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HD: Hwæt you say? 
Posted: 05 November 2013 06:20 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Talk about dredging up old topics....

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Posted: 05 November 2013 08:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Fascinating and at least on a first reading pretty convincing.

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Posted: 05 November 2013 11:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Yes. I’d like to see some back-and-forth discussion before accepting it, but it is a strong argument on its face.

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Posted: 05 November 2013 04:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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A well-used word then and now and in all the Germanic languages, as far as I know.

A parallel construct in modern English might be ‘what an idiot’.

Still used in the sense referred to above in modern Dutch:

Wat is hij veranderd! (How he has changed!)
Wat nuttig! (How useful!)

Probably was never used this way in old Dutch! :-)

Anyway, just putting it out there.

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Posted: 05 November 2013 06:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I’m curious why the version you chose of the “original” Old English has an exclamation mark after “Hwæt?” It’s not there in the Cotton Vitellius. I understand that “punctuation in Old English manuscripts is haphazard at best” but adding that exclamation mark after that single word is making a grammatical statement that goes with the translations and not necessarily the original (as the article makes clear). Isn’t it overreaching to present it as part of the Old English?

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Posted: 05 November 2013 07:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I presented it as it’s recorded in Klaeber’s fourth. If I presented it diplomatically, as it appears in the manuscript, it would be:

HWÆT WE GARDE
na inᵹear daᵹum · þeod cyninga
þrym ᵹe frumon huða æþelinᵹas elle[...]
fremedon ·

There are line breaks in the middle of words, manuscript damage that renders it unreadable, etc.

Any editorial presentation is going to prejudice the argument in some direction. I just went with the version that is the current favored critical edition.

[ Edited: 05 November 2013 07:28 PM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 06 November 2013 05:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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You can download a PDF of Walkden’s paper from his home page (link).

[Fixed typo in author’s name.]

[ Edited: 06 November 2013 05:46 AM by jheem ]
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Posted: 08 November 2013 09:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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This Slate piece * quotes Heaney on why he used “So,...”

Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with ‘lo’, ‘hark’, ‘behold’, ‘attend’ and – more colloquially – ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, ‘so’ it was:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”

But Walkden doesn’t agree:

Walkden indicates that he thinks that Heaney’s translation is close—he calls it a “substantial achievement” but “ultimately misleading… Like the others, he had no reason to doubt the accepted scholarship on the meaning of the word, so he translated it – brilliantly – with ‘So.’ But that translation now has to be rethought.”

The author of the Slate piece (Claire Kelley) wrote to “...Stephen Mitchell, translator of classics like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, and The Iliad, to find out what he thinks of the new developments. He offered this note:”

Not being a linguist, I’m not qualified to give an opinion. But if Dr. Walkden is correct, his understanding would indeed make a subtle but appreciable difference in how a translator deals with the line. I took a few minutes to try it out, and came up with this:

How mighty the Danes were in days gone by
we have heard, and their heroes, the ancient kings:
what prodigious deeds those princes performed!

For purely romantic and chauvinistic reasons, I prefer Heaney.

*sorry, it was recommended by John Dickerson at Slate. It is a Melville House piece.

[ Edited: 08 November 2013 09:25 AM by Oecolampadius ]
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Posted: 10 November 2013 02:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Thanks for this nice write-up, Dave, and for taking the time to read the article! Your post is a great summary of the arguments in my paper. I think I’ll direct people there myself, when I want to get the gist of the work across to laypeople.

As regards the methodological issue, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. I wasn’t randomly trawling the Old English corpus for statistical regularities, but neither did I start from “I think hwæt-clauses are exclamatives”. When I was working on clausal word order in Old Saxon, I noticed that something weird was going on in clauses preceded by huat. That caused me to read Eric Stanley’s (2000) paper, among other things (a fantastic work of old-school philology). The hypothesis at that point was ”hwæt-clauses pattern with subordinate clauses in terms of verb position”. I tested that for Old English texts as well as the Heliand and found that it was borne out. So then I started to think about what would explain this (and the other facts mentioned by Stanley) most naturally, and the literature on interrogative pronouns in modern languages - in particular Munaro & Obenauer (1999) - led to the exclamative hypothesis.

Like you, I’d like to see some back-and-forth! The main argument against my proposal that I’ve seen so far is that my translation sounds weird. But I’m a linguist, not a literary translator, so that’s not surprising: I’m not going for the best Modern English translation of Beowulf’s first line, but rather for an understanding of what the word hwæt actually meant in Old English, which sometimes necessitates using some clunkily literal translation in the article. In the meantime I’d like to see some positive arguments in favour of the traditional ("interjection"/"call-to-attention") view, which seems to have very little going for it, whether my own alternative is right or not!

One last thing: I wouldn’t discount the evidence from punctuation completely. While it’s true that Anglo-Saxon scribal practice with punctuation was pretty haphazard, in this case they never insert punctuation following hwæt in Old English, whereas it’s the norm after other interjections (at least according to Stanley; I haven’t investigated that myself). That seems to me to be a fact that needs to be accounted for under any hypothesis.

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Posted: 20 March 2014 05:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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A follow-up.

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Posted: 20 March 2014 08:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Great blog post by Peter Buchanan.

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Posted: 20 March 2014 11:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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In a nice bit of synchronicity, the Guardian article about the first English autobiography (as linked in that thread by venomousbede) contained a link to an article about the upcoming publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf. The article ends:

The opening, Hwæt, has long foxed scholars, with translations ranging from Heaney’s “so” to “lo”, “hark”, “behold”, “attend” and “listen”. HarperCollins would not comment on how Tolkien approached Beowulf’s famous opening, but all will be revealed come May.

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Posted: 20 March 2014 01:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I’m ambivalent about the Tolkien translation being published at this late date. While it will be nice to have, there’s a whole lot of scholarship that has transpired since he died. It’s not likely to be best translation, or even one of the best.

(Also, that Guardian article absolutely butchered the Old English. It looks like they tried to copy and paste from a pdf version of the poem.)

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Posted: 29 March 2014 05:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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True, the scholarship will be obsolete, but there’s more to translating poetry that scholarship.

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Posted: 30 March 2014 12:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Second Dr. T.  The question of what’s a “best” translation is an arguable one --- depends on who’s reading the translation, and for what purpose.  “Romantic and chauvinistic” Oecolampadius, and scholarly Dave, are not likely to be looking for the same thing.

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Posted: 30 March 2014 03:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Tolkien made two translations of Beowulf. A prose one which was completed, I believe, in the 1930s, but never published, and a poetic translation that he never completed. I don’t know which (both?) will be in the book.

Yes, there’s more than scholarship in a poetic translation, but the scholarship is needed to understand the implications and possible alternative readings of the poem. There are a number of cruxes and difficult passages for which ideas have been advanced since Tolkien’s death. Also our knowledge of how Old English poetry was composed and performed has undergone almost a complete transformation since his passing.

And I’m not confident of Tolkien’s ability to write poetry. He really is not a very good writer. (Highly imaginative and creative, but his style is stiff and ponderous.) His poems in LOTR are, for example, uniformly bad.

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