The Coming of Grendel

17 Dec 2007

The poem came to me a few years ago when most of the world was being told that a barbarous and threatening evil lived in a terrible place, a dangerous desert in the Middle East. It had come to our home and murdered many of our people. The monsters needed to be caught and stopped. There was an unknown thing and we had quickly turned to rhetoric to characterize it along with all other things hateful. We were in some way in the midst of a translation of something for which few us had idiomatic knowledge.

I had two texts at the time: one frequently used transcription of the original edited by Frederick Klaeber, the other a popular verse translation by renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney. The former contains a glossary from which my fellow students and I were to find the paths to our respective translations. The glosses provided strove to educate, and as a recent manuscript of the newest edition has said, “intended no just to give Modern English equivalents but to gloss the components of words and to indicate etymological connections. In compounded words, [for example], very often an effort is made first to gloss the elements literally or to point to a modern reflex, and only after to suggest a more precise semantic equivalent.” (“Glossary” Klaeber). The latter, Heaney’s, is a beautiful rendition in Hiberno-English and provided an example of a well-formed translation. In many ways it was refreshing; no one had before begun to quietly and powerfully just the word “So” (1) at first line, or had put sentences like “That was one good king” (11), more clearly. Yet it contained a translation of Grendel, the first enemy that the Beowulf fights, which I have  come to learn is not altogether supportable.


Character of the Project

17 Dec 2007

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.

The Dispensing of Synesthesia

16 Dec 2007

In one way, this project is more translation than poem. “Translation” here would mean the process of producing the best possible faithful representation of all aspects of the text, though I have given more faith to narrative than form. Nothing, for example, has been overtly deleted from from the text. A better understanding of the text overrules the need for artistic smoothness or easy reading. It deviates from conventional interpretations of its elements only in ways that can find a path back to the original text. Elision, while hidden, felt too much like a disconnect. Were I to remove parts, at the point of absence, I believe, I would cease to translate.

Cotton Vitellius A.xv is not made of stone, of course. From what we have learned from Albert Lord and company in The Singer of Tales, improvisational changes may be expected in long oral poems, and those changes are not seen as a deviation from the poem in the way a literate culture likely would. Translators are not to be scolded out of hand for deviant changes, but they are usually asked to address them. I assume the Beowulf-poet is better than I am. I am not the scop; I am his apprentice. If I can find ways to make my own sense of the difficult parts, then I believe I have contributed to the text. Pedagogy, I suppose, was preferred to aesthetics.

Heaney is more willing to elide moments where I would think a creative solution to the direct problem would be a better answer. A moment in Heaney deviates from the text after the mention of “dryhtsele dynede” at line 767. He calls the din (dynede) a “hall-session.” A translator’s note in the Norton critical edition explains: “In Hiberno-English the word ‘session’ (seissiún in Irish) can mean a gathering where musicians and singer perform for their own enjoyment” (Heaney, Norton 21). The effect is ironic, even comic; the parts that make up Heorot become beautifully personified a fighters clash, making the building seem to come alive.

Still, while Beowulf packs plenty of irony (e.g. foreshadow of Heorot burning under betrayal), the text at this passage does not too clearly support it. The passage has four major parts: mention of the noise in the hall, a communal subject (i.e. all the Danes), an expression of mutual hate, and a troublesome word ealuscerwen. A musical interpretation of the first major part is fine, but Heaney rolls over these elements. His version little resembles the original.

He skips ealuscerwen entirely. No one assuredly knows what the word means. It appears nowhere else in recorded literature, and although hapax legomena are common in Beowulf, few vex linguists quite as much as this one. Some things are fairly certain. According to Alfred Bammesberger, it is very likely formed from a compound of ealu and scerwen. Citing Bruce Mitchell, he lists as many as four different theoretical meanings, but immediately rejects the two which take scerwen in the negative, or as “deprivation.” Klaeber tentatively offers “the dispensing of ale (bitter drink),” but Bammesberger rejects that too. Klaeber’s gloss assumes that ealu means ‘ale,’ and “since ‘ale’ is better, ealuscerwen could have been perceived as ‘dispensing of bitterness,’ and then perhaps ‘terror’ might have resulted” (Bammesberger 471). Bammesberger thinks that approach is too complex. He would have it translated as ‘a dispensation of good luck.’

