I've already given Beowulf an in-depth review here, but this time I wanted to do something...a bit more comparative.
Read the Heaney, Wilson, and Tolkien translations together, in as short a time as possible, and decide which of them is my favourite.
(Then, because we happened to have it and I'd never read it but liked what I'd skimmed, I threw Frederick Rebsamen's 1991 Beowulf: An Updated Verse Translation onto the pile. It would also have been nice to include the Chickering and the Raffel translations, but we didn't have them and six might have been a bit unmanageable! Next time!)
Last week I finally sat down to sprint through all four, which I managed (sans all introductions, forewords, and commentary material) within five days.
Beowulf: A New Translation by Seamus Heaney, 1999Heaneywulf, as it's sometimes called, was the Beowulf I grew up on: devoured it as a child, listened to Dad reading it aloud after dinner, returned to it at intervals thereafter. Till last week, I hadn't read it for a number of years and was looking forward to revisiting it as the first stop on my tour.
Fingers were bursting,
the monster back-tracking, the man overpowering.
The dread of the land was desperate to escape,
to take a roundabout road and flee
to his lair in the fens. The latching power
in his fingers weakened; it was the worst trip
the terror-monger had taken to Heorot.
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.
The first thing to strike me was the tone. As I read it aloud, I found my voice dropping an octave and slowing considerably. Heaney's language is very direct, declarative, measured, and dignified. Beowulf is full of ironic humour and understatement (as in "the worst trip" in the quotation above) and this came out quite clearly in this translation.
Heaney uses few archaisms and few kennings, the poetic Anglo-Saxon metaphors. He does, however, make good use of obscure regional words, often Gaelic in origin, such as bawn for an embattled fortress or graith for harness. He also coins some kennings of his own--"wound-slurry" for blood.
Heaney was Irish and a poet in his own right, and both those things leave their mark on his translation.
Beowulf: An Updated Verse Translation by Frederick Rebsamen, 1991.
The stone-cobbled road ran on before them
as they marched together. Their mailcoats glistened
laced by smith-hands--linked steel-jackets
clinked an armour-song as they came to the hall
strode in their war-gear straight to the door.
They settled broadshields bright by the wall
rounded and hardened by ringing forge-hammers.
They bent to the benches breast-coats in rows
life-guarding corselets. They leaned ash-spears
ranked by the door reaching above them
gray-tipped treelimbs. Geats rested there
wealthy in weapons.
Immediately, just from the short excerpt above, you can see that Rebsamen preserves a lot of kennings and Saxon-style compound words. "Armour-song," "thane-sorrow," "war-son", "shoulder-companion", "throne-warden" and "the Measurer" in reference to God are just some of the colourful Anglo-Saxon figures of speech you'll find here. As to the humour, Anthony Esolen referred (on the back of Wilson's rendering, actually) to the "palette of irony that ranges from grim understatement to barely suppressed hilarity" and while the understatement didn't come out anywhere near as well as in Heaney's translation, there was definitely a moment of barely suppressed hilarity that came along late in the poem and took my breath away, which I'd never even noticed in Heaney.
With its close adherence to Anglo-Saxon linguistic quirks, Rebsamen's translation felt to me the closest experience I've had to personally reading the original Anglo-Saxon.
Beowulf: A New Verse Rendering by Douglas Wilson, 2013
My final breath is bartered, a bargain I call it,
To gain all this gold. Give yourself to the task,
Care for the commonwealth. I can tarry no longer.
Build me a barrow, with all my battle friends,
When the pyre's heat is past, on the proud headland,
At the wide Whale Cliff, a witness to glory,
A memorial for men, my memory to keep,
So crews under sail coming by may call it by name,
Calling it Beowulf's barrow, as breezing homeward,
They work their white-throated ships over the wine-dark sea.
The rhythm of Wilson's rendition is somewhat choppy, sometimes fast, sometime slow, and sometimes stumbling around in a welter of short uncertain syllables that don't quite scan, and not in a good way. I didn't find the humour so clear as in Heaney's translation, and didn't care for the regular use of repeated words and phrases for little other discernible reason than to make the lines scan properly.
However, this is a respectable amateur attempt, and maybe Wilson's best verse so far (I enjoyed his poetic renderings of the Song of Songs and the Book of Revelation, and think this is better). Where Wilson soars into poetic beauty, he does soar. Also, Wilson is a classical scholar, and so his translation pays homage to other classics (eg the "wine-dark sea" nod to Homer in the passage quoted, which I think works marvellously well).
He's also a theologian, and I particularly enjoyed his perspective on some bits of typology--particularly the comparison of Heorot and Grendel to Eden and Satan in lines 90-109, and the rendition of Heorot's compliments to Beowulf's mother taking on the tinge of a Marian blessing (although Tolkien would not have agreed).
