Translating Beowulf (1999-2008)
The Old English poem Beowulf survives in a single manuscript copied around the year 1000: London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv. No one knows when, where, by whom or for whom it was first composed during the previous half millennium, whether it reflects ancient legendary traditions or more recent literary art. Either way, its 3,182 extant verses comprise one of the most expressive documents we possess for the cultural world of northern Europe after the fall of Rome. The story is set not in Anglo-Saxon England, which country is never even mentioned, but in ancient Scandinavia, telling of the last king of a lost tribe once living in southern Sweden. And except for the two Cotton Vitellius scribes, Beowulf has no known medieval reader or listener. For centuries it was buried away in an obscure monastic library, unread and soon virtually unreadable, until it appeared among antiquarian book collections in the 16th century. It came within inches of being destroyed by fire in 1731. It is scorched and crumbling around the edges, from which at least 2,000 letters have been lost since the end of the 18th century. The text of this long-forgotten poem would itself seem to exemplify the fate it predicts for all human achievements.
Yet, since the time Beowulf was first translated into Latin in 1815, the power of its language, the starkness of its imagery, the subtlety of its meaning, and the wisdom of its sad, brave view of life have inspired as many scholarly studies as the combined tragedies of Shakespeare. It is the first great poem in English and speaks for generations of mute speakers of that language, after centuries of silence of its own. It is astonishing that at the beginning of the 21st century Beowulf should finally come into its own, finding itself more compelling to poets, scholars, translators, writers, movie-makers, musical composers and other interpreters than at any other time of its existence on earth. The standard edition by Frederick Klaeber, essentially unchanged since its third edition of 1936, has also at last been thoroughly revised and updated by R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles for the University of Toronto Press (2008). This edition provides the scholarly capstone to a remarkably full and yeasty decade of responses to Beowulf that began with the Nobel-prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney's celebrated and controversial rendering of 1999, followed by three feature-length films, two operas, multiple "reenactments," retellings and oral performances, as well as one ice dance extravaganza. Many publishers have caught the Beowulf wave as well, dusting off older translations and sending them out cheerfully into an international market hungry for new versions of the poem, which also appeared in Finnish, French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spanish--both Castilian and Galician. To find my way through this profusion of renderings, I will focus on just those English translations first published or freshly reworked in the past ten years, supplying parallel excerpts of the first eleven lines of the prologue so that readers can consult their own taste when choosing among these new renderings of Beowulf.
"Poetry is what gets lost in translation," Robert Frost once quipped, and Seamus Heaney describes how he tried to keep that from happening in "The Drag of the Golden Chain," Times Literary Supplement, 12 November 1999. Rather than sticking too close to the Old English text, the poet tried to break free from it, to slip the golden chain of "a resonant original" in order to find "the utterly persuasive word" in a completely new idiom. His inspiration, he says, was St. Jerome, who rendered the Greek and Aramaic of Scripture into a Latin that was "pre-Babel" in its purity, power and unmediated availability to all readers and hearers of that language. To find this authenticating voice in modern English, Heaney turned to the speech of his country relatives in Northern Ireland, in particular the weighty and deliberate utterance of his "big-voiced" uncles. In addition, the poet had studied Old English as an undergraduate at Queen's University, Belfast, and discovered there with excitement that particular words in that language--like thole, "to suffer"-- were still being used by his family back home. At this point, he says, he began to forgive the English language for that country's colonization not only of his homeland, but of his own head. Heaney now sought a new world of shared poetic experience, one that might transcend barriers of time and space and political grievance, a language in which could be uttered the pains and joys of all peoples.
