Beowulf Translation Notes

When I presented on the comparative translations project in our Old English class (the second one), these were my notes on the project:

Beowulf Translation Project
OE Literature—Denton

Beowulf 2152-89: Comparative Translations

Problem Spots

2156: initially wanted “certain words,” but it’s singular
“by a particular word”? seems awkward

  • Waterhouse: Gave me; and in particular he bade
  • Chickering: wise and generous; he asked especially
  • Lehmann: the keen commander then requested me
  • Garnett: The crafty chief, bade with some words
  • Heaney: he instructed me, my lord, to give you some account

2157: “that I tell you first about his gift”
“est” = the gift? or the process by which it comes to be given? (cf. Jack)

  • Waterhouse: That first I tell thee of its history.
  • Chickering: that I first tell you the history of his gift. (both ways)
  • Kennedy: Bade tell the tale of his friendly favor.
  • Lehmann: to tell you truly of his treasured gifts.
  • Garnett: That I of its origin first should thee tell,
  • Heaney: of why it signifies his special favour.

2164: “occupied” or “followed” + “track, way, path” = ?
“occupied the aisle” (i.e., the path down the center of hall?)
“followed closely” (idiomatic—“kept in the tracks”)

  • Waterhouse: I heard that four swift horses followed close
  • Chickering: exactly matching, followed that treasure,
  • Kennedy: As I’ve heard the tale, he followed the trappings
  • Lehmann: matched dabbled bays remained with the trappings.
  • Garnett: Exactly alike, in their tracks followed,

2168: “cræfte” cognate craft, skill; but at 2181 seems clearly “strength”
“secret craft” vs. “hidden strength”

  • Waterhouse: “secret guile”
  • Chickering: “of evil in secret” (merges with “inwit-net” from 2167)
  • Kennedy: “weaving in secret the wiles of malice” (merges 2167)
  • Lehmann: “secret skill”
  • Garnett: “secret craft”
  • Heaney: “planning in secret” (free association based on 2167-8)

Specific Points of Interest in Translation

2179: druncne—who’s drunken, and what’s the narratorial POV?

Thus Ecgtheow’s son showed himself brave,
a man familiar with battle [and] with good deeds,
[a man who] worked for glory, not at all [a] drunken [one who] slew
hearth-companions; his heart was not savage,


Thus did the son of Ecgtheow prove his worth,
The man renowned for battles and high deeds
Strove after fame; nor slew his hearth-companions
In their cups; his spirit was not fierce


Thus did Ecgtheow’s son exemplify honor,
known for battles and for noble deeds.
He behaved fairly, harmed no drinkers,
killed no comrades. His was no cruel heart:


So the son of Ecgtheow bore himself bravely,
Known for his courage and courteous deeds,
Strove after honor, slew not his comrades
In drunken brawling; nor brutal his mood.

2174: Wealðeo or Hygd—who’s the prince’s daughter?

I have heard that he gave Hygd that neck-ring,
splendid wonder-jewel, that Wealhtheow gave him,
the prince’s daughter, along with three horses

Compare Chickering, who omits the detail altogether:

I also have heard that he gave Queen Hygd
the golden necklace, that Wealhtheow gave him,
wondrous treasure-ring, and three sleek horses

or Lehmann, who attempts to maintain the OE verse ambiguity:

I heard he tendered the torque, the treasured marvel,
as a gift to Hygd, given to him by Wealhtheow,
a prince’s daughter, with a present of steeds,

2158: Hiorogar cyning—untangling syntax

cwæð þæt hyt hæfde Hiorogar cyning,
leod Scyldunga, lange hwile.
No ðy ær suna sinum syllan wolde,
hwatum Heorowearde, þeah he him hold wære,
breost-gewædu. Bruc ealles well!

[he] says that king Heorogar had it,
chief of the Scyldings, a long time;
yet to his son [he] would not give–
to bold Heoroward, though he was loyal to him–
the chest-piece. Use it all well!

Compare Garnett, who reads “breost-gewædu” as an epithet:

Said that it had Hiorogar king,
Prince of the Scyldings, for a long while:
Not to his son sooner would he it give,
To the brave Heoroweard, though to him he were dear,
The defence of his breast. Use thou it well!

