The Best of “Beowulf” Brought into English

“My translation takes a few liberties from time to time, but for the most part it gives the plain sense of the original or, when a literal translation would be unclear, the intended meaning as I see it” (Chickering x).  A few liberties?  Plain sense of the original for the most part?  The meaning as he sees it?  Thus the problem with “Beowulf” translations.  A few small liberties here and there can add up to substantially different meanings.

The risks of relying on a single translation can be explored by comparing three different versions of two passages.  It may be seen that the safest way to an interpretation of “Beowulf” is to translate it yourself, or at least read with an awareness of translators’ infidelity.

The three translations compared are Constance Hieatt’s prose version, Howell D. Chickering Jr.’s dual-language version, and Ruth Lehmann’s imitative translation.  All are compared against the original, as literally translated by John Porter and also using the glossary supplied with Klaeber’s version of the original (line numbers are consistent in all five versions).  The two passages selected are Beowulf’s first speech, his reply to the guard at the coast (lines 259-285, pages 9-10 in Hieatt); and Wealhtheow’s presentation of the circlet/neck-ring/torque (lines 1214 to 1235, pages 33-34 in Hieatt). Given the rare and ritualized nature of the dialogue in “Beowulf”, dialogue passages are especially challenging for the translator.

Hieatt’s prose version has the advantage of being easier to read than poetry.  The cost is some loss of colour and sharpness. This is first seen when Beowulf responds to the coast-guard’s challenge: “said” is supplied for the literal “word-hoard unlocked” (259).  In the original, Beowulf does not know what (“hwylc”) the enemy is, but in this translation Beowulf knows a little more.  He just does not know “who” the enemy is (274).  Most of the words in the translation are very close to the original, but these two changes slightly lessen the heroic stature of Beowulf, both directly by having him appear to speak ordinarily, and indirectly by making Grendel less inhuman.

The choice of “noble leader” for “ord-fruma” is curious (263).  The words chosen are reasonable, but when Hrothgar speaks of Beowulf’s father, in lines 459 to 472, it seems Ecgtheow caused a feud and had to flee his country.  Either Beowulf is lying to the coast-guard, or another description for his father would be more appropriate.  Chickering uses “battle-leader,” while Lehmann uses “able chieftain.”  “Noble leader” is more appropriate to the softer tone of this translation, as it is more general than the alternatives.  Perhaps causing a feud does not lessen noble stature, so long as the feud is appropriately settled.

While Hieatt slightly diminishes Beowulf but otherwise maintains the balance and formality of the passage, Chickering exalts the hero and his warrior band, at the expense of the guard and the King he plans to visit.  Balance and formality are lost, but a sense of disorder may be appropriate when a monster is on the loose.

Beowulf introduces himself and his companions as being “of the race of the Geatish nation, / sworn hearth-companions of Hygelac their king” (260-261).  The word “race” is descriptive, but it does not have the sense of inclusiveness that the alternates people, nation, or tribe, have.  “Their king” suggests even more strongly that this warrior-band is not part of the Geatish nation.  “Their” is an additional word, as is “sworn.” The importance of the comitatus and their loyalty is stressed.  This more exalted Beowulf displays less courtesy.  In the original, he requests counsel or guidance from the guard (269).  This translation, “Be good in your words,” is more a demand than a request, and suggests truth is required rather than assistance. The king is described as “frod ond god” in the original (279). “Frod” could be old or wise.  Hieatt chooses “wise,” while Lehmann uses “prudent,” but Chickering chooses the less flattering “old.”  His hall is merely “that hall,” and “selest,” generally translated as a compliment about the hall, is ignored (285).

Chickering does not present a balanced encounter.  There is less sense of ritual, and more a sense of mighty warriors come to do a great deed, as soon as this guard is out of their way.  Lehmann’s presentation of this encounter at first also seems unbalanced, and Beowulf speaks ironically rather than rudely or ritually, but there is serious note to his words as well, and balance is restored.      Beowulf here speaks “in plain discourse,” but his words soon suggest this is an ironic comment (259).  He begins by telling the guard “We are young warriors of the Geatish folk” (260).  The word “warriors” is at best a very liberal translation.  The guard can see they are warriors, and Beowulf’s stating the obvious suggests that the guard is being teased.  On line 274, Beowulf states there is a foe “among the free Scyldings.”  The word “free” has been added by Lehmann, and is ironic, for as Beowulf and the guard both know, the Scyldings are not “free” while the monster lives.

Beowulf stresses that his troop has a mission “to your master,” an emphasis that is not in the original (270).  As in Chickering’s translation, Beowulf appears to be impatient with the guard, but not so rude.  To the king, Beowulf shows respect, and calls him “brave” in line 277, a compliment not in the original.  A very liberal translation of “gamol of geardum” (old from dwellings or yards) to “old in earth’s ways,” followed by a repetition of “earth” in the following line, suggests Beowulf is aware of the larger world beyond the deeds of men (265-266).  These serious notes balance the irony in his speech and his teasing of the guard.      Overall, no one translation is more or less faithful to the words of the original.  Chickering and Lehmann give more flavour to the episode, but it is difficult to say who is more faithful to the meaning of the original.

Wealhtheow’s presentation to Beowulf, in Hieatt’s prose, suffers the same loss of sharpness as his earlier speech.  The gift, described as “peodgestreona” (the people’s treasure), is merely “precious” (1218).  Hieatt chooses “blessed” for “eadig,” and “fortunate” for “dreamhealdende” (1225, 1227).  These choices are more subdued than other possibilities such as happy or joyful, but they also have echoes of fate.  Wealhtheow’s presentation is less exciting than it could be, but rich in reminders to forces beyond man’s control.      Hieatt translates “ealgearo” as “good will,” although a more accurate translation might be alert, ready, or willing (1230).  An advantage of her translation is greater consistency in Wealhtheow’s statements about the peace and unity of the land, but preparedness can go with peace and unity.  The consistency may be a way to simplify the story.

