For my first effort at translation evaluation, I thought I’d look at a specific moment of a poem, and see how a translation works at that moment. I think by that focusing on the specific instance of what a translation does at the level of line and word, some ideas become clear of what general principles motivate that translation. So to start us off, here is a passage from R. D. Fulk’s Beowulf, found in his The Beowulf Manuscript (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 2010).
Let’s just start by stating that to translate Beowulf is a major challenge, not just because its use of poetic language is quite complicated —more so I think than much of the other narrative poetry— and it is extremely difficult to preserve both texture and sense. Also, there are more than a hundred different translations out there, depending on how deep your library shelves go, so there are many opinions on what the bloody thing actually says. Beowulf is also very frequently studied, and the numerous articles and books all pull our interpretations in all sorts of directions, giving many different suggestions to emend questionable readings and fill lacunae. There’s a rich history of diverging opinion to suggest, even if a shepherd-like Klaeber gets all the little sheep closer together in the fold.
I mention the elder statesman of Beowulf studies because R. D. Fulk was the lead editor (with Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles) on the much-anticipated and appreciated Klaeber’s Beowulf, 4th edition, decades in the making. He is also on the editorial board for DOML, so it is hardly surprising to see Fulk at the helm of their translation of the Nowell Codex texts. An argument could be made that few could do a better job of bringing Beowulf to a contemporary audience. That Klaeber 4 and this volume are meant to be taken as a pair seems indicated by Fulk’s warnings that his translation of Beowulf “ranges more widely” past the entries in the glossary of Klaeber 4 (xxii), implying perhaps a borrowed air of authority enjoyed by Klaeber on Beowulfiana.
DOML asserts on their webpage that they publish a “groundbreaking new facing-page translation series,” and in the case of their Byzantine Greek and Medieval Latin offerings this may be true, as many of these texts have not been published in many decades, if ever. I look forward to this catalogue’s expansion into other vernacular languages of medieval Europe, and there could be some amazing contributions unlocked by the availability of these heretofore difficult-to-find works. However, this promise of bold innovation does not seem to apply to DOML’s Old English poetic translations. Let’s just say that I never have picked up a Loeb translation of Classical Latin expecting pyrotechnics, no matter how exciting the source text may be. These are workhorses, meant to stay in print a long time, and basically to toe the most conservative party line. So “groundbreaking” is not exactly the adjective I was searching for here, and the scholarship undergirding each volume is not particularly forward-thinking or innovative — not bad or incompetent by any means, just not radically revisionary. I don’t say these things as a bad thing — I can see a necessity for them, and wish them all a long life.
My assessment as a teacher differs, and it has not been my experience that rigor of research is the first draw for a student reading their assignments. There are better, more arresting versions of any of these poems in other volumes, that try to maintain student interest and fire their imaginations. I am hardly saying that you can’t have both rigor and excitement in a translation, but I have a feeling that some scholars would insist upon the former and be glad to sacrifice the latter for safety. I certainly try for rigor in my own work, and to make decisions based on both scholarship and artistry. The appearance of authority for its own sake, however, is no substitute for enjoyment for a first-time reader. And I enjoy making a lecture point of a place where the modern English didn’t quite communicate the moment fully, where the translation veers into more obvious interpretation, and discussing what bridges and separates us from the experience of a historical text. As teachers we shouldn’t be teaching translations as clear glass windows to a foreign experience.
Given the pattern of the other DOML editions of Old English poetry, Fulk’s translation of Beowulf probably should be expected to adhere closely to the authoritative text presented in Klaeber 4, and to present a fairly standard conservative reading that is easily matched to the facing-page Old English text. Divergence in itself is not a cardinal sin in my book. All translators take some liberties of interpretation at the tougher moments, so a little variation is to be expected between versions, and there are many arguments about what to do in these places.
I want to get to some specifics, some concrete instances of usage, so I can get to my critique of Fulk’s Beowulf. I chose a passage not exactly at random, but any more or less colorful moment that includes some kennings and difficult interpretations would do. The point I picked was one complete paragraph in Fulk, found early in the poem, the moment when the narrator wraps up his description of Grendel’s depredations and goes on to tell of the suffering of the Danes and their reliance on their pagan faith, which is then critiqued by the narrator (ll. 164–188). The Old English text is Klaeber’s, mostly punctuated the way the editors have opted to do so (though their plague of semicolons traditional in OE editing have been replaced). The.divisons are mine, for clarity of movement.
