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 our 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 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 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 strove to educate, and as a recent manuscript of the newest edition has said:
[They are] intended not 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 the poem, quietly and powerfully, with just the word “So” (1), 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 believe is not altogether supportable.
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, about the weight of a full human corpse. Earlier in the text the Beowulf-poet tells us that he descends from Cain, who in hybrid Germanic and Christian tradition is 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. 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. 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, as if emulating that feeling, will give us “fingras burston” (Klaeber 760) ‘fingers burst’ without telling whose fingers.
Heaney favors clarity, and that is generally an excellent standard for a translator to keep. Translate short of clarity and you open your work to questions as to whether you have really translated anything at all. Translate with murky words of Grendel’s last attack on Heorot, and you offer something perhaps more truthful, more unwilling to believe in any pure evil. A translator of this poem who offers answers too quickly makes a helpful but unnecessary and indecorous interpretation.
That same translator would also take something away from the mood. A tale of deep horror depends on its flirtation with uncertainty. Grendel’s last attack is the first chance to catch a glimpse of Grendel, but the perspective that operates in the narrative works against the audience’s desire to see him. It nearly keeps us from seeing anything at all. Something wicked this way comes, for certain, but all we get is strange and shadowy movement, and, switching to Grendel’s perspective , a taste of his 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).
Also consequent of the ambiguity, however, Grendel becomes more of a sympathetic character than the hero Beowulf. During the fight there is more mention of how Grendel feels and his sorrow than there is of Beowulf. Though those clues are suggsetive, I did not wish to go so far as to conclude that Grendel is the “true” hero of Beowulf in the same way the Romantics did of Milton’s Lucifer in Paradise Lost. Nor do I mean to suggest that abiguity puts Beowulf and Grendel on even ground. My characterization of Grendel as a man-eater is clear and repitious, inspired by representations of “The Man-Eater” in various mythologies, and influenced by the work of Ward Parks. Grendel for all his suggested humanity and his soul, is a predator. “When [Grendel] enters Heorot,” wrote Parks, “he sees not prospective worthy adversaries by whom he might enhance his glory but only the ‘expectation of a plentiful meal’ (“wistfylle wen,” l. 734)” (Parks 6). Part of the satisfaction gained by Beowulf’s triumph comes from the humans regaining some position at the top of the food-chain. In respect to this I have tried set Grendel in more of a contest of survival with Beowulf than as a glutenous demon. Even the enemy, as it were, can be characterized as to hold our regard.
I have found that the proper regard needed also to be protayed in the form of publication. I learned this from Heaney. In the bilingual edition of his book—more popular than the Norton Critical Edition with which I started, 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.
Counter to Heaney’s form, 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 to 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” (Coar), O.S.I. insists; distribution terms have to fit numerous criteria, including that it be free for anyone else to redistribute or sell. Alternatively another leader in the movement called Creative Commons strives to adapt copyright restrictions — and by extension, the meaning of open source — to the desires of each author, no matter to media (“About”). 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 believe, was a relic from centuries old British copy-protection code, and has been slowing the scientific and creative progress of the internet age. In response, developers created and distributed free, transparent software over the internet to catalyze creativity. 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 to document each written step of the translation of 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 manner in which the final product was produced, rather than having to interpret its manner from underneath the polish. In some sense, the final version represents the whole project imperfectly .
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.
In this project I have tried to give more attention to the needs of translation than the needs of good verse, even though I also meant to craft a good poem in one language into a good poem in another. “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 the text. A better understanding of the text overrules the need for artistic smoothness or easy reading. Where I deviated from conventional interpretations of original elements, I tried to do so only in ways that could be charted back to the text. To elide it in the translation felt to me like the project would become too disconnected. Were I to remove parts, at the point of absence, I believe, I would cease to translate.
The original manuscript is not made of stone, of course. Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales posits that improvisational changes may be expected in long oral poems, and an oral culture would not see those changes as a deviation from the poem in the same 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. Take one of his descriptions of the din from the fight:
And now the timbers trembled and sang,
a hall-session that harrowed every Dane
inside the stockade: stumbling in fury,
the two contenders crashed through the building. (Heaney 766-769)
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; Heorot’s parts become beautifully personified as a set of session players, improvising along with the 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 that 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 bitter, 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, the ambiguity that Klaeber offers 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.