Finally, the Appendices to this version are highly valuable. The first is an essay originally published in Touchstone, concerning the Christian apologetic of the poem (and after reading the thing four times in just over four days, and then taking in JRR Tolkien's commentaries, I'm far more convinced than before that Wilson is right on target in this evaluation). Another Appendix outlines the complex chiastic structure of the poem, explaining something of where it gets its incredible literary power--almost in itself worth the price of the book.
Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary by JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, 2014
To the abyss drew me a destroying foe accursed, fast the grim thing held me in its gripe. Nonetheless, it was granted to me to find that fell slayer with point of warlike sword; the battle's onset destroyed that strong beast of the sea through this my hand. Thus many a time deadly assailants menaced me grievously. With my beloved sword I ministered to them, as it was meet. In no wise had they joy in that banqueting, foul doers of ill deeds, that they should devour me sitting round in feast nigh to the bottoms of the sea; nay, upon the morrow they lay upon the shore in the flotsam of the waves, wounded with sword-thrusts, by blades done to death, so that never thereafter might they about the steep straits molest the passage of seafaring men.I usually can't stand prose translations of poems, but I should have known that Tolkien's wouldn't be...well, prosy. Instead, it's highly declamatory--simply made for reading aloud. It rolls. It flows. It alliterates. It's the closest thing I've read to the Authorised Version of the Bible in a long time. It never lets you forget that you're reading a poem.
By the time I hit Tolkien, I was used to one thing all the translations so far had had in common. Some passages are just tricky to render, and in all the translations I had difficulties with all the same passages--in reading, my brain would stop and say, "Wait, what?--Oh." Tolkien, of course, by far the most apt of all the wordsmiths featured here, wins every time; he snaps his fingers and the words just dance; he makes each of the tricky passages crystal clear. And meanwhile, the delicate irony of the poem survives better in Tolkien than in anyone else save Heaney. ("With my beloved sword I ministered to them"...heh.)
As a lifelong scholar of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien probably knew this poem and the language it was written in better than any of the other translators featured today. This is a good thing in some ways, but it's a drawback in others, especially when his perfectionism runs away with him. Here he opts for an almost amplified translation style that gets a little wordy after a while, and some passages at worst made him sound like the Florid Sword in Andrew Peterson's Wingfeather Saga or the Thesaurus in Bored of the Rings.* ("Maim!" roared the monster. "Mutilate, mangle, crush. See harm.")
Since finishing the translation proper, I've gone on to read through Tolkien's extensive commentary on the poem, collected in several excerpts in the same volume. It's a wonderful guide to many of the poem's different aspects--linguistic, cultural, religious--and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to study Beowulf in a little more depth.
* Not really a recommendation!
In the end, I have to say I didn't achieve my goal, which was to decide which of these four Beowulf translations was best. All of them have wildly different strengths and wildly different weaknesses. Forced to rank them, I'd probably put Heaney at the top, closely followed by Tolkien and then Rebsamen, with Wilson bringing up the rear.
I'd call Heaney's the best experience and the current can't-miss-it translation, if you want to understand why so many people love the story today. Tolkien's is of course a must for any Tolkien fan, as well as anyone who'd like to delve a little deeper into the full meaning of the poem. Rebsamen, with his wonderful use of Anglo-Saxon-style expressions, would be a good choice for lovers of odd words and phrases, or folks wanting to reproduce Anglo-Saxon diction. And Wilson's will appeal to Christian readers wanting to grasp the poem's theological aspects a little more clearly.
Perhaps the very best thing I got reading four different translations of Beowulf in less than a week? An amazing, full-orbed, sometimes staggering appreciation of the wonderful complexities and nuances of the poem. It seemed to get bigger and deeper each time I read it.
Here's an example. After Beowulf's fight with Grendel, a minstrel sings a song in his honour. As part of this song, he retells two stories--one of Sigemund the dragon-slayer, the other of Heremod, a Danish king who falls through greed and selfishness. By the third time through, I realised the amazing significance of these two tales. (Spoilers!) At the end, Beowulf falls slaying a dragon. The tale of Sigemund foreshadows the dragon battle at the end, while the tale of Heremod, with more complexity, puts an almost allegorical slant on the tale: in real life, the dragon of greed, selfishness, envy, and suspicion is the real bane of kings. This interpretation gains traction from multiple instances in the poem where we are admonished, as in lines 20-25, or where Beowulf is admonished, as when Hrothgar warns him against falling into Heremod's mistakes as he prepares to return home, to win and keep loyalty through free and generous giving. There is a definite parallel intended between Heremod, who falls because of an internal dragon, and Beowulf, who falls because of an external dragon. (end spoilers.)
This is just one of the things I noticed reading Beowulf this time, along with the wonderful chiastic structure and the astonishing extent to which Tolkien drew on the poem in building his world, especially in The Hobbit and in the Rohan scenes of The Lord of the Rings. It was a real pleasure, to say nothing of an eye-opener, to get the opportunity to experience this amazing poem in such a way.
What about you, folks? Have you read Beowulf, and in which translation(s)? Which do you like best?