In his affectionate introduction to his father’s translation of Beowulf, Christopher Tolkien reminds his audience that this is not a work of scholarship, but rather a snapshot of J.R.R. Tolkien’s relationship with the poem. The poem tells of the eponymous Beowulf, a man who comes across the sea to fight a monster, then fight the monster’s avenging mother, and finally, after returning to his home, a dragon. The edition contains a prose translation of the poem, but also includes hundreds of pages of commentary as well as a short piece of Beowulf-inspired fiction, “Sellic Spell.”
The commentary was gleaned from Tolkien’s lectures at Oxford and personal notes on the text, and these insights into Tolkien’s mind are the most valuable part of the book. Before Tolkien, Beowulf was considered a problematic document, mined for its historical and linguistic information and criticized for inconsistency. Tolkien championed the text as an Anglo-Saxon literary masterpiece, and his opinion is the accepted view today. Tolkien dedicated his professional life to Old English scholarship, and Beowulf would always inform his writing, both academic and fictional. He perhaps knew Beowulf better than anyone, and this meticulous translation with its thoughtful, conversational notes reveal something of Tolkien as a 34-year old translator, scholar, and Oxford professor. It is thoroughly Tolkien’s Beowulf, and is brilliant in its insight.
It is, however, a horrible translation to read, filled with awkward language and archaic syntax. But that’s as it should be. That is how Old English is. Tolkien was most dedicated to the Old English Beowulf, and understood all the complexity and nuance of the Old English alliterative verse in which the poem is written. While other translators may be able to distance themselves from the beauty of the original, Tolkien couldn’t. When a text is wholly understood in one language, shifting it to a different language seems like a watering-down, a lessening. As the commentary shows, Tolkien was constantly changing his mind about its modern English analogue. He was too dedicated to the original text to create a modern translation in his own voice, though this voice certainly comes through in the commentary.
If you are looking for an unorthodox autobiography of Tolkien, this is a great resource. If you are new to Beowulf, this edition will prove a difficult, unwieldy introduction. Tolkien did not fail at what he did, but his effort reveals just how hard translation is. It is truly hard; I know because I too have translated Beowulf.
While I was a student at Grinnell College, I worked with five other students and a professor to produce a translated and fully-annotated classroom edition of the poem which we dubbed The Grinnell Beowulf. We spent a little more than three months working long hours together in a very cold classroom creating a first draft and initial notes. We discussed and debated every single line of the poem. The next year and a half was spent revising and re-revising, researching cruces and writing annotations for the more confusing moments in the text. We consulted other professors, friends, and colleagues, as well as other translators. We read Chickering, Risden, Donaldson, Raffel, and Heaney. I love Seamus Heaney’s translation (my copy is dog-eared and scribbled all over) because it is beautiful, but Risden’s because it tells me exactly what the Old English says. That is what translators do: they make decisions to render how a text works best to them. We read dozens of translations, prose and poetry, more and less literal, more and less readable. When Tolkien’s translation was published this spring, I was very curious to see where it fit within the constalated field of translations.
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My friend and fellow translator Kate said she hoped Tolkien’s Beowulf would be a lost masterpiece finally reaching the public, but it is difficult to determine what this translation does that others don’t. It is certainly very literal, but many editions are very literal. It is in prose, but that isn’t uncommon. The commentary stands out, but I see that as separate from the poem, a valuable addition. With most translations the audience and goal are clear, but in this one they are not. Ultimately, what I think Tolkien’s version of the poem does is provide an experience that is most authentically like reading Old English.
Old English poetry has an unnerving rhythm, abundant alliteration and a ridiculous number of words for “sword.” The syntax allows for verbs to appear at the end or middle or beginning of a sentence, and sometimes leaving a subject far away from its verb. Given these differences, it’s often unclear how our modern language developed from Old English, but Tolkien’s version shows more clearly than others how the two languages can feel similar. Tolkien himself describes Old English poetry as “more like masonry than music,” and this is certainly true in his translation.
This poem in particular is exceptionally hard to translate in terms of both language and storyline. It does not have a straightforward narrative, instead it slips into other tales, then abruptly returns to the present story. Stories are retold and often characters seem to contradict themselves. The first battle takes up hundreds of lines, and later fifty years go by in a sentence, but Tolkien was a proponent of taking each part as it was, equally as important.
In his essay, “The Monsters and the Critics,” he insists that “the poem was not meant to advance, steadily or unsteadily. It is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings.” Tolkien believed that only by accepting the poem as it was written, however unconventional to a modern ear, could a reader understand it. He applied this philosophy to his own translation as well. It’s difficult to read, sure, but there’s beauty in its authenticity. The way he rendered his translation maintains the painstaking balance of the original text, with all its confusing structure and repetition. Old English is difficult, thus, his translation is difficult. His extensive commentary, however, offers a flash of Tolkien’s brilliance as a creative scholar and explicator of the ancient language.
