Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe

title.none: Liuzza, trans., Beowulf (O'Brien O'Keeffe )

identifier.other: baj9928.0107.013 01.07.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe , University of Notre Dame, Katherine.O.O'

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Liuzza, R. M. trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Broadview Press, 1999. Pp. 5, 242. $9.95. ISBN: 1-551-11189-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.07.13

Liuzza, R. M. trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Broadview Press, 1999. Pp. 5, 242. $9.95. ISBN: 1-551-11189-6.

Reviewed by:

Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe
University of Notre Dame

It is a professional reflex to regard any translation with suspicion, as if the very possibility of virtue triggers flashbacks of Dowson's lover: "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion." Translations of Beowulf are many and varied: when we choose among them, particularly when the aim is classroom use, we try to combine two difficult goals, accuracy and elegance. The prose translation of Beowulf that dominated the field since the 1960s was that by E. Talbot Donaldson, whose publication by Norton gave it a kind of institutional status. The Donaldson translation had the virtue of accuracy, but the prose made difficult reading, particularly for those new to the poem. Norton's recent commissioning of a new translation by Seamus Heaney offers elegance, though often at the expense of accuracy at the level of word and style. (See Nicholas Howe, "Scullionspeak," The New Republic 28 February 2000, 32-37.) It is a great pleasure, therefore, to find in Roy M. Liuzza's new translation of Beowulf a highly accurate translation whose sensitivity to the music of verse gives us a Beowulf in English that is elegantly readable. The poem is also accompanied by a rich variety of ancillary material -- introduction, notes, appendices -- that makes it a treasure house for classroom use or for private reading.

Liuzza's choice to translate the poem into blank verse, with alliteration and four-stress line divided across a caesura, while carefully attending to the poem's syntactic effects, characteristic variation, and diction, presented a daunting task. The alliterative and verse form of Old English is foreign to Modern English, and Liuzza's resolution of the problem was an "analogous" line, which chose not to replicate the effects in Old English but to evoke them. In a passage such as: ...The door burst open, fast in its forged bands, when his fingers touched it; bloody-minded, swollen with rage, he swung open the hall's mouth, and immediately afterwards the fiend strode across the paved floor, went angrily; in his eyes stood a light not fair; glowing like fire (ll. 721-27), Liuzza's translation gives an immediate impression of the syntactic pressure of the Old English because it carefully and naturally reproduces the structure of the half-lines. In his progress through the hall, Grendel's forward movement is as relentless as the hall is helpless to stop it. Readers familiar with the Old English will hear the half-lines: "recedes mu*an [* = thorn]," "on fagne flor," "feond treddode," "him of eagum stod," "ligge gelicost." Some of the alliterative effects Liuzza builds into the poem repeat the alliteration of the Old English, although he wisely does not attempt any wholesale replication.

Liuzza's translation respects points of difficulty in the text. In a vexed passage, where Beowulf promises Hrothgar that he will pursue Aeschere's killer, he assures the old man "I promise you this: he will find no protection," apparently forgetting the gender of Grendel's mother. Other translators silently, and I believe wrongly, correct the text to "she" here -- wrongly, because the Old English text's repeated manifestations of discomfort at this female combatant is an important issue in contemporary scholarship. Liuzza's note addresses the double possibility: either the poem once again makes Grendel's mother male, or the referent of 'he' is the preceding masculine noun. Similarly, Liuzza generally follows the consensus position at points of difficulty in the text; where he does not he clearly signals the warrant for his reading (as with his rendition of the notoriously difficult lines 168-69).

If suspicion is a professional reflex, finding preferable readings is the accompanying parlor game. That said, I had to look hard to find many individual word choices where I was tempted to second guess. This is a translation that gets it right, does so consistently, and gives us a pleasurable Beowulf in the process. It will certainly be my choice the next time I teach the poem in translation.

Liuzza is a stylist, and his rich introductory essay, structured around four sets of oppositions, is also a pleasure to read. "Beowulf Between Myth and History," "Beowulf Between Song and Text," "Beowulf Between Court and Cloister," and "Beowulf Between Old and Modern English," are all introduced by fragments from "Burnt Norton." These epigraphs, while structural grace notes, nonetheless reveal Liuzza's central interest in this preliminary material -- the past of the poem in tension with our present. Only through time time is conquered. The essay opens with a thoughtful exploration of the intersection of myth and history in the poem, noting that "this unruly poem" resists our expectations of genre. Nowhere is this resistance more powerful than in the poem's complex negotiations of the mythic and the historic, the smoothly timeless and the dense temporal folds of imagined history. A beginning reader of this poem tends to expect things simple, generally bringing to the poem an idea that the Beowulf is 'about' monsters, mythical combats with two hulking sub-humans and a dragon. What Liuzza's introductory materials do so well is to counter such expectations with deft alternative structures for understanding the poem. And so, in confronting the misleading dichotomy between myth and history in the poem, Liuzza points out their complex interweavings by focusing on the contemporary cultural work such combats could perform. In Liuzza's canny reading, that cultural work is done at the intersection of "myth and history, the individual psyche and its cultural milieu" (p. 19), where the narrative holds in uneasy balance order, violence, contingency, and loss.

