HD: Tolkien’s Beowulf
Posted: 06 July 2014 11:27 AM   [ Ignore ]
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A major disappointment

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Posted: 06 July 2014 12:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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What kind of expertise does Heaney claim in Anglo-Saxon? He may be a great poet but that doesn’t mean he has more to say on the subject of Old English than a tenured professor.

Anyway, translation is always a crapshoot. As an example, I picked up a copy of Anna Karenina translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky a few months ago. In Chapter 5, paragraph 4, there was this phrase: “liberalism [...] made him treat all people, whatever their rank or status [...]”. (Bold added.) What? Aren’t those two words more or less synonyms?

So I went on-line for Constance Garnett’s version which reads “fortune or calling”. Weird. So I picked up a used copy of Joel Carmichael’s translation which has it as “rank or status”. OK, at least it’s the same as P&V’s translation. But it still doesn’t pass the smell test unless repetition and redundancy are the norm in Russian. Then there’s the Dole translation which renders it: “[...] in whatever station in life”.

Surely this is not a serpentine concept that fails of translation. I looked up a German translation that simply puts it as “Stand und Beruf”. OK, the first word means basically rank or status (which is the entirety of Dole’s and P&V’s translation). The second word does literally mean “calling” but unless I mistake myself it is a perfectly ordinary word in German for job or occupation. It would seem that these translators are potentially botching their Beruf if the the German example is to be believed.

So what’s the point? I guess my point is that Dave’s analysis of Tolkien covers all the aspects of translation, i.e. its purposes, both technically and artistically. There has to be a fundamental technical competence as well as a pleasing result from an artistic standpoint. At least there has to be one or the other. One might wish fervently that Tolkien had revised his “translation” later in life when he had gained more of both sides of the equation.

Edit: Damn, not Tolkienn but Tolkien. It was originally a German name after all so a double nn would seem normal am Ende des Names.

[ Edited: 06 July 2014 03:40 PM by Iron Pyrite ]
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Posted: 06 July 2014 03:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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What kind of expertise does Heaney claim in Anglo-Saxon? He may be a great poet but that doesn’t mean he has more to say on the subject of Old English than a tenured professor.

Heaney produced a verse translation, which does require the expertise of a poet. The other translations, including Tolkien’s, are prose translations. Making a good verse translation is much, much harder, and making one that is quite faithful to the original is pretty much impossible. Heaney’s Beowulf is very much Heaney’s Beowulf. He has made interventions in the text not only make it scan in modern English, but to put his own artistic spin on it, but I haven’t noted any major failings in Heaney’s translation per se. Given this, I consider it to be a really good translation, but I wouldn’t use it in a class on Old English literature. (I’d probably use it in a survey course, where I want undergraduates to get a feel for the rhythm and prosody of OE poetry, but where I couldn’t expect them to learn any Old English, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a general reader who wants to read a good version of Beowulf.)

Also, don’t confuse credentials and expertise. You can be an expert in OE language and poetry without a PhD, and a PhD, which really only means that you’ve engaged in major research project and have a great deal of expertise in a very narrow field, doesn’t necessarily bring expertise with it (e.g., Stephen Greenblatt, a PhD with expertise in Shakespeare and the early modern era, produced Swerve, which is a truly awful book that frankly gets just about everything about the medieval period wrong.) You can sometimes use a PhD as a proxy for expertise, but it’s an uncertain guide.

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Posted: 06 July 2014 04:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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You can be an expert in OE language and poetry without a PhD,

Tolkien, for instance, did not have a PhD.

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Posted: 06 July 2014 07:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Let’s use the same passage in my review to examine Heaney’s translation more closely. Lines 702b–09 of poem read (I picked this passage pretty much at random, but it turned out to be really fruitful in demonstrating both the deficiencies of Tolkien’s translation and how Heaney makes the poem his own):

Com on wanre niht
scriðan sceadugenga.  Sceotend swæfon,
þa þæt hornreced healdan scoldon,
ealle buton anum —þæt wæs yldum cuþ
þæt hie ne moste, þa Metod nolde,
se scynscaþa under sceadu bregdan—
ac he wæccende wraþum on andan
bad bolgen-mod beadwa geþinges.

Which Heaney renders as:

Then out of the night
came the shadow-stalker, stealthy and swift;
the hall-guards were slack, asleep at their posts,
all except one; it was widely understood
that as long as God disallowed it,
the fiend could not bear them to his shadow-bourne.
One man, however, was in fighting mood,
awake and on edge, spoiling for action.

First off, Heaney doesn’t translate wanre (dark). In the OE, wanre alliterates with first half-line (weold wideferhð, ruled forever, a reference to God that ends the previous sentence). Since the alliteration doesn’t work in modern English, and since dark night is redundant, Heaney dispenses with it. The line also scans better with one less syllable; the shorter construction heightens the building terror. Sceadugenga is literally, shadow-goer, but shadow-stalker is a neat translation. Since Grendel is on the hunt, it fits the context and it alliterates. There are no adjectives in the OE to match Heaney’s stealthy and swift, but the verb scriðan means to glide, to move silently, so Heaney adds the adjectives to alliterate and to provide the connotation of the OE verb.

As I mentioned, sceotend is literally shooters or archers, but was chosen to alliterate. Heaney’s hall-guards fits the context perfectly. He takes liberties with the next line, however. Line 704 literally reads, who should have guarded the horned-hall (i.e., gabled hall). His slack, asleep at their posts not only provides alliteration, but emphasizes that the guards were not simply asleep, but derelict in their duties. It comes at the cost of losing the description of the hall, but that’s a minor detail that isn’t central.

Heaney also varies the aside that is set off by dashes somewhat. Yldum cuþ is literally known to men, but widely understood carries the same meaning. Scynscaþa is literally phantom-harmer, but fiend works, and the shorter word is needed to make the line scan. Under sceadu is literally, under the shadows, so Heaney’s shadow-bourne is a surprise. It’s a reference Grendel’s mere (bourne or burn is a stream), the place where he Grendel would indeed drag his victims. Bregdan is probably best translated as drag, rather than bear, but then it wouldn’t alliterate with bourne.

The final line is a major alteration. The OE reads literally, but he, keeping watch in enmity for the wrathful one, awaited, enraged, the decision of the battle. Heaney uses one man instead of the OE he, but his choice makes it clear that he’s no longer talking about Grendel. (The Beowulf-poet is not always good about providing clear antecedents.) And he makes bolgenmod, literally enraged or boiling mad, into fighting mood, a nice contextual translation that also succinctly incorporates the sense of in enmity for the wrathful one. Finally, the literal decision of the battle doesn’t carry the sense intended in the OE. Throughout Beowulf, battles and fights are depicted as being decided by God or fate. Beowulf is not awaiting on the sidelines until it’s clear which side will win, rather he must await God’s decision. Heaney’s spoiling for action doesn’t express this connotation either, but it does nicely encapsulate Beowulf’s state of mind.

So Heaney’s translation is artful and reasonably faithful. He does make some changes, but usually there are multiple good reasons behind them.

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Posted: 07 July 2014 12:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Also, don’t confuse credentials and expertise. You can be an expert in OE language and poetry without a PhD

Hurray for Dave. Hurray for common sense. Credentials can be acquired in all sorts of ways, not all of them creditable. One can acquire expertise only by becoming an expert.  One of my favourite experts is W. M. Flinders Petrie, one of the greatest archaeologists of the 19th and early 20th century, who didn’t even have a high school diploma, and was apparently looked down upon by lesser characters with impeccable credentials.

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