14.04.14, Schulman and Szarmach, eds., Beowulf at Kalamazoo

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Greg Waite

The Medieval Review 14.04.14

Schulman, Jana K. and Paul E Szarmach. Beowulf at Kalamazoo: Essays on Translation and Performance. Studies in Medieval Culture L. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2012. Pp. x, 432 + DVD-ROM. ISBN: 978-1-58044-152-0.

Reviewed by:
Greg Waite
University of Otago

The poem Beowulf is what in Maori one would call a taonga, a treasure (tangible or intangible). It is highly prized, it belongs to all, and it belongs to no one in particular; yet, as this volume suggests, it must be guarded, and the academic world here plays its part, curating and distributing the poem in different ways. We have recently lost another taonga, the talented and generous poet upon whom much of this collection is focused, Seamus Heaney, who died on August 30, 2013. Oddly, his name did not feature in the title, although the Introduction states that the book is "a collection of essays designed to capitalize [my italics] on the success of Seamus Heaney's prize-winning translation of Beowulf (1999)." As far as I know, Heaney did not visit Kalamazoo. Those quibbles aside, I can say that this is an admirable collection, providing rich insights into the phenomenon of the transmission of Beowulf to modern audiences through translation and performance, including the live recitals in the original language by Benjamin Bagby. It remains for another volume to consider various other kinds of reinvention and performance of Beowulf in film and modern literature.

The collection falls into three parts: 1. Essays on Translation, 2. Essays on Performance, and 3. Reviews of Heaney's Beowulf. In a volume filled with first-rate essays, it may seem unfair to single out particular contributions, but the opening three essays can be highlighted for their complex and nuanced responses, simultaneously engaging with Heaney's translation, with issues of translating Old English more broadly, and with the complexities of transforming and adapting academic responses to the poem in the context of its circulation in the modern literary environment. Daniel Donoghue's "The Languages of Beowulf between Klaeber and Heaney" has at its core the proposition that for modern academics and advanced readers of the poem, "the authentic Beowulf begins with the glossary of Friedrich Klaeber's edition," but the essay engages as well with a range of other issues such as Heaney's "scullion-speak" and the politics of his voice. Nicholas Howe must begin his essay with the confession that his review of Heaney's Beowulf was one of the few 'mixed' ones. (The review is reprinted in the third part of this book.) "Who's Afraid of Translating Beowulf?" asks Howe in his title: and the answer is that all of us should be, but prose- translators in particular. Howe provides a masterly survey of past translations, which he sees as falling into three categories: (1) the high poetic, into which group falls Heaney's, (2) the more conservative verse translations of scholar-critics such as the one by Roy Liuzza, which appeared at about the same time as Heaney's, and (3) prose translations, such as E. Talbot Donaldson's, which achieved wide circulation because of its place in theNorton Anthology of English Literature, and was displaced by Heaney's, in a shift that has disturbed some teachers of the poem. Writing relatively soon after the appearance of his own acclaimed translation, Roy Liuzza in his essay "Iron and Irony in Beowulf" recounts the struggle he had with establishing the proper "tone" of the poem and, by extension, his translation. He argues for the place of irony as an important element in establishing the "tone" of the poem.

In the remainder of the first section of the book appear a series of five essays dealing with translations of the poem in Czech, Spanish, Hungarian, Italian, and Icelandic, preceded by two further essays dealing with English translations. Jana Schulman provides a detailed analysis of the lexicographical and semantic problems of terms for the monstrous in Beowulf, particularly "ellengæst" and "aglæcwif," while Paul Szarmach examines Henry Sweet's transformation of the poem into Old English prose as a pedagogical tool.

For well over a decade now, Benjamin Bagby has brought Beowulf to a wider audience by reciting and singing the Old English text in an accomplished and academically informed conjectural reconstruction of the Anglo-Saxon scop's art. He recites to the accompaniment of the Germanic lyre, structural details of which are known from examples more or less preserved in graves such as Sutton Hoo mound 1, Oberflacht grave 91, and Trossingen grave 58. The second section of this book records a roundtable discussion that took place at Kalamazoo in 2003 following one of Bagby's performances. Karl Reichl and John Miles Foley join Bagby himself on a panel chaired by Mark Amodio. The section concludes with comparativist papers by Foley and Reichl that further explore aspects of the orality of Beowulf.

This non-Heaneian interlude is followed by reprinted reviews of the 1999 first edition and/or the dual-language edition of Heaney's translation that followed soon after. It must be rare for so many of the important reviews of a translation to be produced by fellow- translators of the same text. Here we find contributions by Michael Alexander, S. A. J. Bradley, and Howell Chickering among the 21 reviews by 19 different reviewers. Among the catch-phrases in the titling we find "Beowulf in Ulster," "Putting a Bawn into Beowulf," "Scullionspeak," and of course the notorious "Heaneywulf," all of which signal one of the issues confronting many readers of the poem, namely Heaney's perceived politicization of the text in his translation through the use of Ulster dialect and idiom. In reading through a range of reviews gathered in this form, one is usefully informed, nevertheless, about a whole range of issues from the textual history of the original poem, and its treatment at the hands of translators, to the problematic positioning of Beowulf in English literary history, and in the undergraduate curriculum.

Only one month before his passing, Seamus Heaney read selections of his translations from Old English and medieval Irish poetry to delegates assembled in Dublin for the biennial conference of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists. This book is a worthy memorial to the man and the poet-translator, but it also serves a very practical purpose as a well-researched, carefully edited guide to issues of translation and performance of Beowulf more generally.

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Author Biography

Greg Waite

University of Otago