Character of the Project

The language in the poem called Beowulf sits awkwardly between foreign and familiar. It is written in an ancestral form of English that scholars call Anglo-Saxon, which was complex, full of dialect, and mostly pre-literate. Even transcribed from its fire-damaged manuscript, most readers of Modern English will not see the resemblance. Translating it proves difficult. Anglo-Saxon is long dead, and so we are still left to wonder over words, approximating them from the ancient languages of Scandinavia, Germany, and even Indo-European, the hypothetical sire language from which all European tongues are born. Idioms are all but impossible to know, and since Beowulf is written in verse, a generally more playful genre than prose, we are even more uncertain to what extent the etymology of those idioms play a part in the meaning. Yet out language is noticeably connected, as we can easily see in cognates like fingras ‘fingers’. Turning this one English into another, then, as so many now have done, is something unique in the world of translation. Like a parent, we can come to both love it and revile it simultaneously. Emotion would normally be abolished in a translation, but this cannot so easily be so of any translation of Beowulf.


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