Open Translation

The form in which this translation was produced has its own political ends. Progress on the project was documented from beginning to end using blog technology with respect to some of the philosophies of the open source movement. “Open source” typically applies to software, and still requires clarifying statements regarding its definition, especially since it works against the restrictive nature of current intellectual property law. The Open Source Initiative desires keep the “open source” label only for those who allow their work to be redistributed freely (although only in regard to software). “Open source doesn’t just mean access to the source code,” OSI insists; distribution terms have to fit numerous criteria, including that it be free for anyone else to redistribute or sell. The Creative Commons project, alternatively, strives to adapt copyright restrictions — and by extension, the meaning of open source — to the desires of each author, no matter to media. The movement, though not unified, grew from concerns among software developers about the creativity-killing rules of trade secrets, which kept peers from learning solutions from each other, effectively requiring them to reinvent the wheel in every new project. Copyright law, they believed, was an relic from centuries old British copy-protection code, and has been slowing the scientific and creative progress of the internet age. They developed and distributed over the internet free, transparent software was as a kind of catalyst. It spawned a movement that essentially calls for all information to be free and open to the public, and which has influenced the procedure of this project.

The entries on this blog attempt document each written step of the translation of the Grendel’s last attack on Heorot so that readers could better understand the path by which a fragment of a millennia-old manuscript becomes a Modern English poem. Each change is recorded and every major draft is posted. Everyone can see the many steps of the metamorphosis that such a project goes under, like watching tadpole turn to frog. Any future translators with internet access will be able to follow or reply to the manor in which the final product was produce, rather than having to interpret its manor from underneath the polish. In some sense, the final version represents the whole project imperfectly.

Translators often show regard for the original text, though in different ways. Heaney may have gestured just so in the bilingual edition of his work. In it each left page carries an Anglo-Saxon transcription of Beowulf, and each right his translation. Looked at one way, a side-by-side format pays homage to his poem’s sire, something like a father-son portrait. It elevates it too. The original Beowulf, or anything else Anglo-Saxon, rarely finds its way to modern mass distribution, and had never before appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.

Yet the book reads equally well as a challenge. Famously now, Heaney made special care to make Beowulf into an Irish-English poem, and drew upon his own linguistic heritage to show where bits of Old English survive in contemporary Ireland. Considering the “hard grievances” between Ireland and England historically, it has been said that an Irishizing of British artifact has the flavor of a kind of post-colonial counter-conquest, bloodless but not lacking bite. Pitting one page by another opposes them, like Beowulf and Grendel, in a fight for supremacy. The translation mocks and destroys, possibly.

Translation is a change by its nature, and nature would teach us that change feeds from death and ending. An open source translation is my attempt to resemble a chrysalis more than a comparison. This is not to say that my way is more faithful and good, but with some certainty I can say that a project like this has not been tried quite in this way before, published to the world all through as it comes. In that way the blog is inseparable from the true picture of the project.


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