Thursday, May 7, 2009

Translating Beowulf (1999-2008), Review by Craig Davis

Courtesy of BMR:

Review Article: Translating Beowulf (1999-2008)

Reviewed by Craig R. Davis
Smith College

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

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:

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

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 & 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 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

(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).

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