The Wanderer (IV)
So a man who thinks through it all --
This dark life, this deep-laid wall --
Wise-minded, he remembers
War's slaughter, and speaks these words:
Here follows the passage that is, rightfully, the most famous ubi sunt in Old English poetry. Tolkien rewrote a version of it, a very good one, as a sample of the poetry of the Riders of Rohan, and thence, altered again, it actually appeared on the lips of Theoden in the Jackson Lord of the Rings movie -- the only bit of Old English poetry, that I know of, ever to have reached a mass audience.
Where is the horse? Where is the rider?
Where is the giver of treasure?
Where are the places at the feast? Where are the pleasures of the hall?
Ea-la, the bright cup! Ea-la, the burnished warrior!
Ea-la, the prince's glory! How the time departs,
Darkens under the helmet of night, as if it had never been!
Difficulties for the translator abound. First of all: hwaer com mearh? is not exactly "where is the horse?" It is not even "where has the horse gone?" Literally it's "where came horse?" Maybe I'm being too finicky, but it seems to me of great importance that the speaker actually locates himself in the same place as all these lost things -- they haven't gone away from him, they have come to the same place he has -- the place of ruin and loss. I was tempted to try "where has the horse come to?" or even "what has the horse come to?" and I might have gone with it, except that the question is repeated twice, with different subjects, and what is iffy once becomes emphatically ridiculous three times in a row. Tolkien's solution is the neatest and most economical, I think -- dropping the question of coming and going altogether, and saying simply "where is the horse?" (I don't know, by the way, that Tolkien invented this solution, only that he used it. I'm deliberately avoiding other translations till I'm done.)
The other thing that defeated me was the alliteration. All three subjects in the first two lines of the ubi sunt alliterate, in the Old English -- mearh, magu, mathum-giefa -- mare, man, and mathom-giver -- and it's important that they should do so. But I could not for the life of me come up with three plain but suitable words that would alliterate in Modern English, and here of all places the diction needed to be simple, clean, straightforward. So I surrendered, I hope gracefully. The first two lines alliterate, if you can call it that, on nothing but the repetition of "where?"
Then there's "ea-la!" (the "ea" is a diphthong, a long 'a' sliding into 'aw'.) Most people translate it as "alas!" but I couldn't bring myself to do that. It's accurate enough, and etymologically correct, but its associations are disastrous. Love-sick swains, Romeos, and Ophelias say "alas!" -- not hardbitten soldiers. Since it has no real semantic content, I decided it didn't need to be translated at all, that it wouldn't hurt anyone to have to learn the sound, in Old English, of inarticulate grief.