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Publishing Tolkien’s Beowulf translation does him a disservice

Fans of J R R Tolkien must wonder why there is any controversy associated with the recent publication of his 1926 translation of Beowulf. For them anything new from Tolkien is welcome. But imagine if Tolkien’s…

Tolkien probably would have destroyed the work if he thought it might be published. Galaxy fm ®, CC BY-SA

Fans of J R R Tolkien must wonder why there is any controversy associated with the recent publication of his 1926 translation of Beowulf. For them anything new from Tolkien is welcome. But imagine if Tolkien’s son had found and published prose paraphrases of Shakespeare’s sonnets by his father. Even avid fans might have thought differently about that.

A prose translation has the same devastating effect on the poetic majesty of Beowulf – and no one more than Tolkien recognised this in his day.

After all, it was Tolkien who denigrated his translation, calling it an “abuse” and “hardly to my liking”. He left it behind and forgot about it. How does its unauthorised publication serve Tolkien’s reputation? It was with his own remarks in mind that I said in a recent interview for the New York Times that “publishing the translation is a disservice to him, to his memory and his achievement as an artist”. His own assessment suggests he would have destroyed it, if he imagined anyone might publish it with selections from his undergraduate lecture notes.

In the interview I explained that any diligent teacher (or advanced student) of Beowulf in the original Old English ends up with at least a clumsy translation after a semester of labour. My explanation was unfortunately construed to mean that most scholars “try their hand at Beowulf translations to better understand the poem”. No one teaching or studying Beowulf in Old English for the first time can get beyond even the opening lines without consulting an Old English dictionary, addressing its foreign grammar, and deriving a translation:

Hwæt we Gar-Dena       in geardagum
þeodcyninga       þrym gefrunon
hu ða æþelingas       ellen fremedon

With study one learns the special letterforms, the different grammar, the multitude of words and compounds lost to modern English, and begins to recognise the relatively few words and word-elements that survive in modern English. But no prose or poetic translation can put even these three lines into modern English word order. Old English, like Latin, is an inflected language in which distinctive forms and endings, rather than natural word order, convey meaning.

The lofty metre of Beowulf is lost even in admirable poetic versions like Seamus Heaney’s, which is recognised as a new poem, often called Heaneywulf. Prose translations such as Tolkien’s claim to be more “faithful”, but this fidelity refers to the literal translation of poetry, which captures only the facts of the story in unavoidably stodgy prose, struggling to sort out the word order while losing the grandeur of verse.

Old English poetry, based on half-line formulas with two stresses linked by alliteration, is quite foreign to modern listeners. In the opening line of Beowulf above, there is double linking alliteration on the stressed syllables, Gar-De- in the first half-line and gear-da- in the second half-line.

In line 2 the stress and linking alliteration fall on the first syllables of the first words in the two half-lines. Then in line 3 the stress and alliteration are vocalic across the half-lines, a favourite variation in the Old English alliterative style.

A consummate craftsman with a special ear for contemporary idiom, Heaney does not attempt to simulate this kind of poetry, so no one gets to hear the rhythms of Old English verse in his poetic version. But fidelity to any of the powerful sounds of poetry is not even an issue in a prose translation.

Tolkien enthusiasts have always provided a core of students eager to study Beowulf in the original Old English because of the high regard Tolkien held for it and the role he played in getting readers of his generation to see it as a work of poetic genius in his 1936 paper “Beowulf, the Monsters and the Critics”. But now these fans will be reading his prose translation, which Tolkien himself belittled.

London’s Evening Standard ends its breezy piece on the translation by quoting the famous line in Annie Hall: “Just don’t take any class where you have to read Beowulf.” Neither Woody Allen, who took college courses in communications and film, nor Alvy Silver, his neurotic comedian in Annie Hall, ever "read”, much less translated, Beowulf in Old English. The joke is a well-understood allusion to the ubiquitous Survey of English Literature from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf. These surveys have introduced generations of undergraduate students to the first great long poem in English through a literal, artless, tedious, prose translation, so cumbersome that some traumatised students leave this introductory course believing that they have read Beowulf in the original.

The brilliant poetic version by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney is for now, in my opinion, the best way to introduce new students to Beowulf in translation, because it tells the story and is poetry of a high order.

Tolkien’s own creative legacy is secure. It will be a travesty if his Beowulf legacy turns out to be a translation he was the first to disparage.

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7 Comments sorted by

  1. A Person

    logged in via Twitter

    You appear to be arguing that all translations fall short of the original and Tolkien's particularly so and therefore should be avoided.

    All translations are shadows of the original but each says something about the poem and about the translator. Due to the immense interest in the work of J.R.R.T then anything that may add to what is known about him is welcome, especially on his academic work which is no where near as well known as his stories.

    Would you argue that the early versions of stories featured in the History of Middle Earth series by Christopher Tolkien should not have been published because they are not as good as the final published version?

    Tolkien's work on Beowulf is one of his best known pieces of academic work. Publishing it allows people to make up their own mind what they think of it and what light or otherwise it sheds on Beowulf.

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  2. Middle-earth Q-and-A

    logged in via Twitter

    Few people alive today can appreciate the "lofty metre" you adore; maybe a few more have a hope of understanding the poem in its original language as Tolkien and other Anglo-Saxon scholars. Tolkien himself was quite self-deprecating about his work. He often denounced all of it, as he was not very confident in his ability as a writer, so to point out that he himself disparaged his translation doesn't help the reader understand how he valued the translation.

    Tolkien's translation adds a wealth of…

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    1. Kevin Kiernan

      Emeritus Professor of English at University of Kentucky

      In reply to Middle-earth Q-and-A

      I can certainly see your point of view. I have taught Beowulf in prose translation in survey courses more often than I have in the original Old English poetry in seminars. I was commenting from long, disappointing experience on prose translations in general, not on Tolkien's translation. Seamus Heaney's poetic translation arrived too late for me to use, but I would have preferred using to the prose translations I had at the time. For the record, I do not "adore" Old English metre!

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    2. Kevin Kiernan

      Emeritus Professor of English at University of Kentucky

      In reply to Middle-earth Q-and-A

      Teaching a survey with a prose translation (now including Tolkien's) presents an ideal opportunity for an instructor who has studied Old English. It allows her or him to introduce general readers to the sounds of Beowulf in Old English and to discuss the finer points -- the pluses and minuses -- of whatever translation they are using.

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  3. Nelson Goering

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    While I appreciate that a lot of this piece tried to use Tolkien's translation as a hook to talk about the original poem (an opportunity which is obviously one of the great benefits of any new high profile translation), the characterization of Tolkien's opinion on his own work seems out of place - very forceful ('he would have destroyed it'), but rather a mischaracterization. And an unfortunate one, as the 'academic spat' has been picked up by the press, and is being cast and recast in increasingly…

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    1. Kevin Kiernan

      Emeritus Professor of English at University of Kentucky

      In reply to Nelson Goering

      This is a substantial and worthwhile contribution to the conversation. As you suggest, my primary interest is in Beowulf and its fate now that Tolkien's translation is out of the bag. Readers here would no doubt be interested in your analysis of a short passage from the translation compared to its source, in view of your research on the metrical systems of Germanic alliterative poetry. That exercise would bring together your enthusiasm for Tolkien's translation with your knowledge of the poetry of Beowulf.

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