Comparison of translations of The Seafarer by Burton Raffel and Ezra Pound

Essay by j33busHigh School, 11th gradeA+, April 2009

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Promt: Compare the two versions of The Seafarer by Raffel and Pound and give reasoning for why one is a better translation, in terms of preserving the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition and the overall feel of the poem.

It would not be possible to translate The Seafarer perfectly, keeping all of its patently Anglo-Saxon poetic devices intact. Because much of their poetic tradition involves the sounds of the words themselves, unless there were similar-sounding synonyms in modern English for each there is no way to duplicate the original feel. Regardless, both of the translations we looked at took some measures to preserve the Anglo-Saxon artistry that went into The Seafarer. The translation by Ezra Pound did more to capture the original essence of the poem than Burton Raffel's version, though.

The differences begin at line one. Raffel takes the line and translates it for meaning, ignoring the word order. Pound's version, on the other hand, keeps the word order mostly the same as the original, even though the syntax doesn't really make sense.

Raffel's line is more immediately understandable, but it loses some of the meaning and makes it sound less like a poem and more like the beginning to any old story. In the second line Raffel moves even farther from the original, while Pound once again adopts as similar a word order as possible, and even has some of the alliteration. Line three has only three words, but Raffel extrapolates a few extra meanings from the word earfoth, meaning harsh, and throwian, to suffer. His interpretation seems technically accurate, but Pound uses less words to make the line feel more like its Old English counterpart. He even keeps the word oft, since its meaning has not really changed. Theres more alliteration in line four, and once again Pound elects to stay true to the poetics while Raffel's translation talks about a hundred ships, something apparently invented by the translator himself.

In the second half of the poem Pound continues to do a much better job of representing the original material. In the fifth line he mentions a keep, which at first seemed strange, but then I realized that maybe he is referring to a castle, which would make sense because the word seld means throne or high seat. Raffel instead talks about a thousand ports, once again inventing a number and at the same time using a word that was not in the poem, or at least not explicitly. But in the next line it is Pound who adds a half-line of his own creation to preface the line after. The first half of line six is a pretty direct translation in his though, as is Raffel's. In the second half of his own translation Raffel talks about sweating in the cold, once again seemingly not related to the original but reasonable in terms of overall meaning. Pound uses more alliteration in line seven, pretty closely mimicking the sound of the Anglo-Saxon version as well as the meaning. Raffel is uncharacteristically accurate here as well, but he does not try to duplicate the alliteration. Pound and Raffel both treat the last line similarly, but Pound took it to mean the ship came close to wrecking, whereas Raffel interpreted it as the ship being smashed. Raffel seems to actually have the original text in his favor here for once, although Pound's still retains more of the original wording. Pound did change the “he” of the ship to a “she” to fit the English way of referring to boats. I don't like this change as it takes away from the authentic Anglo-Saxon feel, but it is really pretty minor.

From my analysis of the different translations of The Seafarer, its pretty clear which one is more successful at imitating the Anglo-Saxon poetic traditions and style. Ezra Pound's The Seafarer is still understandable despite the mixed word order, just as the original poem may have been a bit confusing, but overall comprehensible, to a speaker of Old English. The version by Raffel seems less foreign and confusing, but it loses some of its complexity and overall poetic feel. Pound does a superior job of mixing Anglo-Saxon tradition with modern English words.

BibliographyTranslation of The Seafarer by Burton RaffelTranslation of The Seafarer by Ezra Pound