|J.R.R. Tolkien's essay
"On Translating Beowulf" was published in 1940 as
"Prefatory Remarks on Prose Translation of Beowulf," an
introduction to an edition of John R. Clark Hall's 1911 translation of the
poem. Tolkien divides his discussion between word choice and poetic meter,
addressing a number of related issues, including prose versus verse
translations, translating complex and compound words (including kennings),
and achieving the right tone in translation, as well as patterns in
Anglo-Saxon meter, alliteration, and parallelisms.
The entire essay is worth serious study, and it can
be found in The Monsters & the Critics and Other Essays (1990).
I would like us to focus on a few of his chief insights and test them
against Seamus Heaney's translations, along with other translations by E.
Talbot Donaldson, Tolkien himself, Howell D. Chickering, and others. (Click
here for one example.)
- Tolkien believes that prose translations serve
their purpose but that they are "an abuse" if meant to serve
for a real sense of the text's poetic power.
- Of course, every translation is limited in
unpacking the nuances of words in the original, especially
- Anglo-Saxon verse is not attempting to offer
puzzles but an aesthetic of compression in a slow meter of balance.
- "[A]ny translation used by a student is to
provide not a model for imitation, but an exercise in correction. . .
. The effort to translate, or improve a translation, is valuable, not
so much for the version it produces, as for the understanding of the
original which it awakes" (53).
- Tolkien argues that the language of Beowulf
for its time was intentionally antiquated but not intentionally
arcane; therefore, a good modern translation should avoid both the colloquial
and the obscure.
- However, the translator shouldn't be afraid to
use the technical vocabulary of chivalry.
- In translating compound words, the translator
must ascertain whether the compound in the original has a prosaic,
everyday quality (e.g. the modern coinages "mail carrier"
and "houseboat"), a poetic quality (i.e. kenning) meant to
poetically call up the Anglo-Saxon world, or something in between
these two poles--a word with poetic shading.
- Old English verse "differs from prose, not
in re-arranging words to fit a special rhythm, repeated or varied in
successive lines, but in choosing the simpler and more compact
word-patterns and clearing away extraneous matter, so that these
patterns stand opposed to one another" (62).
- Which translation best achieves Tolkien's advice
concerning word choice?
- Among the examples of compound-word translations
which ones are attempting to be prosaic and which ones poetic?
- In your estimation, which ones succeed best as
- Which translation gives the best sense of the Old