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 I did not provide the relief that Bammesberger recommends, ambiguity remains. The people are only reacting, not judging.
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.
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. I have bent my translation away from a judgmental reading with the belief that narrative is better sustained. It also holds well against language now, which has come to make demonic all that would bring death. I imagine that Beowulf was to its own people a teaching device, and I wanted that to be felt as easily by my people, however that didactic choice may cause discomfort.
[Grendel’s Last Attack]
Then Hrothgar, the helm of the Shieldings,
went out of the hall with his troop.
The war-chief wished to seek Welltheow,
the queen for his bedmate. The king of glory,
so men heard, had a hall-guard set against Grendel;
they held special service around the protector of the Danes,
and offered protection from man-eaters.
However, the Geat people trusted in a brave one’s might,
and God’s grace. He took off the metal mailcoat,
his helmet from his head, and gave his hursted sword,
made of the choicest iron, and battle-gear to a vassal to hold.
He said just then, that man of goodness,
Beowulf of the Geats, some boastful words
before he bedded down. “In prowess,
I do not consider myself any less battle-keen
than the Grendel himself. Therefore, I will not
have him put to sleep by the sword,
though I might deprive him of his life in that way.
He knows nothing of good things, that he strikes against me,
hews the shield’s edge, though strong in spite he may be.
Tonight the two of us shall forgo the blade,
if he seeks plain war over weaponry.
Afterward, God, in his wisdom, puts in the hand
the glory of whomever he wills,
and so to that man it is given properly, I should think.”
He bowed down, the battle-brave one.
A cheek-cushion took the man’s face,
and those nearby, those many seamen,
lied down quickly for a sheltered rest.
Not one of them thought he would ever look
upon the land he loved thereafter, the folk
or the freetown where he was raised,
for in that wine-hall, they’d heard, death by slaughter
had pillaged too many of the Danish tribe.
But the Lord wove for the Weeder’s tribesman
war-success, solace and support,
so through one’s craft they all overcame their fiend,
through his own might. The truth is well known
that mighty God governs mankind
for the long life of the immortal soul.
It came then on the waning night,
gliding, the shadow-walker.
The shooters slept, those who had to hold
that horn-gabled house, all but one —
ancestors knew that a sinful scather could not,
when fate desired it not, braid them into shadows —
but still he kept a wrathful watch,
in anger he waited on the ends of battle
his mind bulging.
Then came off the moor under night-fog,
Grendel, going, bearing God’s ire,
a man-scather intent on snaring
some of the race of men in the high hall.
He waded under billowing-clouds and came
into line of sight with the gilded wine-hall of men,
stained with shining metalworks. It was not the first time
he’d sought the home of Hrothgar,
but never, not in his living days before, and not since,
would he find harder luck or hall-keepers.
He came then to the building, the warrior journeyed,
deprived of joy. The fire-tempered firm door
swiftly gave out once his hands touched it.
It swung open to the malignant one,
and then he grew swollen, at the building’s mouth open.
Quickly after, on the shining floor,
the fiend treaded, moving angrily.
From his eyes arose, most like fire,
a light unbeautiful.
In the keep he saw many ranks,
a sleeping band of kinsmen gathered together,
a heap of soldier sons. Then his mind laughed.
He thought that before day came
he, the terrible, awesome one, would sever
each one’s life from his body,
as in him was arising a deep, eater’s hunger.
Not yet was to come his fate: that no more
could he consume mankind overnight.
Higelac’s muscle could behold how the man-scather
under the sudden grip would act.
The awesome one meant no delay, but he grasped
quickly at first chance a sleeping man,
rent him irresistibly, bit bone joints,
drank blood streams, swallowed huge morsels.
Soon he had consumed all the unliving thing,
the feet and the hands.
Near he stepped further, and took then,
with hands determined, one of the resting warriors.
He reached toward the enemy with his hand.
