Sometimes, you just want to sit down and unpack three different translations of an Old English poem, you know?
Lately, I’ve been brushing up on the English curriculum – specifically the old school curriculum. The kinds of books they teach at Oxford and Cambridge. The kind Australian universities often shy away from in favour of more recent texts that the average student can relate to. The kind that, if you’re like me and you went to a dodgy public high school, you likely never encountered until post-grad.
The Oxbridge English curriculum starts with the Anglo-Saxons. And what is the Big Daddy of Anglo-Saxon/ Medieval/ Old English* texts?
Here’s the Wikipedia page. Basically, Beowulf is an old poem about a warrior who kills a couple of demons, becomes a king, then gets killed by a dragon. It was originally an oral text, which explains the alliteration and metrical structure, and the fact that the poet will sometimes go on tangents about random royal families that are only barely related to the main story (memory aids and stock scenes). The poem was anonymous, and the only reason we still know about it is because someone wrote it down around the 8th century.
Beowulf uses highly structured and highly formal language that the majority of English speakers simply will not understand. Since it was written in a dead language, it has been translated into Modern English fairly regularly over the last few centuries. The three versions I have are very different, both in their scope and their intended audiences.
Translating originary texts from one culture to another allows and often requires the new creator to make decisions regarding form, meaning, and emphasis. These choices are almost exclusively based on the perceived needs of the translator’s audience, the conventions of the form they’ve chosen (and their talents and limitations), the expectations of their publisher.
Here are the three translations that I own, with very brief bullet points explaining their main features:
Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (together with Sellic Spell) – JRR Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien) 2014
- Written in prose
- Lord of the Rings-style vocabulary, antiquated and archaic in tone (“There stern and strong kinsman of Hygelac watched how that foul thief with his fell clutches would not play his part” p. 34)
- Includes: Preface by Christopher Tolkien, Introduction to the Translation by Christopher Tolkien, commentary notes for Oxford students based on his philological expertise (with footnotes throughout from Christopher Tolkien explaining context/alternatives)
- A translation of Sellic Spell at the end of the book – includes endnotes by Christopher Tolkien, and a comparison of the earliest and final forms of Tolkien’s translation
- Represents six years of work (translated between 1920-26)
Beowulf: Bilingual Edition – Seamus Heaney 1999
- Written in verse that reads as prose; facing page translation. Notes in the margins to give brief contextual notes for the reader
- Written in Modern English with an Irish flavour, copies direct speech patterns and uses some alliteration.
- Had a minder – Prof. Alfred David – who kept him from straying too far from the originary text
- Took a very long time to finish (80s-2000s)
- Includes: Introduction, A Note on Names by Alfred David, and a family tree
Beowulf: Facing page translation (2nd Edition) – R.M. Liuzza 1999 (2nd Edition 2013)
- Written in verse that reads as; facing page translation with footnotes
- The language is lightly archaic but still accessible
- Based on the Klaeber text (3rd edition, 1950)
- Includes: long Intro contextualising the poem through different lenses, Appendixes of characters’ names, poem themes, discussion of Christian and Pagan elements, contexts for reading, and a tasting menu of other translations
- I couldn’t find how long it took him… but I’m thinking a while, considering the sheer amount of labour that clearly went into this.
Now let’s compare them!
Poor Tolkien did not get good reviews for his translation.
Well, that’s not quite true. He got great reviews for Beowulf. As a poem, it’s beautiful. But the general consensus seems to be that the poem is great when it stands alone, but absolutely falls apart as a translation (particularly when he’s compared to others).
Even Tolkien wasn’t super stoked with the work itself. Tolkien’s son quotes a letter that his father wrote in 1926 in the Introduction:
“I have all Beowulf translated but in much hardly to my liking.” (Christopher Tolkien’s introduction, pg.2)
Despite this, it’s clear that Tolkien really loved the poem and wanted to do justice to it. Tolkien was actually one of the first to argue that Beowulf should be read as a poem and not just as an opportunity to examine language-use.
So scandalous! And from a career philologist, no less.
Tolkien’s translation tries to keep to the meaning of the original, as well as preserve the alliterative rhythm (read it out loud – you’ll be able to tap out the beat with your foot). He’s also preserved the inversions of the poet’s language (“To him then the chief made answer, the leader of the company, opened his store of words” (20)). This gives the reader a very real sense of how hearing the poem out loud must have felt.
Here’s the opening scene so you can get a sense of his flavour:
With that being said, he made some interpretations that might have raised some eyebrows and went directly against the standard.
For example, lines 166-69**. Without going into too much detail (this isn’t an academic paper, after all, just a dumb blog where I spew unchecked opinions) in most translations, 166-169 is interpreted as Grendel (the demon) being unable to approach Hrothgar’s throne in Heorot. That seems to be the version that Heaney and Liuzza favoured.