Following this opening meditation, Liuzza presents an array of materials to assist a reader with the cultural world of Beowulf. There is a carefully nuanced discussion of the oral background of the poem, including individual attention to the building blocks of Old English poetry, traditional diction, performance, and the complex relations between the tools and aesthetics of oral poetics and the heritage of a written poem. Under "Court and Cloister" he considers the religious elements forming a background to the poem. Liuzza follows the main scholarly opinion on this issue that the poet was a Christian imaginatively recreating a pagan mentality. To assist readers in retrieving for themselves some frames of Christian reference during the Anglo-Saxon period, Liuzza offers a generous Appendix C with six texts on Christian/pagan relations ranging in time from a letter of Gregory the Great to a homily by Wulfstan. The final set of contrasts deals with Old English poetic technique and the difficulties of translation. Here Liuzza provides a good, accessible analysis of variation and style, with the helpful analogue that style in an Old English poem is much like traditional jazz where "musicians express their individuality within the relatively narrow confines of a standard repertoire and technique" (p. 46). It is in this section that Liuzza discusses his job as translator and the difficulties facing anyone attempting to remove Beowulf from its own language and recreate it in another. Here too Liuzza is generous with an Appendix in which readers can sample an array of English translations from Sharon Turner's 1805 effort to that of Frederick Rebsamen in 1991.

The appended sample translations in his Appendix E offer a wonderful opportunity for anyone (general reader, student, or professional scholar) to engage with the ground-level decisions, small successes and sometimes awful failures of translators. The passage he offers is Beowulf, ll. 229-57, the Danish coastguard's initial encounter with Beowulf's troop. In it, the coastguard is necessarily curious about the appearance of well-armed foreigners on his watch. The problem is translating the phrase in which this curiosity is expressed: "hyne fyrwyt braec/ modgehygdum" (ll. 232b-33a). A flatly literal translation would be "curiosity pressed him in his thought," and the immediate problem of the translator's job to cross the interstices between Old and Modern English becomes apparent. The expression is idiomatic: the half-line appears two other times in Beowulf (ll. 1985b and 2784b), as well as in Juliana 27b; the variant "me fyrwet braec" appears in Solomon and Saturn II, 248a. Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, in their Beowulf: An Edition gloss the phrase (under 'brecan') "he was eager to know." Klaeber, in his third edition of the poem (1950), observes in his notes "One would like to know the origin of this quaint expression," glossing 'brecan' in context as "press, torment." Translators' strategies give us a variety of coastguards: Turner offers us the richly (if unintentionally) comic "instantly he broke the fire vessel/ in the doubts of his mind"; Longfellow's coastguard is Hamlet-like "Him the doubt disturbed/ In his mind's thought"; William Morris and A. J. Wyatt produce the startling effect of Piers Plowman at the hoe-down "And stirr'd up his mood to wot who were the men-folk." There is little nonsense about Burton Raffel's coastguard, "needing to know why they'd landed"; though the coastguard in Kevin Crossley-Holland's translation -- "his mind was riddled with curiosity" -- sounds as if he had just put down the Exeter Book when he noticed the foreigners. Some burn (Chickering has "his mind was afire"); some have awkward urges (Morgan's coastguard's "thoughts were pricked/ With desire"). Liuzza steers a sensible course in his different contextual renderings of this difficult little phrase: at 232 "he was bursting with curiosity/ in his mind" plays nicely against the rather officious surface of the coastguard; at 1985, when Hygelac wants to know about Beowulf's adventures "curiosity pressed him" against the formal constraints of kingly demeanor; and at 2784, when Wiglaf is anxious to return to the dying Beowulf, "he was burning to know." The latter in context might be uncomfortably close to the bone; nevertheless, Liuzza's renderings in each case meet his own goals of placing "fluency and precision at the top of my list of goals" and achieving "a poetic idiom that is analogous to, not imitative of, the character of the original" (p. 47). His choices here are faithful both to his own translator's goals and to the poem as well.

The notes to the translation are helpful throughout. At the end of the translation proper, before the Appendices, Liuzza supplies a Glossary of Proper Names, Genealogies of the Danes, Geats, and Swedes, and in indispensable chronological reconstruction of the Geatish-Swedish Wars. In addition to the two appendices mentioned above, there is an appendix with generous selections of analogues (from Grettissaga, and Blickling Homily 17, among others), and an appendix with sources mentioning characters that appear in Beowulf. Liuzza generously offers an on-line study guide for Beowulf (at in which he provides a web-page of study questions, and a page of on-line bibliographical resources, and another, entitled "Beowulf on the web." Like Liuzza's book, it is a wonderful resource, of interest to student, general reader, and professional alike.