In Klaeber’s defense, “dispensing of ale” may play on the antagonymous meanings of “dispense,” which here can mean that ale was rid of or received. Though Bammesberger thinks his reading of ealu as ‘ale’ may be faulty, Klaeber the ambiguity that might be necessary to encompass the conflicting interpretations. A willingness to embrace an ambiguous translation over elision or even logic seems to me a more interesting choice, and the point at which I cannot agree with Heaney or Bammesberger.

If we can imagine living in the moment, tasting terror may be more probable than Bammesberger believes. Extra-ordinary stress produces a number of physiological responses in the body, including acid-reflux. A re-imagining can turn what would otherwise be a strange idiomatic metaphor into a fair description of the taste of fear: a bitter or acidic fluid burning the back of the throat, the taste of ale.

The imagined translation has two effects. First, a kind of synesthesia is introduced. The reader will become connected to the experience of witnessing fight though taste. Sounds make up so much of description of the fight that a taste, rarely used in Beowulf, renews the weight of what is at stake and what is remembered. I imagine the Danes and the reader sharing in some post-traumatic stress disorder. Second, though the relief that Bammesberger recommends, ambiguity remains. The people are only reacting, not judging.

The values of good story-telling have likely changed over the years. It is uncertain whether methods then resemble methods today. Most would now agree that good narration keeps up suspense, and might begrudge earlier foretelling of Beowulf’s success and Grendel’s failure. They would say it “ruins the story.” Yet many of us will still attend a tale we have heard before, so long as the path to the outcome holds our imagination. Hence, I have bent my translation away from a judgemental reading with the belief that narrative is better sustained.

Bammesberger argues rightly that ‘there occurred a dispensation of good luck’ does not conflict with the moment; a fair turn can easily turn back sour, instantly—good luck does not mean a win. Sadly, those words lack beauty. In poetic language, logic is not the point. What is felt comes from associations we have that make no sense.

Who is Grendel?

16 Dec 2007

Descriptions in Grendel’s last attack on Heorot horrify; a darkened and deadly creature comes out of shadow and mist, a door collapses at its touch, and many disembodied parts of a sleeping man become swallowed in his maw. In the subsequent battle with Beowulf his arm rips from his shoulder. He flees, leaving a trail so bloody that it wells and moves like disturbed water. These things would inspire terror enough, but in translation this moment’s strangeness seems to creep into the characterizations where it may not need to be. Grendel eats men, and that is monsterous to us, but to what degree must he be a monster?

Heaney continues a long tradition of turning Grendel into a monster. Grendel, “the captain of evil” (Heaney 749), “the dread of the land” (761), is given talons, kinship with demons, and comes “greedily loping” (711). What Grendel leaves behind of himself warrants a grotesque picture. His disembodied arm is clawed, and his severed head takes four men to carry from his mother’s den, something about the weight of a full human corpse. We are told that he descends from Cain, in hybrid Germanic and Christian tradition the sire of all strange creatures like gnomes, elves, giants, and ettins. Grendel may resemble his family. Besides agreeing that giants are big, though, no one certainly knows what these things looked like in Anglo-Saxon imaginations, and relating him to Cain, who was a man, distantly suggests anthropomorphic features. Beyond that, as has been mentioned before, we know nothing of what he looked like.

Words that describe him during his last trip to Heorot remain vague (Amodio). Andy Orchard has pointed out that aglæca, which those before have noted applied to both heroes and monsters (including Beowulf and Grendel), best translates with the words offered by Elliot Dobbie: ‘the awe-inspiring one,’ or ‘the formidable one’ (Orchard 33). Beowulf, while violent, does not resemble a monster, so for the sake of consistency an aglæca, friend or foe, cannot be one.

