Book review: Beowulf as translated by Seamus Heaney

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Well, I finally got around to finishing the famed translation of Beowulf by Seamus Heaney. The only other translation I've read has been the Gummere translation, since it's available for free online, so I won't be able to give any insight into any other translations besides these. The Heaney translation though seems to be the best version for a reader that either has no plans to learn Old English or is just starting, and still sees the original text as more or less gibberish. The Gummere translation adheres much more closely to the original text, which also means that it includes some pretty archaic terms that those unfamiliar with them will have to look up the meaning of. Welkin is a good example right from the beginning, a word that means clouds/heavens, but unknown to anyone that hasn't read a lot of Shakespeare.

So this line:

...syððan ǣrest wearð
fēa‐sceaft funden:   hē þæs frōfre gebād,
wēox under wolcnum,   weorð‐myndum ðāh,

becomes this in the Gummere translation:

awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve...
whereas Heaney writes it thus.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
So no mention here of welkin, nor erst, and this can be seen throughout the book. At the same time, this makes it much more readable to the modern reader, especially in a few notable places. I made note of one passage that I particularly liked in order to mention it here later, and interestingly enough it's also included on the review page introducing the book. It's the description of the swamp where Grendel's mother and all the other monsters live, and Heaney's description is phenomenal. First the original text:

And now Heaney's translation.

Chilling. Now the Gummere translation:

Having read Heaney's translation it's now not too hard to understand, but if this had been the first translation I had read I would have just read over this without feeling a single chill. Some parts don't even seem to make sense: "So wise lived none of the sons of men", "this holt should seek", "on the brink he yields ere he brave the plunge to hide his head". Closer to the original, but bereft of all feeling to the average reader who has never encountered Beowulf for the first time.

That being said, after reading Heaney's translation one is able to appreciate the one by Gummere, as it adheres more closely to the original and does a far better job of acting as a bridge to it. So the recommendation I would give isn't one or the other, but simply order: begin by reading the Heaney translation, glance at the Old English text and see what you can make out, and then after reading it move on to another more literal translation (Gummere or another) and see how much more of the original text you can understand while still keeping in mind the overall atmosphere that Heaney's translation has given thanks to its clarity it gives modern readers.

Even better though for a second (or perhaps third) reading would be a fully marked-up version, like this (image here).

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