Tolkien’s edition, with the commentary included, shows how broad the spectrum of translation can be. While the completed translation is very literal, in the commentary, Tolkien translates excerpts into colloquial terms. In one passage, Beowulf has arrived at the hall of King Hrothgar, who has helped Beowulf’s father in the past.
Compare this section from Tolkien’s commentary on a scene where Hrothgar is thanking Beowulf for arriving at the hall: “’My dear Beowulf! How good of you to come to this country where we once had the honour of receiving your father and helping him in his troubles. Some may remember his killing of Heatholaf,’” to this, from his translation: “’My friend Beowulf, for my deserts and for the grace that once I showed thou hast now come to us. Thy father with the sword ended one of the greatest feuds: Heatholaf with his own hands he slew among the Wylfings.’”
They barely seem to be saying the same thing. The first translation is brilliant and comes complete with ironic emphasis. Tolkien tells us that this seemingly gracious speech is also gently chiding Beowulf for not recognizing his debt (through his father) to Hrothgar. The second translation is slow and rhythmic, and requires a few readings to get the same sense as the first. The tragedy of this book may be that we can see how readable Tolkien could have made the poem, and understand that he left it unwieldy and frustrating instead. The reader can comprehend the text when it is paired with the commentary, but it’s not nearly as fun to read.
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A single text can have a multitude of options for translation. Heaney looked at Beowulf and perhaps thought he could make it more beautiful, more riveting. Tolkien may have thought he could make it more honest, truer to the times. When creating The Grinnell Beowulf, we put our faith in modern English’s capacity to create something more accessible, and in our sense of the Old English, to make it accurate. All translators must make decisions about what the text means, and then decisions about how their own language can depict this meaning in its fullest, most truthful way. A word-for-word translation might be accurate in its language, but the sense may be lost. If the feeling of the text is maintained, but liberties are taken with the word or phrase choice, some of the authenticity is lost. No matter what decisions are made, something will be lost. Each translator must decide what sacrifices are most acceptable to make, because those sacrifices will define the translation.
The word for poet in Old English is scop (pronounced kind of like “shop”), which literally means “to shape.” The scop in Anglo-Saxon England was a shaper, one who molds a story into a new form. Each retelling of a tale was customized for the occasion and would have sounded different according to the context and the scop’s current lens. It makes sense that every time a story is heard it makes a different impression; why do we tell and retell fairy tales and legends? Hearing a story at five years old is different from hearing it at 50; we influence tales just as much as they influence us. Translation, then, captures the impression of the translator at the time he or she is translating. The translator shapes a tale into a new language under a specific contextual lens.
We were often asked “Why would you translate something that’s already been translated?” and perhaps others asked this question of Tolkien. It is because translation is still a creative act (the act of shaping). By shifting a piece of literature into another language, the translator leaves an imprint. Tolkien chose to leave his text as free of “imprint” as he could. His choice reflects how he read the poem in the Old English, but not his poetic or literary talent. Perhaps at 34 Tolkien did not presume he could override the sound and feel of the original with his own distinctive voice, and for that I think it suffers, but it is certainly more honest. Tolkien’s version sounds and feels like reading Old English.
Despite his hands-off approach to the poem, Tolkien’s commentary is rich with his personality. He had strong opinions about the content and made them very clear. For a first-time Beowulf reader, this commentary will sway one very much towards Tolkien’s version of events. Tolkien walks us through the poem’s nuances, making it a richer experience, but one constantly colored with his opinion. I love this poem because I’ve built a personal relationship with it, not necessarily because I understand its most minute contextual details from Tolkien’s point of view. For example, Tolkien’s notes give a cultural and historical explanation for Beowulf’s excessive boasting, making Beowulf a less outrageous character than he seems. His interpretation is fascinating, but it clashed with my own reading. I like my Beowulf to be a jerk, to love bragging about how gory his fights will be and how thoroughly he’ll destroy his opponent. Tolkien insists that Beowulf has a “passionate (but not savage!) nature,” but my Beowulf is at least as savage as the monsters he battles.
I would have loved to sit in on Tolkien’s lectures and debate his opinions, because while he clearly has a powerful relationship with the poem, so do I. This edition allows the reader to engage with Tolkien and with the poem on some level, but ultimately a myth has to be made one’s own to be appreciated fully. This is John Tolkien’s version, and it will take more work than usual to make it yours.
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Translation is a very messy process, and knowing firsthand what it’s like makes it easier to be gentle with Tolkien when slogging through his inscrutable text. A literal translation is only the beginning of the translation process. Even once you know all the words, the language has to make sense in modern English. Drafts are rewritten and words are debated and scratched out and reconsidered. I can imagine Tolkien, hunched in his darkened office, muttering synonyms to himself, flipping through histories and dictionaries, and maybe talking to himself, as I conversed with my co-translators. To understand the sort of thing Tolkien might’ve had to work with, here is an unedited passage from our first attempt at translation, in the original Old English and in our rough, literal analogue. These lines occur during Beowulf’s battle with the dragon, near the end of the poem.
