the greatest of glorious deeds

and lived in most lordly renown.

Fallen is all this host, joys are departed;

the inferior dwells and the world keeps this,

partakes through toil. Joy is brought low,

earth’s nobility grows old and withers,

as now each of men does over the middle earth.

Age overtakes him, the face grows pale,

the hoary-haired one laments, knows his bygone friend,

one born of princes, consigned to the earth.

Then his flesh-covering may not, when he loses his spirit,

not swallow up sweetness nor feel pain

nor move a hand nor think with mind.

Though he will strew the grave with gold

his brother by blood, to bury alongside the dead

with various treasures, that will not be buried with him;

nor may the soul which is full of sin

have gold to help against God’s wrath,

when he hides it there while he leaves here.

Great is God’s wrath, before which the earth shall turn aside;

the established firm grounds,

expanses of earth and the heavens above.

Foolish is he who dreads not his Lord: death comes unexpected to him.

Blessed is he who lives humbly: the grace of heaven comes to him.

The Maker establishes his mind, and keeps it in place,

and unfailing in pledges, pure with manners.

Each of men shall keep with moderation

love for the beloved and loathing for the baleful,

though he will not be full of fire

or consumed by flames

the friend he has made: fate is stronger,

The Measurer mightier, than any man’s conception.

Let us consider where we keep home,

and think how we came there;

and then we also strive that we may go that way

in eternal happiness

where life is long in the Lord’s love

high in the heavens. For the thanks of that Holy One,

he that exalted us, Lord of the glorious realm,

eternal Lord, for all time. Amen.


Spenser Santos is an MFA candidate in literary translation and Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Iowa. He translates from Spanish, Old English, and Icelandic. His translation thesis is a translation of the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch translation of the Book of Exodus, from which this excerpt takes part. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Winona State University, where he majored in English, Spanish, and Writing.