But Tolkien goes a different route; he argues in the attached Commentary that, because the poet goes on a weird anti-Paganism rant for the next dozen-ish lines, there’s potential to argue that a) the poem was altered to include a pro-Christian lean, and b) that the ‘throne’ (gifstól) is actually God’s throne, and the one who cannot approach is the Pagan king Hrothgar. Tolkien argues that there’s no reason that Grendel shouldn’t have been able to approach a regular throne, especially not a pagan one with no ‘real’ power, and instead interprets this moment as a reflection on the fact that Hrothgar cannot take solace in God and therefore can’t be ‘saved’ from his torment at Grendel’s hands.
I like that idea. I’m not nearly good enough at Old English to judge the quality of that interpretation, but the thought process seems legit.
In the end, I agree with the general critical consensus around Tolkien’s translation – it is a beautiful poem, but it is difficult to use it as a translation. The line numbers don’t work, which makes it very difficult to use the translation to read the original. Tolkien’s interpretation of certain words and phrases do, I think, develop the connotations of the Old English for a modern reader, and there’s a lot to be said for the way he mimics the rhythms of the original.
His archaic English does make me feel a lot like I’m sitting in a Viking tavern enjoying a flagon of mead while a scald sings to me of times gone by. Can’t not love that!
The verdict: read it for a good poem with LOTR vibes, but maybe treat it more like a fanfic than a true translation. This is an excellent book if you want to get into the nitty-gritty of Old English language, too.
Next, Heaney’s translation!
Unlike Tolkien’s translation, Heaney’s includes an intro written by the man himself.
With Tolkien, we have to piece together what he was thinking from interpreting his letters and his son’s insights. Heaney explains the choices he made, some of the context of the poem to help the reader, and explains why it took him so long to get through the translation.
I say ‘so long’, but really it only took about four years. He was commissioned to do the translation in the 80s and set it aside because, in his words: “the whole attempt to turn it into modern English seemed to me like trying to bring down a megalith with a toy hammer” (xxv).
In other words, it was a big job and he got overwhelmed. And haven’t we all been there?
But after puttering around for a while, he realised that the Old English metrics were very similar to his own poetic style: two balancing halves in each line, each containing two stressed syllables. That helped smooth the way for his translation.
He also needed to reconcile the Old English language with the modern language that he ought to be translating it into. The most interesting thing about Heaney’s translation – both from an academic perspective and a creative one – is the fact that he includes a lot of Irish-English dialect words. Why? Because he found that there are actually a lot of connections between the Old English and Irish-English:
“What happened was that I found in the glossary to C.L. Wrenn’s edition of the poem the Old English word meaning ‘to suffer’, the word þolian; and although at first it looked completely strant with its thorn symbol instead of the familiar th, I gradually realised that it was not strange at all, for it was the word that older and less educated people would have used in the country were I grew up. ‘They’ll just have to learn to thole,’ my aunt would say about some family who had suffered an unforeseen bereavement. And now suddenly here was ‘thole’ in the official textual world, mediated through the apparatus of a scholarly edition, a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage, one that involved the journey þolian had made north” (xxviii)
(sorry for the long quote, but I just think this is a really cool way to think of language in a translation context)
Once he’d realised those two things, he was able to complete the translation in about four years.
Here’s the opening page so you can see his rhythm and vernacular in the wild:
I really like the way he opens with ‘so’. Makes it feel like Grandpa is sitting you down on a cold night to tell you a bedtime story.
You’ll notice immediately that Heaney’s sentence structure is more modern (unlike Tolkien, who preferred to invert), and his language is in general much more accessible and lyrical. He’s a career poet, after all, so his translation is beautifully poetic in its rendering. That seems to be the common interpretation of his work. Heather O’Donoghue writes that “Heaney’s Beowulf is a free-standing, unfootnoted poem in its own right, with its own poetic presence and stamp of authorship”, while Andrew Motion wrote that Heaney “made a masterpiece out of a masterpiece”.
James Shapiro even makes a connection between the Heaney translation and Irish modern history, arguing that Heaney’s understanding of the poem is informed by recent memory: “Though he never says so, it will be obvious to anyone with the sketchiest knowledge of recent Irish history that the Troubles have also given Heaney access into the Beowulf poet’s profound understanding of internecine strife”. That’s an interesting way to think of it, though Heaney doesn’t mention that in the intro so we can’t say for certain that’s what he intended. But it’s just a really, really cool interpretation based on the author’s context.
There is naturally a bit of artistic liberty taken – which is to be expected from an author who was clearly very focused on making a good poem as opposed to a perfect translation. He’s aiming at a more general reader, so the translation itself seems to be secondary to whether the poem is actually engaging on an aesthetic level. For example, at line 748, when he calls Grendel a ‘captain of evil’ (nice), the more literal translation of ‘feond’ is fiend or enemy. Heaney’s interpretation adds a little extra oomph to the passage even if it goes a little way towards potentially skewing the reader’s own interpretation.
Whichever words Heaney uses, his meaning is always clear and powerful.
The verdict: gorgeous poem, mainly loyal to the source, though the nuance will be a bit skewed so it might be worth double-checking some of his translations with an Old English dictionary if you want to thoroughly understand what is being said.