Scyld wel gebearg
life ond licelæssan hwilelife
mærum þeodneþonne his myne sohte,
ðær he þy fyrsteforman dogore
wealdan mosteswa him wyrd ne gescrafable
hreð æt hilde.
The shield well protected
and body in a lesser space of time
for the famous lord than when his mind sought
there he was the first day permitted/dealing with
to manage so that fate did not decree
Triumph in war/battle.
We were constantly debating which word was most appropriate. Should we try to alliterate? Is “lesser space of time” clunky? How should we translate wealdan moste, which means something like “can do,” but is somehow far more complex? Have we used “famous” to modify “lord” too much in this page? And there were a lot of pretty intense arguments about whether “famous” even works. Then there’s managing the weird syntax and making sure we were representing the sense correctly. Here is our version:
The shield protected life and body
for less time than the famous lord had hoped.
There, at that moment, he had to perform
for the first time without fate granting him
triumph in battle.
The shield well protected the life and limbs of the kin renowned a lesser while than his desire had asked, if he were permitted to possess victory in battle, as that time, on that first occasion of his life for him fate decreed it not. (2157–60)
The two passages both do similar things, but Tolkien’s fidelity to the original text means that a reader must spend much longer deciphering the sentence than feeling the horror of Beowulf’s armor failing. The sounds of Tolkien’s are more reminiscent of the Old English. Tolkien demands dedication from his readers, and they in turn get a feel for the Old English. Had he made the translation more readable, some of the nuance and repetition of the original may have been lost. We were willing to make that sacrifice, but Tolkien wasn’t. It seems an impossible task to create a version as dedicated to the original language as his that is also a pleasure to read. It’s no wonder he never felt it was finished.
Every once in a while, however, Tolkien’s attentiveness to Old English pays off. There were moments reading Tolkien’s translation where I could almost hear the original language, in its clear lyricism. In a brief tale told by Beowulf about King Hrethel, whose son accidently kills his own brother. Hrethel falls into despair:
In care and sorrow [Hrethel] sees in his son’s dwelling the hall of feasting, the resting places swept by the wind robbed of laughter — the riders sleep, mighty men gone down into the dark; there is no sound of harp, no mirth in those courts, such as once there were. Then he goes back unto his couch, alone for the one beloved he sings a lay of sorrow: all too wide and void did seem to him those fields and dwelling places.
This passage benefits from the rambling sentences; it creates images of the father desperately wandering all the places his son is not, returning to bed, weeping. Tolkien calls Beowulf an “elegy,” and indeed this poem does something that hero tales rarely do: it spends time lingering on what happens after violence. Parents grieve for their children, warriors for their comrades, sorrow “burbles” and “surges;” it is shown as openly as battle boasts. Tolkien was able to access these things, and offers a glimpse into the poem’s muddled, strange beauty. Tiny quiet moments like this are where the poem, in any translation, shines.
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Dense, complex books like Beowulf can be intimidating. Readers often shy away from the sort of literature that gets assigned in high school and begrudgingly read once. Difficult books can be judged as dull and cast aside, or make a reader feel inadequate. Reading isn’t always fun, but there is value in tackling frustrating literature.
I didn’t truly understand reading until I translated this poem. Translation as an action is like starting over as a child learning to read. Translators must assume no pretenses, starting from the basic building blocks of language and developing meaning from there. They must at once be humble and assertive, second-guessing but then making decisions, trusting that they have sufficiently informed themselves and recognizing the need to move on. Mistakes will be made and corrected and corrected again, yet even then translators may not know if they have made the right move. Translation is a wholly bottom-up process of reading.
Reading can go this way too. Reading a tricky piece of writing may require starting from the bottom, picking apart each word, understanding it completely before moving on to the next section, but that doesn’t have to be done all at once. Children learning to read don’t understand the entirety of their first picture books, and we do not fault them. There will be new, challenging things in every book, and there are places a reader can work through, and places that should be skipped. Just because a book doesn’t always make sense doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be gained from the parts that do. Tolkien’s Beowulf, any Beowulf, was not translated perfectly, and cannot be read perfectly. The weird syntax can be skimmed, the rhythm of the language will make enough of an impression. The parts that aren’t chronological are important, but those can be ignored and returned to if they’re too frustrating. A translator does not necessarily go in order, and neither need a reader. The value of Tolkien’s translation is that it allows the reader to sense this process, and relive it with him. This poem is fragmented and was destroyed and re-copied and chucked out of a window to keep it from fire. Tolkien’s translation is unfinished and half-annotated and pieced together. I’ve picked through every part of this book and my advice is to let it be. Read it sloppily. Be confused. Be angry. Then read it again. John Tolkien was dedicated to this text, to these characters. He also probably hated it at times. He wasn’t satisfied, and reading Beowulf never leaves me entirely satisfied either. But it makes me want to return to it, and I do.