In this mood, Heaney accepted an invitation from the editors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature to replace E. Talbot Donaldson's prose translation of Beowulf with a new poetic rendering of his own. Students had found Donaldson's dense paragraphs leaden and daunting, though some have suggested that the accessibility of that scholar's echoing and accurate prose could be enhanced simply by breaking up his text into lines of free verse, so that they could rest more fluidly and readably on the page. But the Norton also wanted a bigger slugger on its cover, of course, and Heaney's new version appeared in the 7th edition (2000), as well as in various separate and subsequent volumes, differently formatted, in Britain and America. The most recent was published in 2008 with facing-page photos and other images selected by John Niles. Not every one agrees that Heaney's effort to create a new poetic idiom--his experimentation with Ulsterisms and Gaelicisms in his new version of Beowulf-- is a complete success. Some of these words--like tholed, bawn, bothies, hirpling, etc.--require as many notes in the Norton as do specialized terms from the Old English like wergild, "man-payment, restitution" and wyrd, "fate, eventuality, what happens". Defenders argue that there are plenty of rare and hard words in the original, so that the poet's linguistic innovation and difficulty is an effect which would also have been felt by the first hearers of the poem as well. And most readers will find passages in Heaney's version that leap alive for them, like the lay of the Fight at Finnsburh, sung by Hrothgar's scop in the great hall Heorot. Here the translator seems to have found a special liberation in the persona of a poet within the poem, whose voice Heaney tightens into verses that are taut, supple and lexically unselfconscious, like his own best lyrics.
Unfortunately, by his own admission, the translator flagged in the larger enterprise. He let the project lapse until the Norton editor Alfred David volunteered to help Heaney along with a language he professed had gotten pretty rusty and was, in any case, a student's basic reading knowledge of much shorter texts. Howell D. Chickering, whose own dual-language version of 1977 was reissued by Anchor Books in 2006, has provided the most searching critique of the Norton version in "Beowulf and 'Heaneywulf'," The Kenyon Review 24 (2002), noting both its signal beauties and surprising flats. One of the poet's most striking and original effects is his choice for the Old English poetic interjection Hwaet, which opens the poem. Heaney adopts the terse transition from silence heard from his Ulster uncles around the kitchen table:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns. There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes. This terror of the hall-troops had come far. A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on as his powers waxed and his worth was proved. In the end each clan on the outlying coasts beyond the whale-road had to yield to him and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.There are some questions about basic accuracy in Heaney's rendering, by the way, even in this prominent introductory passage, which can disturb the reader's grasp of the poem's controlling themes and imagery. For instance, why would Scyld Scefing (= Shield Shiefson) bother to "wreck" perfectly good mead-benches? In fact, Scyld ofteah, "took away, appropriated, commandeered" the banqueting seats of rival chieftains for use in his own mead-hall, a synecdoche for those leaders' loss of political independence under the new royal family of a united Denmark.
Coincidentally with Heaney's version in 1999, Broadview Press released R. M. Liuzza's Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Liuzza eschews distracting extra-textual effects, offering a pane-less glimpse into the world of the poem, with a lucid, fresh, readable representation of the most direct meaning of the words in the Old English, ones which capture both its sharp clarities and fraught ambiguities neatly and comprehensibly:
Listen! We have heard of the glory in bygone days Of the folk-kings of the spear-Danes, how those noble lords did lofty deeds. Often Scyld Scefing seized the mead-benches from many tribes, troops of enemies, struck fear into earls. Though he first was found a waif, he awaited solace for that he grew great under heaven and prospered in honor until every one of the encircling nations over the whale's-riding had to obey him, grant him tribute. That was a good king!If some of the fierce urgency of the Old English poem still attenuates in retelling, Liuzza's faithful rendering of word and image in a lightly alliterative four-stress line points to its presence. And the translator supplies an unusually full and useful scholarly apparatus, designed to open up the early medieval world in which the poem was imagined, rather than use it for a modernist statement of political and artistic idealism. In particular, Liuzza translates key passages from many sources in Latin, Old English and Old Norse featuring characters mentioned in Beowulf, analogues to themes and events in the poem, contemporary attitudes toward Christians and pagans, and a comparison of twenty renderings of the Danish coastguard scene ranging in publication date from 1805 to 1991 to demonstrate the difficulties and distortions of translation over time. In this reviewer's opinion, Liuzza's is the version of Beowulf that most effectively introduces students to a poem he recognizes from his own experience of reading it.