Nonetheless for Heaney the words “Licsar gebad / atol æglæca” (Klaeber 815-16) become “The monster’s whole / body was in pain” (Heaney 814-15). With two aglæcan wrestling, the sentence should confuse the reader a little. Grendel’s pain is implied, but no more. As Amodio has noted, the ambiguous substantive imbues the fog of war. No one, not even those in the fight, would know in the chaos and the night what precisely was happening. Strained, the senses process what is necessary for survival, and memory becomes uncertain. The text will give us “fingras burston” (Klaeber 760) ‘fingers burst’ without telling whose fingers. A translators who offers answers too quickly makes a helpful but unnecessary and indecorous interpretation.

A tale of deep horror depends its flirtation with uncertainty. As far as Grendel’s last attack, the first chance at a glimpse of Grendel, the perspective nearly keeps us from seeing anything at all. Something wicked this way comes, but it does not offer much more than strange and shadowy movement, and a taste of Grendel’s desire. Michael Lapidge believes that obfuscation serves the narrative, taking Beowulf outside the heroic and into horror. “It is because the monster lies beyond our comprehension, because we cannot visualize him at all, that its approach is one of the most terrifying moments in English literature” (Lapidge 383).

Open Translation

14 Dec 2007

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.

A Pause to Ken

3 Dec 2007

An article by Phyllis Portnoy (Univ. Manitoba) that I was reading this morning connects the meaning of kennings to the solutions for the surviving Old English riddles. Riddles by their nature propose logical connections to a conclusion not commonly or easily thought of, and so the answer is not quickly expected. The thought that kennings may be riddle-like suggests that kennings may have induced a pause, not just for the reader, but perhaps for the audience that would have heard Beowulf performed aloud.

Readers looking for oral elements in Beowulf will be left to speculation as to what singers may have done while reciting. We will, for example, probably never know how the recitation was paced: was it slow, fast, did it fluctuate, did it change along with the dramatic tension? Did, for example, a singer treat the performance of a kenning the same as the performance of a riddle? Did he pause for a moment to let the audience think, or even expecting an answer from and elder or a clever child? Was solving a kenning a rite of passage?

Assuming he did consistently pause at kennings, then my interpretation of the pacing at the moment of Grendel’s fight with Beowulf may become very different. I believed that this passage could be interpreted and even translated as a tale of horror, as opposed to trumpeting heroism. I thought that the telling of a horror would depend heavily on the translation’s ability to hold the tension, so it had not occurred to me that there might be any breaks. I shall have to keep the possibility that the truth may be different as I race to finish.


19 Sep 2007

“Eoton” is probably most easily and commonly translated as “giant,” on the basis, it would seem, that its etymological ancestor is the “Jotun” of Norse mythology, who were creatures of godlike strength who dwelt in dark places. Someone has suggested that the Proto-Germanic word for “jötunn” (Old Norse), which is “etunaz,” may have the same root as “etan,” or “to eat,” and accordingly had the original meaning of glutton or “man-eater.” Unfortunately, the source for this assertion is lost, so for now it goes unsupported. Further research will be needed.

Whatever the truth, I think “giant” is a poor translation. Giants in our contemporary English are part of a child’s imagination. If you read that, for the night, the king’s own soldiers offered “eotonward,” or protection against invading giants, you would laugh. The context in which the word “eoton” appears may indeed warrant comedy: the Great King Hrothgar, to some scholars’ readings, cowers in bed behind his men, while Beowulf antithetically lays down his sword so that Grendel and he can have a fair fight. Grave, though, is the threat of being eaten to the Beowulf-poet. The text invariably treats the concept seriously. “Eoton” may be better translated as “man-eater,” especially since in our minds a giant is false, but a cannibal very real.