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Beowulf Killing Grendel


                                                (Page Four)

This page has two parts. The first part examines the differences between prose and verse translations of Beowulf and the second part looks at some of the complex problems involved in translating Beowulf as a poem. 

There is only one existing manuscript copy of the original text of Beowulf. The image below is a reproduction of the manuscript's opening words -- Hwaet We Gardena. (The last letters of Gardena are missing because the manuscript was damaged in a fire.) 

Manuscript of Beowulf

In this manuscript the text is written continuously without the line divisions used in poetry. In modern editions, however, the text is printed somewhat differently. The boxes below illustrate how the opening words of the poem are written in the original text and in a modern printed edition.


na ingear dagum eod cyninga     
rym ge frunon hua elingas ellen 
fre medon. 


Hwt. We-Gardena     in gear-dagum,
eodcyninga,        rym gefrunon,
hu a elingas       ellen fremedon.

The modern printing shows three main changes from the original version: the lines are arranged differently; there's a space (caesura) in the middle of each line; and some punctuation has been added. The main reason for these changes is to enable readers to hear the poem as it would originally have sounded. There is, in fact, a very regular metrical pattern that indicates the story wasn't mean to be read continuously, as prose, but was actually recited in units comparable to those of the modern poetic line.

But although the original text has the sound of  a poem, translations of the poem are sometimes made in prose. The two examples in the boxes below illustrate the differences between prose and verse translations: Donaldson's is in prose and Liuzza's in poetry. Both translations are of the very moving last lines of the poem, lines 3170-318, in which the Geat people perform the death-rituals for Beowulf and lament the death of their great hero.


Then the brave in battle rode round the mound, children of nobles, twelve in all, would bewail their sorrow and mourn their king, recite dirges and speak of the man. They praised his great deeds and his acts of courage, judged well of his prowess. So it is fitting that man honor his liege lord with words, love him in heart when he must be led forth from the body. Thus the people of the Geats, his hearth-companions, lamented the death of their lord. They said that he was of world-kings the mildest of men and the gentlest, kindest to his people, and most eager for fame.



Then round the mound rode the battle-
      brave men,
offspring of noblemen, twelve in all,
they wished to voice their cares and 
     mourn their king, 
utter sad songs and speak of that man;
they praised his lordship and his proud
judged well his prowess. As it is proper
that one should praise his lord with words,
should love him in his heart when the 
    fatal hour comes, 
when he must from his body be led forth,
so the men of the Geats lamented
the fall of their prince, those hearth-
they said that he was of all the kings of
      the world
the mildest of men and the most gentle,
the kindest to his fold and the most eager
      for fame.

If you read these aloud, you'll be able to hear -- rather than just see -- some of the differences between prose and verse.  For one thing, the prose translation by Donaldson reads more quickly and easily than Liuzza's version in verse. This is because prose is more natural and conversational; it follows the forms of ordinary speech. On the other hand, the verse translation is more dramatic, statelier, and certainly more musical;  it conveys a sense of how the poem must have originally sounded when it was recited aloud to an audience, probably with musical accompaniment. The prose translation tells the story, but it lacks the rhythmic, melodic quality that's an essential ingredient of the original poem. 

So, which is best -- prose or poetry? There's no one answer to this question. Choosing a translation requires first considering what you want most in the translation you choose. If your aim is mainly to read the story in a form that's enjoyable and easy to understand, a prose translation is the best choice. On the other hand, a poetic translation is better if you're willing to struggle a bit more to understand the story and want to hear the sound of the original poem. 


Translating Beowulf as a poem is especially challenging because of the complex verse form used in the original poem. This verse form is quite different from the forms used in later English poetry.

Each line of Beowulf has four beats or stresses. There are two beats in each half-line with a caesura (pause) in the middle of the line. The number of syllables per line can vary, so long as there are four primary stresses per line. In addition, the first stressed word of the second half-line must alliterate -- must have the same opening sound -- as at least one of the stressed syllables in the first half-line. Other words may alliterate as well.

Using line 847 of the original text, the typical pattern is illustrated below. In the literal translation I've put accent marks over the stressed words and have highlighted the alliterating words in corresponding colors.


Dr ws on blode       brim weallende


There ws in blod      wter brmming

Since it's extremely difficult to reproduce this complex pattern of stresses and alliterations in modern English -- while still having the translation make sense -- most translators don't follow this form very closely. Usually they try to have four stresses per line, more or less, with alliteration occurring only when it seems natural. However, there are a few translators -- Ruth P.M. Lehmann being the most recent example -- who do attempt to follow the form closely. In the right-hand box below you'll see the original text of the last five lines of the poem along with Lehmann's translation. I've highlighted the primary alliterating words in both versions.


Swa begnornodon    Geata leode
hlafordes hryre,   heor-geneatas,
wdon t he wre    wyruld-cyninga
manna mildust  ond mon-wrust,
leodum liost     ond lofgeornost.


              Thus his fellow Geats,
chosen champions   cheerlessly grieved
for the
loss of their lord,   leader and defender.
called him of captains,   kings of
     the known world,
men most generous   and most gracious
kindest to his clansmen,   questing for praise.

For comparison with Lehmann's translation, the boxes below illustrate how two translators -- Seamus Heaney and Michael Alexander -- have rendered the same passage using a freer verse form: they  have a four-stress line but with only occasional and much less strictly formulaic alliteration. Again I've highlighted the primary alliterating words, some of which are on different lines.


So the Geat people, his hearth companions,
sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.
said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the
man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.


This was the manner of the mourning
    of the men of the Geats,
sharers in the
feast, at the fall of their lord:
they said that he
was of all the world's kings
the gentlest of
men, and the most gracious,
kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.

Heaney's translation method is succinctly explained in the preface to his Beowulf translation:

... I prefer to let the natural "sound of sense" prevail over the demands of the convention: I have been reluctant to force an artificial shape or an unusual word choice just for the sake of correctness.

His point is that strictly following the original verse pattern requires sacrificing sense to form: words must sometimes be chosen simply because of the meter or the need to alliterate. This is a sacrifice that he and some other translators prefer not to make. 

As a reader, however, once again you will need to make your own choice. For a translation that gives a good sense of the original verse form of the poem, Ruth P.M. Lehmann's translation would be the best choice  -- as long as you're aware that it sometimes isn't as strictly accurate as other translations. On the other hand, translations like those by Heaney, Raffel, and Liuzza might be preferred as  translations that keep reasonably close to the original wording, but without strictly following the original  form. 

This ends the main part of our examination of Beowulf translations. The last page of this module has some final words about Beowulf translations and some web links that you may find useful. But before going on, please do the exercise below.

EXERCISE D.Viking ship

Write a tribute to someone whom you wish to honor as a great person. It can be someone well known, living or dead, or just someone you know. Describe this person so your reader will know why you feel he or she should be known and remembered. You can write this either as poetry or as prose. If you choose to write a poem, you might want to include some alliteration as you've seen in the examples from Beowulf on this page. 


When you've finished the exercise, go to the final page,  Page 5. 

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