Tolkien on Translating Beowulf

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.)

  1. 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.
  2. Of course, every translation is limited in unpacking the nuances of words in the original, especially compound-words.
  3. Anglo-Saxon verse is not attempting to offer puzzles but an aesthetic of compression in a slow meter of balance.
  4. "[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).
  5. 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.
  6. However, the translator shouldn't be afraid to use the technical vocabulary of chivalry.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).

Discussion Questions

  • 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 modern translations?
  • Which translation gives the best sense of the Old English meter?
 

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding