This site is supported by Nobility Studios.
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0

Beowulf

7 posts in this topic

Posted

Reading the idiomatic English prose translation of Beowulf, one of some ten books that Null gifted me with when I was in California. (He is owed books big time!) Here is Wright's opening:

HEAR! We know of the bygone glory of the Danish kings, and the heroic exploits of those princes. Scyld Scefing, in the face of hostile armies, used often to bring nations into subjection, and strike terror in the hearts of their leaders. In the beginning he had been picked up as a castaway; but he afterwards found consolation for this misfortune. For his power and fame increased until each of his overseas neighbours was forced to submit and pay him tribute. He was an excellent king.

And here is the translation of the opening by Leslie Hall, at Gutenberg:

Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements

The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,

How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.

Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers

From many a people their mead-benches tore.

Since first he found him friendless and wretched,

The earl had had terror: comfort he got for it,

Waxed ’neath the welkin, world-honor gained,

Till all his neighbors o’er sea were compelled to

Bow to his bidding and bring him their tribute:

An excellent atheling!

Granted the second, poetical translation is more obscure, but the translator also includes side notes to aid comprehension. The second translation is musical to my ear; and I can let comprehension suffer a little. Wright begins his work with a note on his translation. He argues against lines like this: "The twisted-prow sailed over the whale's road," preferring instead the straightforward: "A ship sailed over the sea." He also objects to "blade-hate" for "blood feud." In short, Wright rejects attempting to translate the original's kennings (compounds) and also rejects trying to draw out the alliteration of the original. Another poeticism for the sea, "swan's way," is also rejected. It's just the sea, the sea, the sea.

I think Wright is mistaken in this and while I am enjoying the content of his translation of the narrative, I think he has ransacked it of all poetry and music. Any thoughts?

2 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Isn't this argument often made about translations of the Bible, specifically the King James version relative to others? I think that more straightforward translations can lose something of how the writer intended the reader to experience the text. To use your example, a twisted prow sailing over the whale's road allows me to interpret what it meant to sail a ship at that time: I imagine that life was difficult because the prow was twisted and, since the ship is associated explicitly with the prow, that the passage was hard and the ship was engaged in a battle with the sea to make any progress; and I note that the sea belongs to the whale rather than to men and hence I assume that this transit was considered dangerous and that monsters lay in wait for the foolhardy or unfortunate. Both of these (very quick and basic) interpretations make the text more meaningful for me because they have set an altogether difference scene than merely sailing.

2 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

:davidm: , I just got a copy of Beowulf as a gift yesterday. :shock: It's J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation. Here’s another opening for you:

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 valour. Oft Scyld Scefing robbed the hosts of foemen, many peoples, of the seats where they drank their mead, laid fear upon men, he who first was found forlorn; comfort for that he lived to know, mighty grew under heaven, throve in honour, until all that dwelt nigh about, over the sea where the whale rides, must hearken to him and yield him tribute—a good king was he!

I haven’t read the introduction yet, but I’m willing to bet this is meant to be read aloud. Partly because the dramatic, oratorical language calls out for it, partly because I have read Tolkien’s essay, “The Monsters and the Critics,” and he makes it clear that he’d rather see Beowulf enjoyed as a good story than studied to death. There doesn’t seem to be a footnote in the entire book. But if the incorporation of the kenning “whale-road” in the opening is any indication, poetry hasn't been sacrificed to accessibility, either.

I actually have two other translations, but only one I have access to at the moment: Seamus Heaney’s verse translation. Let’s have the opening one more time. :-D

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.

In contrast to Tolkien’s, Heaney’s translation is matter-of-fact— even deliberately undramatic. But in diametrically opposite ways, they’ve both given dignity to the text.

More later. :yup:

2 people like this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

He argues against lines like this: "The twisted-prow sailed over the whale's road," preferring instead the straightforward: "A ship sailed over the sea." He also objects to "blade-hate" for "blood feud." In short, Wright rejects attempting to translate the original's kennings (compounds) and also rejects trying to draw out the alliteration of the original.

I think Wright is mistaken in this and while I am enjoying the content of his translation of the narrative, I think he has ransacked it of all poetry and music. Any thoughts?

I’d be interested to know Wright’s rationale for this. I think an unadorned prose translation could be useful, especially for someone who plans to read multiple translations of Beowulf and wants to get a good grasp on the content first, inasmuch as it can be isolated. But from what you've said, it almost sounds like Wright has a problem with Beowulf itself, which is hardly a straightforward narrative in straightforward language. :scratch:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

He argues against lines like this: "The twisted-prow sailed over the whale's road," preferring instead the straightforward: "A ship sailed over the sea." He also objects to "blade-hate" for "blood feud." In short, Wright rejects attempting to translate the original's kennings (compounds) and also rejects trying to draw out the alliteration of the original.

I think Wright is mistaken in this and while I am enjoying the content of his translation of the narrative, I think he has ransacked it of all poetry and music. Any thoughts?

I’d be interested to know Wright’s rationale for this. I think an unadorned prose translation could be useful, especially for someone who plans to read multiple translations of Beowulf and wants to get a good grasp on the content first, inasmuch as it can be isolated. But from what you've said, it almost sounds like Wright has a problem with Beowulf itself, which is hardly a straightforward narrative in straightforward language. :scratch:

Well, to begin with, he writes a forward and also translator's note, and in the forward he actually gives a synopsis of the entire plot, so he can't plead that he translated the poem into almost journalistic prose because of fears that a poetical rendering would render the plot obscure. Even if he feared that, he could provide annotations, which he does anyway.

In the forward he claims, essentially, that the poetry of Beowulf is not as important as the plot, and in cases like that, the translator should go for prose. He also claims that trying to render the original text into a serviceable translation is essentially futile, and likens Beowulf as he translates it to a mighty tree with elaborate and beautiful bare branches. Trying to translate the poetry, which he likens to the leaves of the tree, is wrong, he says, because the leaves would be fake. Better to go for the barren beauty.

He contrasts this with other works like Paradise Lost, for instance, which he claims must be translated as poetry because the plot is unimportant vis-a-vis the poetry.

I disagree with him on all counts, but still enjoyed the story as it's a thumping good yard. However I've read it translated as poetry, and I prefer the poetry AND the plot. After all, translations, especially of poetry, from other languages and especially from obscure or extinct ones is always going to be a problem, but a problem like that is also a challenge that should be met and not abdicated, IMO.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Sounds like Wright gave up without much of a fight. Even if the poetry can’t be translated—Robert Frost once defined poetry as that which cannot be translated, and it’s worth thinking about—there are many alternatives besides unadorned prose. I prefer Tolkien’s solution. While translation may not be able to bring the poetry across, exactly, the translator can still recreate those aspects of the original work that made it worthwhile to translate in the first place.

Interestingly, Tolkien attempted a verse translation in Beowulf’s poetic idiom before he wrote his prose translation. I suppose he must have found something about the original draft unsatisfactory—anyone’s guess as to what. But to consider whether the verse translation would have been more authentic than the prose translation, or more authentic than Wright’s, is a little beside the point. A reader whose primary concern is the authenticity of what he’s reading only has one real option: learning Old English.

1 person likes this

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!


Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.


Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0