Any hope that Chickering will present a more balanced view of Beowulf is this passage is quickly dashed on reading line 1214:  “Now cheers for Beowulf rose.”  Beowulf’s name is not in the original line.  The noise in the hall may be for him, but it may also be for Wealhtheow, to praise her before she begins to speak again.  Wealhtheow addresses Beowulf as “My dear young Beowulf” (1217).  The literal translation might be beloved young man, which Hieatt has shortened to “beloved.”  The form of address used in Chickering’s translation suggests the relationship of a mother and a brave son, and is in stark contrast to Lehmann’s “dear friend,” which suggests a relationship of equals.  An even more blatant weakening of Wealhtheow’s stature comes in line 1220, when Chickering strips her of the power to reward.  The phrase which approximately means I will reward you is translated as “I will not forget you.”  A few lines later, Wealhtheow refer to Beowulf’s “great strength” (1227).  This praise of Beowulf is not in the original.  Like the scene at the coast, Beowulf is exalted, this time at the expense of Wealhtheow.

The group of men are also exalted again.  They are “death-loyal,” an emphasis not in the original, and they enjoy “rare” wine, an adjective added by Chickering (1229, 1233).  The worship of the hero and the warriors seems less appropriate in this passage than it did at the coast, because Wealhtheow should be the dominant figure here.  She says the men will do as she asks, but in this translation that may be an empty boast (1231).

Lehmann’s version of this passage stays very close to a literal translation, which allows the juxtaposed concepts of treasure, fame, and mortality; and treasure and loyalty, to come through clearly.  As previously noted, here Wealhtheow addresses Beowulf as a friend, which implies a relationship of equals.  To Beowulf she describes her sons as “stripling lads” (1219).  The translator’s added adjective emphasises the youth and vulnerability of Wealhtheow’s sons, and thus makes her request of kind counsel for them appear to come from their needs, not hers. The addition of “stripling” is also justified in that it allows alliteration in the line.

One liberal translation in this passage is “fared in life” for “gefered” (1221).  Hieatt and Chickering both use “brought it about,” which is closer to the literal meaning.  Lehmann’s choice allows her to keep the idea of achievement and mention “life.”  This adds depth, due to repetition, to the later comment on mortality, “flourish, / lord, while living!” (1224-5).

Once Wealhtheow sits down, there is foreshadowing of events which in hindsight contradict her words of peace, unity, and readiness.  Porter’s text and literal translation of this foreshadowing is:  “Fate not they knew, / old destiny grim, as it happened had / to heroes many” and ends there with a period (1233-1235).  Klaeber’s text has a comma, not a period, after “manegum” (many).  The sentence continues with evening coming and retiring.  All three translators observe the comma, and describe the foreshadowing in the same manner.  Hieatt’s version reads, “They did not know the doom, grim destiny, which many of the nobles would meet when evening came . . . .”  Two problems come of respecting the comma.  First, only one person is killed when evening comes, so the foreshadowing seems incorrect or at least exaggerated, and second, the warning is limited to one evening.  This warning about fate is actually much broader and applies to the attack of Grendel’s mother as well as the later treachery of Hrothulf (Chickering page 333).  The sense of the lines is clearer, stronger, and less contradictory if a period is used in place of the comma.

Hieatt’s prose version of Beowulf is a milder form than poetry, and the tone is also milder, but appropriate to the ritual speeches and the code of honour.  In the name of simplification extremes are avoided and details are reduced, but the overtones remain.  She has succeeded in her intention to produce a readable translation.

The hero and the warrior band dominate Chickering’s “Beowulf,” if the two selected passages are any indication.  On the surface this is more interesting than Hieatt’s gentler translation. However, the stress on the comitatus is not always appropriate, and can obscure the reader’s appreciation of background events and forces.  These digressions are important to establish a context for the events of the poem, and give it a greater depth.

Lehmann takes the greatest risks of these three translators, starting with her intention to try and reproduce the meter and alliteration techniques of the original poem.  Some of her word choices and additions could be questionable, but they work to reinforce an idea in the passage.  She manages the greatest complexity of tone.  In the first passage Beowulf speaks with both irony and respect, while in the second passage Wealhtheow addresses Beowulf as an equal, asks for help with dignity, and shares well-spoken wisdom with Beowulf and the others in the hall.

It would be premature to claim that Lehmann’s translation is the best on the strength of two passages, but its language is impressive, especially in light of the alliterative form it follows.  Yet one translation, no matter how good, cannot be relied on to gain an understanding of the poem.  Lehmann, Chickering, and Hieatt all reduced the significance of the foreshadowing following Wealhtheow’s speech due to what may be a questionable punctuation mark.  The most practical solution to understanding Beowulf is to acknowledge that the interpretation depends on the translation, and both are subject to change.”

Works Cited

Chickering, Howell D. Jr., trans.  “Beowulf: A Dual Language Edition”.  New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1977.

Hieatt, Constance B., trans.  “Beowulf and Other Old English Poems”.  New York: Bantam, 1983.

Klaeber, Fr., ed.  “Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg”.  Boston: Heath, 1950.

Lehmann, Ruth P. M., trans.  “Beowulf: An Imitative Translation”.      Austin, Texas: U of Texas P, 1988. Porter, John., trans.  “Beowulf: Text and Translation”.  Pinner, Middlesex, Eng: Anglo-Saxon, 1991.

Copyright © by Tim Covell, 1994, All Rights Reserved.

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