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.