Finally, Liuzza’s translation!
Liuzza’s translation is the most academically dense of the three. He offers footnotes, a thorough introduction, and five different appendixes of tiny font (not including the glossary of names and the brief history of the Geatish-Swedish wars).
This seems to be the most thorough translation and the one reviewers agree is probably the most accurate. His translation is in verse, so it has the same limitations of structure that Heaney also felt, and thus the same minor conundrums in choosing aesthetics over close interpretations. He does preserve the alliteration of the original, though it’s not really the same because he doesn’t use the aa/ab pattern – instead, he usually includes alliteration in at least two syllables per line.
Here’s his first page to show you what I mean:
It is probably a good thing that he wasn’t married to the idea of maintaining the alliterative style of the original, even though he seems to have done his best to remain true to the rhythm. His alliteration does have a slight tendency to come off a bit crooked, probably due to the limitations of Modern English in conveying the same ideas with similar-sounding words. As Heather O’Donoghue notes in her review, alliteration in Liuzza’s translation “tends to illustrate the law of diminishing returns”:
“Thus, after Beowulf has killed Grendel, the poet conveys the relief of tension amongst the Danes the next day with his description of horses being raced over wide open spaces so unlike the dark and claustrophobic Heorot at night. Liuzza’s rendering – ‘At times the proud warriors let their horses prance’ (the Old English has hleapan, ‘to gallop’) – not only fails to do justice to the poet’s vivid image of release, but also introduces a verb with an inappropriate semantic field – in order, one suspects, to alliterate ‘proud’ and ‘prance’. Similarly, a man ‘marching’ the paths of exile is too positive and militaristic; the verb has been chosen nevertheless because it alliterates with its subject.”
Liuzza’s poem is still very readable and the facing pages show – as near as possible – why he makes the choices that he makes.
Any lack of subjective poetic beauty is made up with the clear and ever-present guiding hand of the translator. Liuzza’s footnotes are frequent and illuminating. He highlights moments in the translation that may be difficult to understand from reading the poem alone, or indicates where in the appendix you can go to find additional information.
At one point, he mentions that a name is missing from the manuscript, so he’s making his best guess (59); at another, he explains the place of the boar in Germanic mythology (73); later, he explains Unferth’s place in the overall theme of kin-slaying in the poem (91). The facing pages of the poem also have footnotes – usually, they show an alternative spelling or potential other reading. Very useful for people who understand that the original poem itself is a bit contentious.
But really, where Liuzza shines is in the notes that bookend the poem’s translation. Dozens of pages of context, explanation, and food for thought that the average reader may overlook if their only interest is to hear a good story (and, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that). There is one appendix entirely devoted to the laws against Paganism as explained by the potential contemporaries of the Beowulf poet, Wulfstan and Cnut. Liuzza’s introduction also offers a breakdown of how to read Old English, and he includes a glossary of proper names with his family tree. Considering that the poem only alludes to some of this stuff – probably because it was originally meant to be understood in the context of other poems and works, not unlike the Marvel cinematic universe in a way – these appendixes are invaluable. They’re easily my favourite part of this translation.
The verdict: not as beautiful as Heaney or Tolkien, but certainly more faithful. A much better translation if you’re a student or someone who genuinely wants to understand the poem.
And there you have it! A very short comparison of the three Beowulf translations I happen to have in my library. There are many others – as I mentioned above, Liuzza offers a tasting menu of other translations for readers interested in different versions – but if I tried to compare all of them, then I’d be heading down the rabbit hole towards another PhD thesis.
Overall, my final thoughts are that the translators wanted different things, and that’s reflected in the works that they produced. Tolkien wanted to drill down to the connotations and meanings of the words, and he almost certainly didn’t intend for his translation to be published. His is a good book if you want a bit of Lord of the Rings flavour, but don’t have the time to commit to that door-stopper of a trilogy. Heaney’s poem is a lovely engagement with language from a different perspective – that of a colonised dialect interacting with a common ancestor. His is not the most accurate translation but it does express most of the meaning clearly and well. Heaney’s is probably the best version for those interested in a good read, who like poetry and dragons, and who want to feel connected to the characters in the work on an emotional level. Liuzza’s translation is definitely the most clear and accurate in my collection. His is the one you want to read if you’re taking a class in Beowulf and want to be able to keep track of all the characters, as well as have a fairly solid idea of what the original text actually means.
*What’s the difference? Basically, these words are classifications to show readers a time frame/language. Here’s a chart:
|Medieval age||Anglo-Saxon period (450-1066)|
|Middle English Period (1066-1500)|
‘Medieval’ is the umbrella term, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is the historical period – it used to be the name for the language and literature as well, but ‘Old English’ has almost entirely displaced its use because ‘Old English’ better reflects scholars’ desire to view that language as a part of the history of the English language. So in this blog post, we’re using ‘Old English’ to refer to the language and literature, and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to refer to the period in history.
** In Tolkien’s translation, 166-69 are actually in the 140s because the switch to prose seems to have messed up the line numbering a bit.
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