But other worthy efforts were soon to follow, each with its own virtues and inevitable compromises. Louis J. Rodrigues published a verse rendering with Runetree Press in 2002, attempting to imitate the six types of alliterative measure identified by Eduard Sievers in 1893: falling-falling; rising-rising; clashing; falling by stages or broken fall; and fall and rise. For the challenging first word and opening lines of the poem, Rodrigues chooses the almost casual:
Well, we have heard tell of the glory of the kings of the Spear-Danes, how in former times those princes performed courageous deeds. Oft Scyld Scefing seized the mead-benches from troops of foes, from many tribes, terrified their eorls, after he was first found destitute; he was comforted for that, thrived under the heavens, prospered in honour, until each one of the neighbouring nations, over the whale-road, had to obey him, yield tribute. He was an able king!Alan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy also attempt to replicate the prosody of the original poem in a version published by Longman in 2004. In this case, the translators have offered what they call "a loosened variant of the Scop's Rule, alliterating three times in most lines, but using other patterns of alliteration as well," and a preference for words of Germanic rather than Latin origin whenever possible (xviii). They have produced what may be the first modern English translation of Beowulf with even more alliterating syllables per line than in the poem itself, though it may be jarring to some that they often choose to alliterate on the fourth stressed syllable, which does not happen in Old English verse. And the translators are not too proud to borrow, with emphasis, Heaney's famous opening "So.":
So! The Spear-Danes in days of old were led by lords famed for their forays. We learned of those princes' power and prowess. Often Scyld Scefing ambushed enemies, took their mead-benches, mastered their troops, though first he was found forlorn and alone. His early sorrows were swiftly consoled: he grew great under heaven, grew to a greatness renowned among men of neighboring lands, his rule recognized over the whale-road, tribute granted him. That was a good king!Though supplying the medial caesura, implying a fairly exact translation by half-line, the translators silently and progressively abbreviate the number of lines in their rendering to yield a total of only 2,800 for the 3,182 of the Old English text, a 12 percent reduction in overall length. Nor do they supply a key by which readers can conveniently coordinate a translated passage with the original.
Frederick Rebsamen offers Beowulf: An Updated Verse Translation of his prior renderings of the poem in 1971 and 1991 (Perennial Classics, 2004). Like Sullivan and Murphy, he has sought to replicate as closely as possible the four-stress alliterative long line. Like Heaney, his rendering is far from literal, though he supplies accurate prose summaries before major episodes in the narrative. Rebsamen punctuates very lightly, sparing the commas and semicolons in particular, so that his short sharp lines and building phrases capture much of the poem's oral "appositive" style and surging intensity. He suggests that the "best way to understand this translation is simply to read slowly with pauses between verses when it seems natural" (vii). His opening lines go as follows:
Yes! We have heard of years long vanished how Spear-Danes struck sang victory-songs raised from a wasteland walls of glory. When Scyld Scefing shamed his enemies measured meadhalls made them his own since down by the sea-swirl sent from nowhere the Danes found him floating with gifts bound to their shore. Scyld grew tall then roamed the waterways rode through the lands till every strongman each warleader sailed the whalepaths sought him with gold there knelt to him. That was a king!John McNamara translated Beowulf for Barnes 8 Noble Classics in 2005 and also offers a lightly alliterative poetic version that hopes to preserve "some sense of [the poem's] 'otherness' in diction, syntax, poetic movement, and cultural worldview" (xl). McNamara sees "the value of a translation...in its loyalty to the original--as a faithful retainer should be to whom the lord has given a great gift" (xli). He thus chooses a more archaic modern idiom to capture his sense of the poem's antique alterity:
