Friday, June 20, 2014

Beowulf: A Long-Expected Translation

It’s been known for years that J.R.R. Tolkien had prepared a prose translation of Beowulf, but this was not among his published works until now. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is calling this a “new” translation, though considering that the author has been dead for forty-one years, and bulk of the translation dates from 1926, this would seem to stretch the meaning of the word “new.” Many of the earlier published translations of Beowulf were begun significantly later.

Beowulf is, of course, a much-translated work. Fourteen years ago, when Seamus Heany’s verse translation of Beowulf was published, I called my local Barnes & Noble to see if they had it in stock. The clerk asked me for the book title. “The book is Beowulf, but you’ll want to look under the translator’s name, Seamus Heaney.” He insisted on looking it up by title.

There was a long pause. “There are a lot of books with that title.”

“Yes there are. You’ll want to look under Heaney. That’s H-E-A-N-E-Y.”

“I don’t see anything by a ‘Shay-muss’ Heaney, but we do have a ‘See-Am-Us’ Heaney. Is that the same guy.” Happily, they had the book.
The Beowulf manuscript 
The poem begins in Old English:
HWÆT, we gardena       in geardagum,
þeodcyninga       þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas       ellen fremedon!
Heany’s translation is sort of loosely poetic:
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.
Rebsamen is (typical for him), somewhat off of the sense:
Yes! We have heard of       years long vanished
how Spear-Danes struck       sang victory songs
raised from a wasteland       walls of glory.
Rebsamen was trying for an alliterative translation, something Tolkien tried and abandoned, realizing that if you got the meter, you had to sacrifice the sense.

Howell Chickering, another Old English scholar, gives us:
Listen! We have heard       of the glory of the Spear-Danes
in the old days,       the kings of tribes—
how noble princes       showed great courage!
Chickering goes for accuracy, though as poetry it’s somewhat leaden on the page. He’s not trying for any particular poetic mastery; he just lets you know what those verses mean. Onward to some prose translations.
In “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien criticized the translation offered by J.J. Earle (1892). It begins:
What ho! we have heard tell of the grandeur of the imperial kings of the spear-bearing Danes in former days, how those ethelings promoted bravery.
(I could do this all day. I have a stack of this stuff. I am on home territory.) I will spare you further examples from my copious library of Beowulf translations. This should give you a sense of what the Beowulf poet is actually saying, should you not actually read Old English yourself.
And (finally, thank you for your patience), here is how Tolkien translates that same passage:
Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valor.
Tolkien manages here to be accurate (an important issue in a translation) while at the same time giving us fairly poetic prose. Tolkien’s Beowulf is the best prose translation I’ve ever read. Its publication is long overdue. The language is slightly archaic, but deliberately so. The original text uses a poetic vocabulary, and Tolkein decided to emulate that. It works. The action of the poem (because this is a monster story—there be dragon here) is clear, and although we cannot credit Tolkien with creating a stirring tale here, he deserves some credit for revealing one.

Tolkien’s great love for the poem comes through in the translation. He’s not just providing a way to understand the events of the poem for those who can’t read the original Old English. He’s also clarifying points as he goes. This would be an excellent companion text to the original.

The translation covers only pages 13–105 in a book with 425 pages. In the words of the pitchman, “but wait! There’s more!”

As happy as I was with Tolkien’s prose translation of Beowulf, the real fun starts on page 131. (Pages 107–130 are Christopher Tolkien’s notes on the manuscripts of his father’s translation.) The bulk of this book is Tolkien’s commentaries on Beowulf. These are (for me at least) worth the price of admission. My only regret is that the bulk of the commentary is on the first part of the poem. While the “first part” is fairly long (containing both Grendel and his mother) and is about sixty percent of the poem, it receives 175 pages of commentary, while the rest of the poem is covered in 40.

The commentary is brilliant. Tolkien discusses textual problems, translation issues, and sources. There are places where the text is clearly deficient, through various forms of scribal error, including misspelled or even missing words. These, obviously, produce problems for the translator (or the reader), since then you have to start making conjectures about what the text should have read. In other portions, Tolkien considers the way to translate various phrases. His description of the problem with a too-literal translation of the phrase ofer hronráde, is both insightful and funny (cautioning us not to translate it as “whale-road,” because it sounds too much like “railroad”).

In many cases, Tolkien is discussing words that are rare or unique and require some special attention in the text, whether you’re translating it or just reading it. Happily, Christopher Tolkien has provided citations not only to lines in Tolkien’s translation, but to the standard edition of the poem, that of Klaeber (I did not read this book with Klaeber’s edition open). This section, however, would be of great help to anyone reading any edition of the poem. My only quibble is that it would have been helpful had the main translation been marked up for where you might find either a note on the translation or (even more important) a commentary from Tolkien. I will at some point in the future, open some edition of Beowulf (maybe Chickering’s facing-page poetic translation), and re-read Tolkien’s commentaries as I get through various sections.

Our pitchman again: There’s more!

The last pages of the book are a set of compositions by Tolkien, starting with “Sellic Spell.” In the commentary, Tolkien points out that within the text, we have historical figures (Beowulf’s liege, Hygelac, really existed, and died—as the poem tells us—fighting the Franks), mythic figures (Scylf Scæfing and his son Beow at the beginning seem to be agricultural deities—sheaf and barley), and folklore. Beowulf is the man with the strength of a bear. In “Sellic Spell,” Tolkien attempts to recover the folklore story behind the poem.

This is the portion that those who love Tolkien will truly love. Had Tolkien finished off the story (because “Sellic Spell” ends with Bee-wolf taking his leave of the king), we would have this wonderful novelistic story of the lad who fights monsters, becomes king, and dies protecting his people from a dragon. Or maybe Tolkien felt that the final section of the poem didn’t quite fit in with the story of the man with the strength of a bear. Here, this echoes the commentary, which is sparse after the corresponding point where Beowulf leaves Hrothgar.

Alas, I decided to skip over the Old English Sellic Spell. My skill at reading Old English isn’t completely gone, but I knew I wasn’t up to the task of reading through the whole thing. I suspect many who buy this book will read less of it than I did.

One last quibble. This book, itself, is not without errors, one of which leapt out a me. In Christopher Tolkien’s commentary, he cites on two occasions the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which was the first of J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumous publications. In both extracts, the letters yough (ȝ) and ezh (ʒ) have been turned into the boxes that indicate a certain Unicode character is not in the font. Oops. I rarely mark up my books, but I have pencilled in corrections to these two passages to correct the text.

If you’ve never read Beowulf, but you loved The Lord of the Rings, maybe the thought of reading a translation by the author of The Lord of the Rings will induce you to brush up on your Beowulf. It would be an excellent way to get into it.
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1 comment:

  1. Wow—you would think the editor or the proofreaders would have noticed that ȝ and ʒ had morphed into the missing-glyph boxes! Thanks for your insightful review of this translation—just from the brief snippet you have quoted, I think Tolkien has hit the mark as far as Beowulf prose translations go. As for See-am-us Heaney—LOL. What do you expect when folks on this side of the Pond get named “Shawn”? ;-)


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