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The Stephen Spender Prize 2014 for poetry in translation
in association with the Guardian

18-and-under category, commended

Read the judges’ comments
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Read the winning entries from previous years

Joshua James

Against a Swarm of Bees

Take soil in your right hand –
Cast it beneath your right foot and say:

This earth underfoot has urged me utter:
Earth! Earth is the sole survivor
Of its every earthbound soul!
Earth outwears all gall-grim anger,
All mindless mortal fury,
And the mighty tongues of men!

Now, scatter soil across the swarm and say:

Be settled now, seething shield-sisters,
Settle now, and be steady;
Settle now and, singing, slip soft to the sod; be soothed.
See how the slat-sworded spinney,
Shadowed and sallow, is not for you.
Never wax wild there, shield-sisters,
Be serene; be still; be sensible of my safety;
Be as sure of my safety as shall each man
Be sure-settled in the site of his home.
Settle now, seething shield-sisters. Be soothed.

Translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Joshua James

The original Anglo-Saxon may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem and commentary, click here (opens in new window).

Against a Swarm of Bees

Wið ymbe nim eorþan, oferweorp mid þinre swiþran
handa under þinum swiþran fet, and cwet:

Fo ic under fot, funde ic hit.
Hwæt, eorðe mæg wið ealra wihta gehwilce
and wið andan and wið æminde
and wið þa micelan mannes tungan.

And wiððon forweorp ofer greot, þonne hi swirman, and cweð:

Sitte ge, sīgewīf, sīgað tō eorðan,
næfre ge wilde tō wuda fleogan,
beō ge swā gemindige, mīnes gōdes,
swā bið manna gehwilc, metes and ēðeles


Translation commentary

Lines 1, 2 and 9 of the original are not in alliterative verse, but are necessary for the coherence of the charm, and so they have been translated into a fairly natural style of Modern English, though alliteration was used in line 10 as it was uncomplicated to retain a natural spoken style, and an overly prosaic interjection at this point in the poem would have interrupted the flow of the charm. Line 3 of the original presented its own peculiar problems; its meaning is not entirely clear, and yet it seems fairly crucial to this first section of the charm. The literal translation of l.3, 'I have taken [it] under foot, I have learned it' is patently unsatisfactory; the 'it' that is supposed to have been learned is empty. I took this 'it' to be the wisdom subsequently expressed through the charm, and that taking the earth underfoot had in some way aided its realisation or was vital for its actuation.

Sigewif (literally, 'victory-women') is translated here as 'shield-sisters'. Not only does this respect the connotations of battle present in the original, but it also brings with it the pleasing sonic quality of sibilance, creating a sound which both buzzes and soothes.

The beo in the penultimate line of the Old English strikes me as a pun. This present-tense, second person form of the beon-wesan verb is a fairly unusual thing to see, not many Anglo-Saxon texts being written in this tense and case, while beo is also the Anglo-Saxon word for 'bee'. Acknowledging the likelihood that this pun would have been more obvious to an Anglo-Saxon audience than a 'be/bee' pun would be to us, I have tried to recreate the pun's effect by introducing, further to that one, a whole swarm of 'be's.

Joshua James