2183: Hean wæs lange—syntax
(I can’t make good MnE syntax out of this without inverting 2185-6)

2183 Hean wæs lange
2184 swa hyne Geata bearn godne ne tealdon,
2185 ne hyne on medo-bence micles wyrðne
2186 drihten We[d]e[r]a gedon wolde;

2183 the battle-brave one contained. Long was [he] lowly,
2184 as the sons of the Geats deemed him no good;
2186 (85) the lord of the Weders [had] not wished to make
2185 him a greatly esteemed one at the mead bench;

Evaluation of Other Translations

Chickering: “disappearing daughter” (2174) good example of gaps in translation with no real poetic gains from attempt to replicate verse structure. Why do half-lines if they have no clear relation to the original half-lines, and no real internal music?

Heaney—idiosyncratic vocabulary (e.g. “gorget” translating “heals-beah” at 2172), lineated prose. What is so poetic about his use of language? How would it be different if it was printed as below?

Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor; he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour and took no advantage; never cut down a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled his God-sent strength and his outstanding natural powers. He had been poorly regarded for a long time, was taken by the Geats for less than he was worth: and their lord too had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.

Garnett—quite literal, seems to try to reproduce lines (as I have) and even, where possible, word-order. Metrically sound: balanced isochronic lines with even stress and much alliteration (though alliteration is not necessarily metrically significant). Does occasionally leave some very awkward syntax (e.g. 2175).

Lehmann—like Chickering, attempt to mimic verse shape leaves words scrambled. Generally closer to text than Chickering, though. Similar idiosyncratic vocabulary to Heaney (“claymore”), clumsy alliteration.

Kennedy—rollicking, rather loose, “alliterative” only loosely (not metrically).

Waterhouse—blank verse changes the poetic idiom, but reads well in MnE.

Translating Metrics—Discussion

Iambic vs. Strong-Stress Meter in MnE (Halpern): Halpern argues, “of the four ‘syllable-stress’ meters in English—iambic, trochaic, anapestic, and dactylic—only the iambic has devloped in a direction radically different from the native accentual tradition [i.e., Anglo-Saxon verse]; that the other three, as characteristically used in English poetry, are simply variants of the strong-stress mode.” If this is so, then iambic poetry is essentially different in its relationship to the natural speech patterns of English from all other types of verse. This means that blank verse translations such as Waterhouse’s, and even the iambic elements of the verse William Morris invented for translating Germanic and Norse poetry, will have a very different character from other sorts of metrical translations.

Signifying Function of Speech-Sound Pattern (Wimsatt): Wimsatt argues, applying an idea from C. S. Pierce to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, that “[for Hopkins] the origin of the nascent poem is in a prepossession of feeling that becomes embodied as inscape of spoken sound, not spoken words. The phonetic pattern of the realized poem provides an objective correlative to the prepossession. Comparably to pitched music, then, its verbal music conveys an originary emotional significance that is over and above its grammatical, historical, and logical meaning.” In other words, the sound-patterns formed by speech are themselves signifiers in a manner independent of the discursive content of the speech.

It follows, then, that to the extent a poem’s speech-pattern is altered by translation, the poem’s meaning is changed. Faithful translations of OE poetry should adapt to MnE as faithfully as possible not only the semantic and, where, possible, syntactic relations of the words and phrases, but also the aural cues, phrasing, and ordering by which the poem signifies non-discursively.

Iambic translations, rhyming translations, and free-verse translations are less capable than strong-stress, non-syllable counting, metrically alliterative translations of re(as)sembling the full significance of the poem’s OE form; while any approach to the text will be limited by the irreducible differences between OE and MnE, reproducing more features of the original will result in a closer approach to meaning. This is, in large part, my reason for preferring the closest cognate that does not do violence to the semantic relations within the poem.

Repeated Words: In attempting to reproduce as faithfully as possible all features of the text, the translator will also wish, where possible, to recognize patterns existing within the text other than the dominant metric pattern. Within this passage, I identified a number of possibly significant repeated words; in most cases (for instance, “hold,” translated “loyal”) they were already translated with the same word. In cases where they weren’t I attempted to find a reading that preserved the repetition:

2168 dyrnum cræfte, deað ren[ian]
2181 ac he man-cynnes mæste cræfte,

2168 with hidden strength to prepare death
2181 but the greatest strength among mankind,

Compare, for instance, Lehmann:

of evil in secret, prepare the death
that God had given him, the greatest strength

or even Waterhouse:

With secret guile, nor set the snare of death
Though he, valiant in fight, the greatest strength