“Beowulf” perhaps our most widely translated window into our Anglo- Saxon past, has become somewhat clouded over the years. Countless interpretations in multiple styles have been rendered for our perusal. From the notable to the obscure the variety of translation gives us an unusual opportunity, one to criticize and secondly to develop our own ideas on the original intent of the epic. The changes range from stylistic to grammatical; each has its own language, and its own thematic variation. The intent of the following content is to provide criticism relating two separate translations of “Beowulf”.
The selections are the Seamus Heaney translation, derived from the 7th edition Norton Anthology, and the McLeod translation a more obscure, nearly entirely Middle English work attained from the Internet through direct link to the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. On the outset the largely comparable facets of the works may appear to be only in title; however, far more is apparent upon closer inspection. Seamus Heaney’s “Beowulf” was derived by the Irish scholar after he was recognized and granted status as Nobel laureate.Order now
It is widely recognized as the comprehensive translation of the day. The other was a plaintext document received from a scholar studying the particular period represented by the translation’s dialect. The second requires either at least a rudimentary understanding of Middle English or a grammar text to consult. The Speech in the McLeod version was broken in coupleation (a word used in the description of the text from Aberdeen) the old split line style used in scop type poetry. Apparently it was a spoken memorization mnemonic device used to ease the burden of recalling endless texts.
After research the style becomes fluid and the intent is clarified, it actually serves to intensify the poetry. The breaks occur at intentional expected locations in lines, each gap allows for secondary meanings to surface. The feel of the poem, the originality is somehow lost when the said epic is translated to plain English. Heaney does a fine job bringing “Beowulf” and its themes to the less experienced reader, and his words have feel, but it truly lacks the flair of the lost language. Both examples do exemplify and clarify stylistic realities of Anglo-Saxon English.
Breaks aside, the fluidity of the McLeod version is reminiscent of the King James Version of the Bible, perhaps as theological scholars say, the translation is less “correct” then the newer translations; however, in verse, new translations cannot compete with the pure beauty of the poetic language utilized in the KJV. Academics of the late Middle Ages cannot have known to the extent of what we now know of their predecessors. The time gap and the education of the day were far too great of obstacles for them to overcome.
Their shortcomings may give us insight into the preconceived notions or fixations of the culture they participated in. For example the myth of Grendel being in some way demonic has ties to the period of the Middle English translation. Most likely the original tale was far more pagan in origin than is conveyed today. The Mid-English period was a time of conversion and heretical eradication, the Christian feel most likely was gained during translation, in hopes that this historical document would survive at least in part.
Grendel is thought to be after examination of available texts some how a superhuman-human, like the Orcs of J. R. R. Tolkien. It is best to come to personal conclusions regarding “Beowulf” and its translation, simply put a version is only as good as its author and his knowledge, a literary critic must judge on personal joy, accuracy, and aesthetics; the reality is that most people in our modern society would not be overjoyed to engage the early translations of “Beowulf” in this manner, the Heaney version is far more to borrow a term of the day “user friendly” than most.
The gist can be gotten from its study; however, there is more that is unsaid than said. In order to truly understand what has kept this story alive for centuries one must look further and deeper then the popular, they must delve into the ancient mind; this can only be done by looking into other accepted translations. To be frank, the Seamus Heaney translation leaves some readers looking for more, those who know of the epic’s origin would be left unsatisfied. So look to the past, and enjoy then a world that may be hard to understand. The effort is well worth it.