Hail! We have heard tales sung of the Spear-Danes, the glory of their war-kings in days gone by, how princely nobles performed heroes' deeds! Oft Scyld Scefing captured the mead halls from many peoples, from troops of enemies, terrifying their chieftains. Though he was first a poor foundling, he lived to find comfort; under heavens he flourished, with honors fulfilled till each neighboring nation, those over the whale-road, bowed under his rule, paid the price of tribute. That was a good king!In Beowulf (Pocket Books, 2005) Simon and Schuster have delivered, as advertised, a tiny prose version with succinct supplementary materials by Frederic Will on the historical and literary contexts of the poem, as well as interpretive excerpts from leading critics and questions for further discussion. The translation is complete and fairly close, but the actual translator unidentified. This is a puzzling omission, since it is unlikely that even this distinguished American publishing firm maintains a house Anglo- Saxonist. Another mystery is that the spelling of the translation is British, so that a little sleuthing was required to discover the translator to be R. K. Gordon, whose Song of Beowulf was published by Dent way back in 1900 and is now out of copyright. Since it is newly available in this quaint micro-format, I quote the opening lines here:
Lo! We have heard the glory of the kings of the Spear-Danes in days gone by, how the chieftains wrought mighty deeds. Often Scyld-Scefing wrested the mead-benches from troops of foes, from many tribes; he made fear fall upon the earls. After he was first found in misery (he received solace for that), he grew up under the heavens, lived in high honour, until each of his neighbours over the whale-road must needs obey him and render tribute. That was a good king!Martin Puhvel has offered a similarly close, rather formal rendering in verse (University Press of America, 2006):
Listen! We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes' kings in bygone days how those princes did deeds of prowess. Often Scyld Scefing bereft bands of foes, many a tribe, of their mead-hall seats, stuck [sic] terror into the hearts of heroes he who at first was found a waif. He lived to find relief from that plight, grew great under heaven, prospered in glory, until each of neighboring nations over the whale-road had to obey him, grant him tribute. That was a good king!And finally, actors from the American Players Theatre and the Guthrie Theatre orally perform with singing, instrumental and sound effects a new translation by Richard N. Ringler, Beowulf: The Complete Story A Drama, 3-CD set (Nemo Productions, 2006), the text of which appeared in Beowulf: A New Translation for Oral Delivery (Hackett, 2007). One innovation in the printed version is that Ringler organizes the half-lines or short verses of the poem into a single vertical column, rather than as alliterative long lines parted by a caesura. This arrangement is designed to reveal the rhythmic freedom of each short verse, easily smothered in performance by too much stress on the interlocking alliteration of a- and b-lines. Ringler hopes that this single verse format will encourage "a more fluent and fast-moving reading of the text than the line-by-line layout (which can sometimes suggest to readers today that Old English was uniformly leisurely and stately--even sluggish--like a good deal of inferior blank verse in Modern English)" (cii). On the CD Ringler performs the part of the poet-narrator himself, the first track opening with the sound of waves, seagulls and distant horns. He skips the Hwaet:
We have heard tell of the high doings of Danish kings in days gone by, how the great war-chiefs gained their renown, how Scyld Scefing shattered his foes, mastered the mead-halls of many peoples, conquered their kings. He came to Denmark as a lone foundling, but later he thrived; his name was renowned beneath the skies and kings and kingdoms across the whale-road, the surging sea, swore him allegiance, paid him tribute. He was a peerless king!I am impressed by these translators' thoughtful efforts to make the poem they so obviously love live again for a new generation of readers. Each has chosen to highlight one or another aspect of his experience of Beowulf, of course, but it is reassuring to see that Frost's dictum is mere hyperbole: not all poetry is lost in translation. There is still plenty. These scholars and poets should all be thanked warmly for their care, devotion and expertise in making this enigmatic old poem freshly moving and meaningful. Many readers will now be inspired to study Beowulf in its own language and on its own terms, and that bodes very well for the continuing happiness and depth of Beowulf studies for years to come.
(These comments are adapted from the author's annual reviews of Beowulf scholarship in The Year's Work in Old English Studies of the Old English Newsletter).