Friday, August 21, 2009

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation / Seamus Heaney, tr. -- NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Reading Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf was a delight. Of course, I've never read a translation of Beowulf and not been delighted; so a more critical review of the work requires a bit more thought. This drove me to compare it to the two other translations that I have read. It's difficult to judge a translation without a good understanding of the original language -- which I certainly lack -- so I'm left to judge the work based on its translated poetry alone. On that score, Heaney's translation, for me, competes well with translations by Michael Alexander (Penguin Classics, 1973) and Francis B. Gummere (P.F. Collier & Sons, 1910). Each translation has its merits and reading them together deepens one's appreciation for each and for the poem itself.

Comparing specific stanzas in the three translations gives one a flavor of how different various translations can be. Heaney directs his readers to his translation of the opening stanza to exemplify his own approach:


So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.


We have heard of the thriving of the throne of Denmark,
how the folk-kings flourished in former days,
how those royal athelings earned that glory.

and Gummere:

Lo, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

One can immediately feel the tone that Heaney adopts: direct simple word choices, shorn of poetic pretense. In his introduction, Heaney writes: "I came to the task of translating Beowulf with a prejudice in favour of forthright delivery. I remember the voice of the poem as being attractively direct, even though the diction was ornate and the narrative method at times oblique," and later, "I am attending as much to the grain of my original vernacular as to the content of the Anglo-Saxon lines."

What Heaney rejects is the notion that a translation of Beowulf must be guided primarily by the notion that "we must labour to be beautiful." The result is a translation that reads easily and simply, and indeed, beauty flourishes in that simply. At least this is true most of time. What is sometimes lost is the remarkable, stirring phrases that appear in more self-consciously poetic translations. Compare the various translations of one of my favorite passages (lines 2550-2558), when the aged Beowulf first challenges the dragon in his lair:


Then he gave a shout. The lord of the Geats
unburdened his breast and broke out
in a storm of anger. Under the grey stone
his voice challenged and resounded clearly.
Hate was ignited. The hoard-guard recognized
a human voice, the time was over
for peace and parleying. Pouring forth
in a hot battle-fume, the breath of the monster
burst from the rock. There was a rumble under ground.


Passion filled the prince of the Geats:
he allowed a cry to utter from his breast,
roared from his stout heart: as the horn clear in battle
his voice re-echoed through the vault of grey stone.
The hoard-guard recognized a human voice,
and there was no more time for talk of friendship:
hatred stirred. Straightaway
the breath of the dragon billowed from the rock
in a hissing gust; the ground boomed.

and Gummere:

Then from his breast, for he burst with rage,
the Weder-Geat prince a word outgo;
stormed the stark-heart; stern went ringing
and clear his cry 'neath the cliff-rocks gray.
The hoard-guard heard a human voice;
his rage was enkindled. No respite now
for pact of peace! The poison-breath
of that foul worm first came forth from the cave,
hot reek-of-fight: the rocks resounded.

To my ear, Heaney's version is certainly unencumbered by the "laboured poetry" of the Gummere version, but it is still stirring; however, in comparison to the Alexander version, Heaney's reads like a newspaper account. Nothing more exemplifies the difference than lines 2556-2568. Alexander's version best captures the ominous moment when Beowulf courageously faces his death: "...Straightaway / the breath of the dragon billowed from the rock / in a hissing gust. The ground boomed." Reading "the ground boomed" makes me want to put down my book and flee, lest I be cornered by the dragon. This is not to say that Heaney's directness and Gummere's laboured poetry do not outshine Alexander on other occasions, but on balance, for me, Alexander finds just the right poetic balance.

Regardless of the translation one choose to read, Beowulf is a stirring experience if one reads the poem slowly and thoughtfully -- aloud is best -- taking the time to let the words and images shape your experience and transport you to a time and place when honor and undauntable courage were prized above all. Heaney will do this for you and in an idiom that speaks directly to today's vernacular.

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