Swa fela fyrena feond mancynnes,
atol angengea, oft gefremede,
heardra hynða. Heorot eardode,
sincfage sel sweartum nihtum —
no he þone gifstol gretan moste,
maþðum for metode, ne his myne wisse.
þæt wæs wræc micel wine Scyldinga,
modes brecða. Monig oft gesæt
rice to rune, ræd eahtedon
hwæt swiðferhðum selest wære
wið færgryrum to gefremmanne.
Hwilum hie geheton æt hærgtrafum
wigweorþunga, wordum bædon
þæt him gastbona geoce gefremede
wið þeodþreaum. Swylc wæs þeaw hyra,
hæþenra hyht— helle gemundon
in modsefan, metod hie ne cuþon,
dæda demend, ne wiston hie drihten god,
ne hie huru heofena helm herian ne cuþon,
wuldres waldend. Wa bið þæm ðe sceal
þurh sliðne nið sawle bescufan
in fyres fæþm, frofre ne wenan,
wihte gewendan! Wel bið þæm þe mot
æfter deaðdæge drihten secean
ond to fæder fæþmum freoðo wilnian!
There are many serious choices to make, not the least of which is what form to choose to present your work. One can choose prose in its standard form, a composite form that is basically prose but broken into lines, or something designed with poetry in mind. Even though the verse of the original does not change, each possible form involves various pressures and constraints on the translator. Some scholars aver that the “only” correct way to translate a poem is in prose, where space can be given to talk around a subtle or complex point. The desideratum here seems to be avoiding giving the translation a “false” or imposed music of a different poetry. In effect, a translator erases the poetry of the original to save it—the cyanide tooth of linguistic espionage. However, I would argue that prose imposes its own limitations, directly related to its amorphousness and range. You lose a sense of tension in a prose translation, a stress directly related to the rhythmicality of verse. Ornamentation and elaboration can be tough to express correctly in prose, without risking a flabby dilation. And no matter how you slice it, even if the language is “accurate,” the experience is not. Your students will read the result as a novel (at best, and probably call it a “novel” much to your chagrin), and still not hear the music of the original (though there are plenty of lyrical and rhythmical works of prose out there). (1)
Deriving one’s own music is the first big challenge for a prose translator, and every good translation needs its own music, however it is found or expressed. Some translators are able to get a roll going, exploiting domestic language conventions to approximate verse uses, selecting a colorful palette of language, but then the effort goes off the rails when they come to a tough patch, an uncertain reading or a gnarled kenning. S. A. J. Bradley’s version of Beowulf is much like this, surprisingly musical in places, but often slamming to a halt with exposition or oddly out-of-place language. For example, breaking an otherwise energetic passage with “they offered homage to idols” or “against their collective sufferings” or “the optimism of heathens” (p. 416) for “hie geheton… wigweorþunga”, “wið þeodþreaum”, and “hæþenra hyht”. Bradley’s translation often trips when he seems to need to explain around a kenning, no matter how simple. This apparent pedantry is even more visible in his rendering of the rich word “hyht” as “optimism,” which does get at several shades connotation in the word, but shatters the register and cheapens the implication by several degrees. I do not envy Bradley his “collective sufferings” nor the challenge in converting the tricky kenning “þeodþreaum” made up of “þeod” (tribe, people) and “þrea” (affliction, calamity). I acknowledge that there are lots of clunky ways to render it in Modern English, that trying to convey its sense of expansive pain is tough.
