Friday, October 12, 2007

Beowulf: A new verse translation, by Seamus Heaney

I've been taking my own advice and polishing up my knowledge of Beowulf the poem in anticipation of Beowulf the movie. And as I began to read it I realized I probably have read no more than excerpts since I was an undergraduate taking a course in "Medieval Epic" (B and Roland in 10 weeks.)

This time I read Seamus Heaney's much-ballyhooed verse translation from 1999. And I find it no wonder that it was ballyhooed, it is wonderful.

One example to lure you to pick it up (NU's library has it, or will once I return it): Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, explains that he needed a way to "tune" his translation, and turned to "a familiar local voice," one which belonged to relatives he once called "big voiced Scullions," Irishmen who had weighty way of speaking that gave dignity to the simplest statements. Heaney used their speech as a model, beginning at the beginning, with the Old English word Hwaet!

Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with "lo" and "hark" and "behold" and "attend" and -- more colloquially -- "listen" being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle "so" came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom "so" operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.
I've heard that usage, too. With that insight, Heaney produced this:

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.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes ,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Wow! "That was one good king." I can almost hear one of my country neighbors saying that!

Here's Heaney's version of lines 2177-2189:

Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour;
he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour
and took no advantage; never cut down
a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper
and warrior that he was, watched and controlled
his God-sent strength and his outstanding
natural powers. He had been poorly regarded
for a long time, was taken by the Geats
for less than he was worth: and their lord too
had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.
They firmly believed that he lacked force,
that the prince was a weakling; but presently
every affront to his deserving was reversed.
Fresh yet redolent of legendary antiquity. Fabulous, fabulous mastery of the English language. Out of Ireland -- again -- of course.

Image: A plate from a Swedish helmet showing warriors wearing boar-helmets, often mentioned in Beowulf. Look closely and you can see the last visible dog... From Beowulf in Cyberspace.

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Blogger Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

Let me get this straight ... you think Heaney's rendering of "Hwaet!" as "So." is a GOOD thing?!

Every semester in World Lit I indulge myself in a good 30 second rant about what a god-awful translation of the word that is. I guess there's no accounting for taste.

12:22 AM  
Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

How many seconds willl you rant when the movie takes some large liberty with the poem? Like Beowulf's nakedness?

I'm in no position to judge the accuracy of that translation. But the urge for a traditional sound that is still contemporary (I've heard that use of "so") is something I can respect.

It's not so much the "so" as the whole passage down to "That was one good king." As someone who in an SCA context has heard Americans and Canadians talk about good kings and bad, in contemporary but medievally-influenced terms, this works.

Besides, you were charmed by that dreadful "mead hall" song. :) I didn't even like the original.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

What do you think of "listen up!" as a translation?

11:12 AM  
Blogger Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

I'm fine with "Listen up!" The "So" would just be mediocre if not for that lame period at the end. "So."

Here's the voice I hear when I read that opening:

"So, I'm talking to my friend Mabel, and 'Mabel,' I says, 'Mabel, the whole neighborhood's talking about the way your daughter's been carrying on with the butcher's son,' and so Mabel says ..."

By the way, I posted on this two years ago, here:

3:11 PM  
Blogger Colm said...

The use of "So." seems fine to me - because of the period. "So,..." is just an ordinary lead into a sentence. If that's your only exposure to the use of "so" then maybe your 30 seconds would be understandable.

With a period, it become a forceful sound that demands the attention of listeners and stills conversation. I've also heard this as "So, then.".

11:21 PM  
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