War, Folk, Lord or Men, Hall, Battle?

Beowulf is one of the most important works of Old English literature.

Maria Dahvana Headley, translator of Beowulf, tells us that it is both prudent and enjoyable to read more than one translation of Beowulf, for when it comes to translating the poem there is no holy territory of clear understanding of the author’s intended meaning. (Now and how we got here – Hetta Howes reviews Headley’s work, TLS; Introduction, Beowulf, A NEW TRANSLATION, Maria Dahvana Headley)

Consider these two earlier translations:

The ten words below are the top 10 words of Beowulf, if ordered by frequency of occurrence, in the translation by William Moris, published in 1895.

0.660 war
0.469 folk
0.394 lord
0.391 men
0.349 man
0.349 battle
0.346 life
0.294 hall
0.291 beowulf
0.275 king

The next ten words are the top 10 words of Beowulf, if ordered by frequency of occurrence, in the translation by Francis Barton Gummere, published in 1910.

0.423 men
0.381 hall
0.352 battle
0.339 war
0.322 folk
0.322 lord
0.297 king
0.289 life
0.285 gold
0.268 sword

The most frequently used words and their frequencies (the content word vectors) suggest that the two translators saw the original quite differently. The function word spectra (a representation of all the function words in a text) imply a larger difference still. “…no sacred clarity”, as Headley’s puts it. She explains, in her prologue, that the text produced by the translator is the result of “study, interpretation, and poetic leaps of faith”, and all translations are different. “That is part of the glory”. (Introduction, Beowulf, A NEW TRANSLATION, Maria Dahvana Headley)

William Morris’s translation is particularly notable yet for another reason (emphasis by Quotations):

Published in 1895, just one year before his death, Morris’s version of Beowulf was based on a prose translation by a young Cambridge University scholar in Anglo-Saxon, A.J. Wyatt. But Morris reinterpreted this translation into verse format and favoured using deliberately archaic diction that often mirrored the original, perhaps attempting to evoke the strange ancient setting of the original.

The edition is an example of Morris’s very distinct approach to publishing, which reflected his reverence for traditional materials and craftsmanship as a way of fighting back against the forces of industrialisation and mass production. Its hand-made paper was made of linen rags and bound with vellum. He commissioned a new font for his edition of Beowulf called Troy, which was used in conjunction with another font called Chaucer. The ink, specially commissioned from a German manufacturer, was so thick on the page that the workers at the Kelmscott Press threatened to strike in protest.

Morris’ Beowulf was also regarded by many critics as an unsuccessful translation due to its arcane and sometimes obscure language.

William Morris’s Beowulf, Cambridge University Library

Explore the source texts, their content word vectors (most frequently occurring content words and their frequencies) and function word spectra for the translations of Beowulf (Morris and Gummere) or any other literary work in the library: select the works of interest in the Books tab and set the Words tab to frequency; read up on the content word vectors and function word spectra here.

“There are many translations out there, enough that you could read one a day for months and not repeat.”

Headley tells us that there are so many translations out there that one “could read one a day” for endless days and “not repeat.” This body of translations is an astoundingly varied collection of “interpretations and styles”; each translator embraces a different view on how to relay in today’s English notions that are possibly “inexpressible in it”. (Introduction, Beowulf, A NEW TRANSLATION, Maria Dahvana Headley)

Among the many translations is that by J. R. R. Tolkien. (His 1936 article Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics is often seen as a major work of scholarship on the subject.)

Tolkien felt that if you wanted to express the meaning intended by the author as opposed to creating another version of Beowulf, it was important to use a style of language that was “literary” and “traditional” and not because it was an old poem but because its language was “archaic and artificial” already when the poem was created. Headley tells us that she would not have agreed with Tolkien. Opinions on what may be construed as a “literary” and “traditional” language style depend on who the reader or the listener is. Nevertheless, the complex and frequent wordplay of the Old English original must be accommodated in any translation. (Introduction, Beowulf, A NEW TRANSLATION, Maria Dahvana Headley)

We recommend that you read Headley’s Introduction, or prologue, in full (and her translation, of course). Her first-hand insight into translation work, combined with her wisdom of an experienced and skilful writer and scholar, provides a richly-textured framework that will be of great help to anyone who wishes to orientate himself or herself in the world of Beowulf, with its multitude of translations and its astounding relevance to our times.

Other Interesting Resources:

The New Yorker on Tolkien’s translation, completed in 1926, but published only posthumously in 2014.

Hetta Howes, the author of the TLS review, discusses Headley’s and Hamer’s translations on this podcast.

More on Headley’s work: