12.10.12, Magennis, Translating Beowulf

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Mike Drout

The Medieval Review 12.10.12

Magennis, Hugh. Translating Beowulf: Modern Versions in English Verse. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. ix, 244. ISBN: 9781843842613.

Reviewed by:
Mike Drout
Wheaton College

Hugh Magennis' Translating Beowulf surveys the entire range of Modern English verse translations of the Anglo-Saxon poem, focusing particularly on influential translations by Edwin Morgan (1942), Burton Raffel (1963), Michael Alexander (1973) and Seamus Heaney (1999). Drawing on the some recent translation theory by Lawrence Venuti and others, Magennis situates translations of Beowulf in a dialectic relationship between "domesticating" and "foreignizing" practices: the former brings the text to the reader, the latter requires that the reader move towards the text. [1] Done poorly, this kind of dialectic analysis would be tedious and predictable, with the author following Venuti in asserting that the "domesticating" impulse in some way violates the text in one way or another and then the argument heading off into abstract politics rather than literary analysis. But Magennis is too good a literary historian to fall into that trap, so the seemingly mandatory theoretical material (and its associated politics) is relegated to its proper and minimal role of providing some broad organizational principles, with the majority of the book focused on the translations themselves and the subtle and interesting patterns in translation practice that Magennis both identifies and situates in their historical contexts.

It is hard to say whether the most valuable feature of Translating Beowulf is Magennis' historical analysis or his close readings of the individual translations. Beowulf studies is a field that for most of its existence has taken its historiography rather seriously, and although the study of translations has not received as much attention as the overall literary history of the poem in monuments of scholarship like Shippey and Haarder's Beowulf: The Critical Heritage or Frantzen's Desire for Origins, there has been insightful and illuminating scholarship on the history of Beowulf translations and adaptations, most significantly by Marijane Osborn in her chapter in Bjork and Niles' A Beowulf Handbook. [2] So it is a high compliment to say that Magennis' discussion of the history of Beowulf translations (concentrated in the first three chapters, but then continued throughout the book) is now the single most valuable resource for scholars interested in understanding the contexts in which many translations have been made. Magennis' treatment is so useful because he does not isolate historical, political or temporal context from literary context. The reader gets a very good sense of not only how poets produce verse translations in particular social and political contexts, but how the literary landscape that poets inhabit--their other poetry, their aesthetic ideals, and their engagement with previous translations of Beowulf--all shape their literary productions. The literary history in Translating Beowulf is particularly illuminating exactly because it is closely focused on the ways that works of literature influence each other through poets and poetry rather than on how large-scale socio-economic generalizations are assumed to influence literary practice.

And this is why it is difficult to evaluate separately the historical contextualization from Magennis' meticulous and poetically sensitive analysis of the major translations, not only those mentioned above, by Morgan, Raffel, Alexander and Heaney (each of which gets a chapter of close analysis), but also that by William Morris, long recognized as one of the strangest and most idiosyncratic translations ever produced, and in briefer form, many more translations from the past half-century. Magennis characterizes each translation both as a unique work and as part of a tradition in a historical context. Although he discusses material various sections of each translation, he always directly compares the translations of lines 1-11 (the opening of the poem) and 867b-874 (the brief depiction of a Danish poet preparing and reciting verses about Beowulf's exploits). This is a methodologically useful approach, because often a poet's overarching approach to Beowulf can be particularly evidenced in these particular lines, but I wish that Magennis had chosen some different passages as well. One point made very obvious by these comparisons is that not one of the major translators has been very effective in translating the poem's opening lines. I am, in fact, unaware of any existing verse translation that captures the feel of the Old English--in either a domesticating or foreignizing approach. The infamously interminable debate among Anglo-Saxonists on ANSAX-NET about Seamus Heaney's use of "So" to translate "Hwaet" (Magennis gives a rhetorically effective defense of "so"), was really as much motivated by the weakness of Heaney's opening lines as it was by scholarly pedantry. No one among the poem's most gifted translators gets these lines right, and so it is somewhat a shame that Magennis does not include another, successful passage for comparative purposes. I would very much have liked to read similar careful and poetically insightful comparisons of a passage from the dragon fight, for example, or from Beowulf's death (sections of the poem in which Heaney absolutely excels, but which are often overshadowed by his "Ulsterization" in the opening).

But this methodological quibble should not overshadow the real achievement of Translating Beowulf. The translations that Magennis has selected are not only the most influential, widely used and literarily praised in the past fifty years, but happen to be written by authors with backgrounds in Scotland, America, England and Northern Ireland. When Magennis puts their translations in the context of their other poetry and their personal histories, he is engaging in a significant and wide-ranging discussion not only of the place of Beowulf and its translations in multiple traditions of English writing, but of the relationship between Anglo-Saxon literature and the English spoken, written and read throughout the world. In the hands of a less gifted or less poetic scholar, this discussion could rapidly have degenerated into a fruitless debate over who 'owns' Beowulf and which traditions should be represented in a translation. But by sticking to the details, Magennis effectively defends all of the major translations. Each has its own particular virtues that are explicated through Magennis' analysis. I had never thought of Edwin Morgan's translation as having been important in more than a historical sense (that he was the first really significant poet since William Morris to have translated the poem), but Magennis convinced me to read again and thoroughly enjoy Morgan's take on the poem. And although I find it hard to believe I will ever enjoy Burton Raffel's verse Beowulf, Magennis' analysis explains to a great degree why this particular translation was enjoyed by many of the previous generation of scholars (my own teacher of Old English, John Miles Foley, among them). And although I feel as if the translations by Alexander and Heaney are aesthetically accomplished and transmit some of the "feel" of Beowulf, which is why I have taught them (particularly the latter) many times, I still learned a lot from Magennis' analysis. Probably I will never be convinced that Heaney's "thole," "cub in the yard" and other Ulsterisms (and putative Ulsterisms--Magennis notes that "thole" is rather more widespread than Heaney seems to have supposed) are either particularly successful artistic achievements or important political appropriations. They read more like stumbles to me, especially compared to Heaney's translation of the last third of the poem. But Magennis' argument is presented with good will and founded on enough detail that it cannot be dismissed or ignored. And by setting Heaney's translation in the context of the literary history of Beowulf translations, Magennis has allowed us to engage more fully with the details and significance of that translation, which will likely shape student and popular perceptions of the poem for decades to come.

The Venerable Bede noted the difficulty of translating verse from one language to another, and King Alfred famously pointed out that translating word for word is not the same as translating sense for sense. But as old as they are, neither translator was the first to struggle with the difficulties of moving poetry from one language, or time period, or historical context, to another. The long literary history of translations of a poem that was rediscovered by English literature a scant two centuries ago shows how many variables a translator juggles, how many possible approaches there are. Understanding such a complex and multilayered phenomenon as poetic translation is unlikely to be achieved through grand totalizing theories, which have to this point have not had very much success. The achievement of Magennis' Translating Beowulf suggests there may be a better way to understand the practice: that close, careful and meticulous attention to poetry, the accumulation of insightful observations by an erudite scholar deeply knowledgeable in the field, may provide a more fruitful approach to understanding what happens when poets translate.



1. Lawrence Venuti, The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference (New York: Routledge, 1998).

2. Tom Shippey and Andreas Haarder, eds., Beowulf: The Critical Heritage (New York: Routledge, 1998); Allen J. Frantzen, Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English and Teaching the Tradition (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991); Marijane Osborn, "Translations, Versions, Illustrations," in A Beowulf Handbook, ed. Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 341-59.

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Mike Drout

Wheaton College