Quickly he seized with hostile purposes
and sat up against the arm. The keeper of sins
soon found that he had not met—not on middle-earth,
nor any other plane of the world—in another being
a greater handgrip. Fear came
to his soul. He could not get away.
His spirit within was eager to away itself.
It wished to flee into some hiding place,
to seek a devil’s hospice. Never in its days
had it met with such an experience.
The good one, Higelach’s kinsman, remembered his bedtime speech.
He stood upright and laid hold on him tightly.
Fingers burst. The man-eater made to throw himself out,
and so the hero stepped along with him.
He thought, that legendry one, of safe-spots in reach
to where he could flee into a marsh-retreat.
He knew his fingers were clamped in hostile claws.
What a sorrowful journey that the harm-giver made to Heorot.
The splendid hall resounded, and an acrid taste
like foul ale spouted in the throat of every Dane,
all fortress-dwellers, each keen one and hero.
Ireful were both, furious guardians of the house.
The house over-echoed. There was much wonder
that the wine-hall withstood those battle-brave ones,
and that it fell not to the ground, that beautiful fold-building,
but it held fast, with iron bands inside,
so skillfully smithed. Many meed-benches,
gold adorned, fell from their braces,
as I have heard, where the grim ones fought.
Wisemen of the Shieldings had never expected that any man,
even the best, the backboned, the decorated,
by common means might break it, or wreck it with cunning,
unless a flame’s embrace swallowed it in the heat.
Then a sound ascended upward,
altogether new, that direly stood the North-Danes
with fear. Everyone within the walls heard weeping,
a terrible song to sing, the enemy of God
sang victoryless and bewailed, sore, as Hell’s captive.
He held him fast. He who was with might
the strongest of men on that day of this life.
The shelterer would not for anything
let that death bringer go alive,
nor did he consider his living days
otherwise useful to any of his tribesmen.
There Beowulf’s men unsheathed many a hard ancestor,
wishing to defend the life of the lord-king,
the famous chief, where they so could.
They knew not, those tough-minded warriors,
that when they came to struggle and when,
on every side, they thought to cut that sin-scather,
and tried to reach his very soul, that not anything made
from choicest iron on this earth, those war-blades,
not a one would touch him, but so he had repelled
all victory-weapons, each and every edge.
On that day of this life, his parting from life
was to become unhandy, and the foreign guest
was to journey deep into the hands of fiends.
Then he, who before did much disturbance
to men’s hearts, and many crimes—
in a feud with God he was—
found that his body-covering would not avail him,
but the hearty kinsman of Higelac him had by the hand.
Each was hateful to the other alive.
A body-sore that terrible, awesome one suffered,
for in his shoulder broke an angry wound.
Sinews sprang asunder, and his bone-locker burst.
To Beowulf was granted a yield from the fray.
Grendel had to flee then, life-sick,
under into the moor-slope, to go
to that joyless home. He surely knew
he’d reached his life’s end, his days numbered.
Gladness befell all Danes after that slaughter-storm.
Cleansed, the far-comer, prudent and tough-minded,
he protected the hall of Hrothgar from rancor.
He rejoiced over his night-work, over the fame for his courage.
For the East Danes, the tribesman of the Geatish people
had lasted his boast, and likewise soothed all distress,
the anguished sorrow that they’d suffered before,
and for dire necessity had to swallow, an unsmall grief.
Where the battle-brave one had laid hand
there was a clear-cut keepsake,
an arm and shoulder that was altogether
Grendel’s grip, under the vaulted roof.
Then in the morning, I have heard,
around the gift-hall was many a warrior,
folk-captains who’d traveled from far and near
and over wide-stretched ways to see
the wonder: the tracks of the loathéd one.
None of those gladiators thought sorely on his life-parting,
those who looked upon the gloryless track,
how he weary-hearted went away,
overcome with enmity, into the kelpie-mere,
fated and put to flight for the life-track he bore.
There was a sea-surge of blood.
Terrible waves awhirl, all mingled,
and hot gore and battle-fluid welled.
It concealed the death-fated one when he,
devoid of delight, laid down his life in the marsh-haven,
laid down his heathen soul, where hell received him.
“About.” Creative Commons. 14 Dec 2007 <http://creativecommons.org/about/>.
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