How does Fulk fare in this passage? Here is his version of the above passage:
Thus, the enemy of humankind, repulsive loner, often committed a great many crimes, sharp humiliations; he occupied Heorot, the treasure-laden edifice, on gloomy nights. He was not permitted to approach the throne or valuables on account of Providence, nor did he gain satisfaction. That was a great distress to the friend of the Scyldings, a cause of broken spirits. Many an officer often sat in consultation, deliberated alternatives as to what it would be best for the firm-hearted to do about the grisly peril. At times they pledged honor to idols, prayed explicitly that a soul-slayer would lend them assistance against that country-wide disaster. Such was their way, the hope of heathens; they minded hell in their heart of hearts; they did not recognize Providence, the arbiter of all things done; they did not know the Lord God, nor did they even know to praise heaven’s helm, the master of magnificence. Woe to one who has to thrust his soul through dire affliction into the fire’s embrace, expect no comfort, experience no change at all; well to one who is permitted after his death-day to seek the Lord and sue for peace in the father’s embrace. (pp. 97–99]
Well, there’s lots here. A coolness of language is everywhere, a frostiness that feels foreign to Beowulf (a poem much given to ironic statement but also rife with forceful language) which can be detected in Fulk’s “often committed a great many crimes” (fela fyrena… oft gefremede). The underwhelming nature of his diction can be seen in “treasure-laden edifice” (sincfage sel), which fails to rise to the heightened implications of the phrase. “Sel” and its synonyms concatenate throughout the first part of Beowulf, emphasizing and re-emphasizing the secular stakes of the poem’s action (and which become an ironic echo by the time the dragon’s barrow is found [twice called an “eorð-sele” at 24210 and 2515]), and “fah” appears over and over again, alone and in compounds, shimmering in between its valences of the sparkly and the stained (which might explain a bit the OE phrase “red gold,” come to think of it), along with its other meaning of “guilty” (which could have originated in a metonymy of the first sense).
It’s not just there is a tentative understatement here, but a blunting of valence as well. For example, the keenness of observation in the poem’s “no he þone gifstol gretan moste, / maþðum for metode” (168–69) feels to me squandered. Pedantically, “no” is usually quite a bit more emphatic a negative than a simple “not” would warrant (“never” seems better to me, “not now and not ever…”) Interpreting the ancient epithet of “metod” (literally, “one who measures”) as “Providence” here domesticates and theologizes the wyrd-Fate implications of the probably pre-Christian term, but here converts an awesome divine force into a company hawking property insurance, especially after Fulk’s rendering of “maþðum” as “valuables.” Homeowner problems, I guess.
Unforgiveable is the substitution of the plain single term “throne” for the subtle and complicated kenning “gif-stol.” (2) Literally, yes that is probably what is meant here, the special seat from which the king distributes gifts to this thegns (though we’re probably talking about something small, like a Roman curule stool, probably wooden, maybe ornately carved). The notes to this moment in Klaeber 4 state this of course, but become distracted by the lineage of an argument by some that “gif-stol” signifies God’s throne—an unlikely reading given the pervasive economic imagery throughout Beowulf. A decent argument against theologizing the gif-stol, however, it that the compound appears five times in the extant poetry, every time indicating the secular, economic function of kingship. (3) Fulk’s flattening out of the compound effaces the political operation of Heorot, how their system works, and what activity gives Hrothgar ethical authority over the Danes. This erasure would make sense if one’s reading is centered upon Grendel as Satanic enemy and Heorot as metonymy for the Christian world, as Alvin Lee argued all those years ago (in The Guest-Hall of Eden [Yale UP, 1972]. (4) That comparison is of course present, especially in light of lines 89–98, when the scop’s song of creation is performed after the construction of Hrothgar’s mead-hall. However, the secular register predominates throughout much of Beowulf, focusing on the qualities of Heorot and its lord, that he is filled with “gumcystum” (manly virtues, as Beowulf commends the Danish king later at line 1486) (5) because he rewards his thanes for their service. This passage is complex, and it would be difficult to convey its whole meaning in a translation. God (“metod”) preserves and underwrites the economic function of Hrothgar’s rule, and its blessimngs of loyalty and generosity, and Grendel (at one point, a “won-sæli wer”) is ironically recast as an unwelcome supplicant, “not allowed to approach” in a formal manner the throne and its ruler (with God here playing the role of Wulfgar to Hrothgar), nor can he seek his share of its treasures. The mearcstapa is excluded from the interior life of the court, and all that it symbolizes or signifies in the poem. This idea fits with the previous passage that details Grendel’s estrangement from the legitimizing calculus of wergild: [nor need any of the counselors expect / to receive bright gifts from the hands of a killer] (ll. 157–58). As Larry Swain reminds me, “metod” is an intriguing epithet here, because it connotes weighing out one’s true desert. God and Hrothgar are both “metod.” So just as God measures out grace and fate to mortals, the king determines what a thegn’s service and boasting is truly worth. It may even be possible, as Swain suggests, to remove the divine from the account altogether: taking “maþðum for metode” as a complete descriptive phrase, “treasures before their measurer” pointing to the “gif-stol” in full operation.
