Monday, July 14, 2014

Tolkien's Beowulf a mixed bag

A Translation and Commentary
by J.R.R. Tolkien

There is a famous quote about poetry translations that says if a translation is faithful then it is not beautiful and if it is beautiful then it is not faithful. Tolkien's translation of Beowulf is extremely faithful.

Tolkien was a scholar of Old English and wrote a paper titled "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" which is considered one of the most significant works in Beowulf scholarship. He was of course also the grandfather of all modern Fantasy fiction. These two factors taken together make his translation of Beowulf all the more disappointing.

The translation was completed in 1926, decades before his famous Fantasy works, and he did not attempt to publish it during his lifetime. The work is a very literal translation that is sometimes an awkward read. Of much more interest is the 200 pages of commentary Tolkien provides, explaining in great detail his translation process and word choices.

For an example, look at the following passage from Tolkien's translation, starting with line 110:
Thereafter not far to seek was the man who elsewhere more remote sought him his couch and a bed among the lesser chambers, since now was manifested and declared thus truly to him with token plain the hatred of that hall-keeper; thereafter he who escaped the foe kept him more distant and more safe.
The meaning is there, that the survivors of Grendel's first attack sought safer places to sleep than the hall of Hrothgar, but the phrasing is so strange it requires multiple readings to understand.

Here is the same passage from Seamus Heaney's translation:
It was easy then to meet with a man shifting himself to a safer distance to bed in the bothies, for who could be blind to the evidence of his eyes, the obviousness of that hall-watcher's hate? Whoever escaped kept a weather-eye open and moved away.
Finally, from Burton Raffel's translation:
Then each warrior tried to escape him, searching for rest in different beds, as far from Herot as they could find, seeing how Grendel hunted when they slept. Distance was safety; the only survivors were those who fled him. Hate had triumphed.
Tolkien gives a near word-for-word translation, but the resulting structure sounds very strange to modern readers. Raffel coveys the meaning of the passage, but makes no attempt to retain the wording or original structure of the poem. Heaney strikes a fine balance between the two extremes, keeper closer to the wording of the Beowulf poet but conveying it in a clearer manner than Tolkien.

To return to Yevtushenko's quote about translation, Tolkien is faithful but not beautiful while Raffel is beautiful but not faithful. If you want to read an interesting commentary on translating Old English into modern English I would recommend Tolkien's book. If you just want to enjoy reading Beowulf, I would recommend Seamus Heaney's translation.

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Review by Keith Davis

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