Mary Dockray-Miller

title.none: Rebsamen, trans., Beowulf

identifier.other: baj9928.9407.007 94.07.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mary Dockray-Miller, Loyola (Chicago) University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Rebsamen, Frederick. Beowulf: A Verse Translation. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. $4.50 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0064302121.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.07.07

Rebsamen, Frederick. Beowulf: A Verse Translation. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. $4.50 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0064302121.

Reviewed by:

Mary Dockray-Miller
Loyola (Chicago) University

In a world that already has approximately 135 different translations of Beowulf, near 20 of those in verse, a new translation must justify itself. What does it offer that its predecessors do not? Some translators have chosen to direct publication towards a very specific audience: Barry Tharaud's English as a Second Language version is the most obvious instance. Stanley Greenfield called his 1982 translation A Readable Beowulf; Marc Hudson in 1990 set out to provide what he termed a "liberal paraphrase." Frederick Rebsamen's new translation "attempts throughout to imitate the Old English poetic form as closely as is practical in Modern English" (vii); later in the introduction, Rebsamen states that he has tried:to adhere strictly to the rules of alliteration, to imitate as closely as is practical the stress patterns of Old English half-lines, and to choose Modern English words and compounds that give at least some idea of the strength and radiance of the original while also reflecting the tone of the poem (xix).Rebsamen has accomplished his stated goals. His edition is a welcome addition to the overflowing Beowulf bookshelf. It is a remarkable new translation of the poem that should replace Raffel's or Alexander's translations as the text of choice for those who cannot read the poem in the original language.

Any translation is a series of choices, from choices about presentation of the text to specific choices of words. Rebsamen's presentation choices are evident from the first; in a refreshing quasi-return to the manuscript presentation of the poem, Rebsamen has dispensed with the "chapter" headings, subtitles, and running summaries that have clogged recent translations of the poem. Huppe's text, with its minutely outlined and titled "sections," is the worst offender in this category. Rebsamen does insert roman numeral divisions before each monster fight (at lines 1, 1251, and 2200), but the text as a whole is clean and uncluttered.

One of the edition's weaker features is its method of commentary. Rebsamen says in the introduction that he dislikes footnotes; indeed, footnotes give a textbook-like feel to a translation, as Greenfield's shows. In order to explain "obscure passages that are important to the poem" he has provided seven prose interruptions of the text. Some of this information is undoubtably necessary (a review of the Swedish-Geatish feud is helpful for even the most learned Beowulf scholar), but Rebsamen's "explanations" tend to drift into the obvious and the aggrandizing. At line 864, Rebsamen interjects:Hrothgar's minstrel now improvises a song of Beowulf, then moves on to the dragon slayer Sigemund....This is the earliest literary account of the famous Voelsung family... (28).While I found these interpolations distracting and largely unnecessary in the midst of the poetic text, I dislike footnotes as much as Rebsamen. Endnotes or another section in the introduction would have been much less obstrusive.

Most of Rebsamen's choices as translator are more felicitious, however. He has chosen, as a variety of translators has, to present the poem with the caesura between the half lines. The original is always presented in this way, and a reading of the translation with a break at the half line forces the pause that the meter demands.

Rebsamen's critical decisions will be of interest to those readers who are aware of some of the cruces in the text. Beowulf and Breca have a swimming contest, not a rowing contest (l.506ff). Modthrytho, Offa's man-killer queen, has lost her name (l.1931), while Healfdane's unnamed daughter has been named Yrse in accordance with Norse tradition (l.62). In most instances, Rebsamen has avoided any radical departures from traditional interpretations.

It is the words, finally, that make the translation, and Rebsamen's, for the most part, are well chosen illustrations of repetition and variation, the mainstay of Old English verse. However, a few of his choices border on the ludicrous; the coastguard's veiled accusation that the Geats could be spies ( leas-sceaweras, false-lookers, line 253) becomes "possible pirates." I found his translations of bearn and dohtor as "son-child" and "daughter-child" heavy handed; though they fit the metrical requirements of the verse, the phrases seem more New Age than Old English. Rebsamen is at his best when he stays literal, as when he translates laen-dagas as "loan-days" rather than "transitory" or "fleeting days." Rebsamen chooses not to translate wyrd, after a brief discussion of the concept in the introduction; place names like Eagle-Cliff and Ravens-Wood retain their Anglo-Saxon names Earnanaess and Hrefnawudu, preserving the sound of the original even in translation.

Such preservation is apparent throughout the translation, with sparse punctuation and lots of compounds in the variation. Hrothgar describes Heremod, the bad king:To his mind came rushingblood-hungry thoughts —no bracelets or ringshe gave to his warriorsbut woeful miserysuffering and sorrowsharp death-givingendless murder-bale.(1719b-1723a).Rebsamen uses the Old English construction rather than trying to smooth it into flowing Modern English; he chooses to preserve or make compound nouns rather than translate with genitive phrases (murder's bale, giving of death). A similar example is Beowulf's description of Handscioh's death in Herot:Grendel murdered himcrunched him greedilygulped all of himcrammed into his mouththat marked doom-warrior. (2078b-2080b)Our own mouths are crammed with the piled up, varied phrases that have no modern punctuation to lessen the effect of Grendel's bloody gluttony.

Rebsamen's introduction is pleasantly short, with no unnecessary academic baggage; it provides brief sections on historical background, characters, structure, dating, sources, religion, monsters, and Old English verse. Rebsamen at times insists a bit too much on the poem's greatness, as if it could not speak for itself ("In the literature of Western Europe, Beowulf is by far the earliest poem of such length and distinction in any vernacular lanuage after the fall of Rome" [xv]). The bibliography at the end is appropriately brief but lists no secondary works published after 1974; the omission of the Beowulf volume from Harold Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations series (1987), with its representative criticism and good "starter" bibliography, seems especially bizarre in a 1991 work geared to a reader who has not read the poem in Old English.

These few disappointments, however, do not diminish my overall assessment of this fine, interesting translation. Rebsamen has done more by doing less, removing editorial clutter and focusing on his version of the Old English verse. Rebsamen's Beowulf is not smoothed out, annotated, or organized for the reader. It is not an easy read, with its disjointed syntax and scarce punctuation, but it is a rewarding one. This translation is an excellent choice for general readers and for teachers in any discipline, since it effectively conveys the moods and rhythms of Old English language and poetry.