We’ll skip the final phrase to save some time. I’m not sure why it is translated this way here — his version goes against many other translations, and the glossary to Klaeber. Not a terrible thing to do, but unusual here.
Fulk’s next statement is “That was a great distress to the friend of the Scyldings, a cause of broken spirits. Many an officer often sat in consultation, deliberated alternatives as to what it would be best for the firm-hearted to do about the grisly peril.” Here, we have a tendency to overexplain impeding the tension of the moment, though the fairly lukewarm “distress” doesn’t start out well. The poem’s terse psychological urgency of “modes brecða” (a breaking of mind/spirit/heart) seems dispersed by the distancing of his “cause of broken spirits” —a phrase that hardly smacks of shattering at all, and sounds more like an emergency room writeup. Next, the noun “officer” hardly communicates the connotations of the poem’s substantive plural “rice” (literally the powerful, the important, as well as its cognate the rich), in a sentence already deforming the poem’s delayed subject in line 171 (this type of deferral is pretty frequent in OE poetry, and it is a nice effect — why not keep it?). This is just poor translation, unmusically substituting a bureaucratic Heorot for its society of warrior thegnas and witan, and diverging from what seem to be the intended uses of his volume. This stems from a similar misconception that allows “throne” above — that is, undervaluing the insistent register of political economy in Beowulf, that nostalgically celebrates the faded livelihood of ancient lords and their retainers. Though “grisly peril” [færgryrum] has a nice ring to finish things off here, I find “deliberate alternatives” [ræd eahtedon] to be too full in the mouth to read properly, as well as reliant on a similar register of the bureaucratic. Compounds starting with “swið-“ are tough to get quite right; “firm-hearted” is fine.
Moving on to the next part: “At times they pledged honor to idols, prayed explicitly that a soul-slayer would lend them assistance against that country-wide disaster.” It seems that Fulk here telescopes the original here, omitting a descriptive phrase. The source text here reads: “Hwilum hie geheton æt hærgtrafum / wigweorþunga, wordum bædon” (175–76). “Wigweorþunga” is the direct object of geheton, but the poem adds where this worshipping occurs: at a pagan temple, not a church as the poem wants us to be clear. This is just forgetting, nothing suspicious (I hate to think how many moments of forgetfulness plague my site), but it does compromise its apparent usefulness as a crib for Klaeber 4. “Pledged honor to idols” for the poem’s “wigweorþunga” sounds off to me, but it is possible that it is just off enough to be an interesting reading, just strange enough of a phrase to force a pause in the reading, so I’ll approve of it. It is slightly clumsy though.
He then gives “prayed explicitly” for “wordum bædon.” “Wordum” is one of those very common OE adverbs that appears hundreds of times in the verse (it covers four pages of the ASPR Concordance). It’s tough to translate, because it often seems redundant in many of its appearances. I almost always give it as “wordfully” because the neologism calls attention to itself nicely. “Explicitly” is not right though (is there such a thing as an implicit prayer?).
Things do not improve here: Fulk’s “lend them assistance against that country-wide disaster” below is technically accurate, but it feels wrong, smacking of public warning notices and media headlines, not ancient existential crises. And for “helle gemundon” Fulk gives “they minded hell.” Gemunan usually means “to remember, to be mindful of” but “minded” (which suggests a cognate to the form of the verb used) connotes a scolding by my grandpa—“You best mind me!” he’d say. Again, this seems an attempt to give a reading that’s slightly off, but the vernacular American use of “to mind” overwhelms his attempt here, at least in my mind, and veers the meaning away from the original’s temporal warping of the pagan Danes “remembering” the hell in their future. This is a strange and powerful moment, in other words, and Fulk loses his grasp on it. On the other hand “heofones helm” is a metaphor, and Fulk’s “heaven’s helm” is quite literal and the right choice: often this “helm” gets translated in other versions as “covering” or “shelter” which dispels its figurative force.
The last part of the passage reaches a homiletic exhortation, the moment where Christian instruction is made forcefully, and I would expect Fulk to be his strongest at a moment like this. This section starts off with: “Wa bið þæm ðe sceal / þurh sliðne nið sawle bescufan / in fyres fæþm” (183–85), a clear enough passage in its expression, and there’s no need to rearrange it, and Fulk recognizes this. “Sliðne nið” is a tough call, as it rhymes nicely, and because nið is a pretty rich word. I’m not sure “dire affliction” quite does it as the extra syllables and “-tion” ending give it an indirect feel. Something more pressing is needed, maybe “hate” or “spite” as this is the same word that appears in the compound nið-sel used to describe Grendel’s mother’s underwater lair. It’s not the affliction that pushes these souls into the fire, but their hate or spite towards God. I think that “affliction” loses the urgency of the homily, the simply carved dichotomy of moral choice. “Fire’s embrace” is fine, a literally translation and a good visual, keeping its chime reappearing at the end of the next sentence.
The final sentence is more or less adequate—none of what I’ve pointed out is “wrong” or “inaccurate” per se, just less than lyrical and fully evocative. Fulk writes: “well to one who is permitted after his death-day to seek the Lord and sue for peace in the father’s embrace.” Again he gives “mot” as “is permitted to” which again lacks power—he’s not letting it get up to go to the bathroom here. “Death-day” is a fine transliteration of the poem, no problems there. “Sue for peace” is nice, as the formal sense of the phrase re-introduces the legal connotations of “freoðo.” And that brings us to the end of the passage.
What is the point of going through a passage at some detail, and combing out its problems? Why put together a critique at all? The book is published and the reviews have probably already been done in the seven years that have passed since its appearance (though I could only find one). I have little idea how prevalent or popular this translation is — certainly it’s not Heaney or even Tolkien, nor did I see it appearing as a required text on very many online syllabi either. The review I found was quite brief and hardly specific at all, there was no evaluation of how the translation read or how accurate or useful it seemed. Perhaps this just how these sorts of volumes are evaluated, mostly by reputation of the author and a glance at the introductory materials. Though all medievalists are translators to some degree, there did not seem to be much expertise involved in assessing this book.
It may not be nice to pick on these translation foibles — but the point is bigger than the personal feelings. There are lots of ways to get the job done, but not all are equally effective. One has to think about the source, its impact, its force, its musicality. The criticisms that I am levelling at this edition could have been solicited at any point in the translation or publication process—not just from me, but any Old English scholar sensitive to translation issues, who was willing to actually close-read the resulting text as if it were an original. There are issues with this translation that extend far past assuming a senior scholar knows enough Old English to produce a translation of a famous and famously difficult poem. There are issues with scholarly attitudes towards translation in general, issues that I am working out trying to explain in an article. Issues that need to be addressed or else the product of our efforts will never accomplish what they might, or reach who they are meant to reach. The list will be available in the article when it’s published, should anyone be interested in doing so.
But the main point I can outline here: far too often, we treat translation not as an art, but as empirical science, a commodifiable process. In a globalist culture, where translation is frequently encountered and very often done automatically by machine (though no one would say done well) or by low-level bureaucratic cogs, where amusing and confounding mistranslations are fodder for websites and memes, we act like all translation takes is expertise in the target language. And so any given senior scholar ought to be the best translators of Old English texts. Translation is not calculus, however, and there as many ways to go awry as there are words in the text. One must be both artist and scholar to perform the task correctly.
There is something that makes the Beowulf translations done by poets feel more real than those produced by scholars. (6) You can understand every one of the linguistic rules, know all the related and adjacent languages, and recognize every vector of cultural transmission and still fail to appreciate the unique calor that every burning word of a poem produces and remembers and reignites each time it is read. You can understand music theory and still not be able to hit a note. Scholarly translation far too often renders what ought to be there and fails to recognize the loveliness of the word’s idiosyncrasies. Fulk’s translation fails to inspire, because it so rarely moves into genuine surprise or unique perspective, even as he writes the version of the poem he has studied for so long. I don’t begrudge him his opportunity to produce that version, but I do take exception to that product’s tin ear, its disregard of the poetic project.
Finally, I give my translation from this website. This is not because I am so confident that it is done correctly or is perfect. It is merely my set of solutions to the challenges presented by the text, solutions that I hope are serendipitous and somewhat musical. I am sure that Prof. Fulk or any other scholar would find much to question or challenge —a conversation I am quite willing to have. (I have never offered these translations as anything but texts in progress, always changing).
So many enormities the enemy of mankind,
loathsome lone-stalker, often committed,
a shaming more severe. He inhabited Heorot,
the dearly studded hall by the darkest night—
but he might never approach that gift-seat
or its treasures because of the Measurer—
he did not know his love.
That was a mighty wrack for the Scyldings’ friend,
a breaking of his heart. Often many sat,
the capable at council, stewing upon a course
what best to do by the much-spirited
against terror’s ferocity.
Sometimes they offered at heathen fanes
honoring wooden gods, worshipping wordfully
so that the soul-slayer might give solace
in the people’s peril. Such was their custom,
their heathenish hope. They remembered hell
in their inner hearts. They knew not the Measurer,
the Deemer of Deeds, nor did they know Lord God—
indeed nor could they praise the Helmet of Heaven,
the Sovereign of Glory. Woe to those who must
through glowering malice shove down their souls
into the fathoming fire, who must not expect comfort
or one jot of change! It will be well for those
who are allowed after their death-day to seek the Lord
and beg for protection in the Father’s embrace!
1) Two of the DOML volumes, Fulk’s The Beowulf Manuscript and Mary Clayton’s 2014 Old English Poems of Christ and his Saints, are rendered in prose, though the other three extant volumes in the series of OE poetry (two by Robert Bjork, and one by Drew Jones) use lineation in some form. (I’ll save a consideration of those volumes for another post.)
2) Fulk is not alone in making this decision, as misguided as it seems to me. Liuzza gives the line as “he saw no need to salute the throne” (p. 54) and Heaney stutters a bit in his “but the throne itself, the treasure-seat / he was kept from approaching” (p. 13). Bradley gives “gift-throne” (p. 416) and Williamson extemporizes a bit as he expands upon the thought in his lines “But he was barred from the king’s throne, / Kept from the gift’s seat and God’s love” (p. 611).
3) As you might expect, eager Beowulf fan Cynewulf does use the term to refer to God’s throne, but there is a clear metaphorical basis to the usage, referring to its secular existence: “Wile nu gesecan sawla nergend / gæsta giefstol, godes agen bearn, / æfter guðplegan” [Now the Preserver of Souls wishes to seek out now,/ the giving-throne of spirits, God’s Own Child, / after the play of war] (Christ 2, 571–73). It also appears in The Wanderer 43–44: “swa he hwilum ær / in geardagum giefstolas breac [just as he sometimes / in the days of yore delighted in the gift-throne]. It appears once more in Beowulf, at line 2327: “þæt his sylfes ham, / bolda selest, brynewylmum mealt, / gifstol Geata” [that his very own home, / buildings’ best, had melted in the welling-burn, /the gift-throne of the Geats]. It also appears in Maxims 1A, line 68: “gifstol gegierwed stondan, hwonne hine guman gedælen” [the kingly throne must stand ready—for when men should distribute gifts].
4) The first sentence of this hoary study is “Beowulf is a poem about hell’s possession of middle-earth”, which pretty much says everything you need to know about his particular angle.
5) A hagiographic connotation to this term could be argued, as the Mermedonians also commend their saintly prisoner for his “gumcystum” after the deadly flood (Andreas 1606), but if this is not a pun on his name, I’d eat my hat (Andrew means “manly in Greek).
6) So much better for those done by scholars who have a strong streak of the poet within them, for example R. M. Liuzza’s Beowulf (1999) is a fine, very strong version that compares favorably to Heaney, and I vacillate between assigning one version or the other. Craig Williamson’s (2011, reprinted in 2017) is powerful as well. Tolkien has excelled in both areas of scholarship and mythopoeia, but I find both his Beowulf (2014) and Exodus translations grating and inconsistent. I very much enjoying teaching an OE Poetry class out of The Word Exchange (2012), to be honest, augmented with longer poems from my own website, as I find the more free poetic renderings to provide a whole lot of interest and to generate interesting discussion.