A balanced Beowulf translation: J.B. Kirtlan

The cover for J.B. Kirtlan's 1913 translation of Beowulf.

Cover of J.B. Kirtlan’s 1913 Beowulf translation. Image from: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/50742

This is another busy week for me, so I want to take this opportunity to bring your attention to a different kind of Beowulf adaptation: translations!

In particular, I want to share the translation that the Legends Myths and Whiskey podcast used for their Beowulf: A Mythosymphony (a reading of the story with original music and some commentary in between). This is J.B. Kirtlan’s 1913 translation.

The most notable thing about this translation is that it’s in prose rather than poetry. Though this might seem to ruin the effect of the original a bit, I think that Kirtlan’s prose makes the story pop for an audience who might not be comfortable with reading line after line of alliterative verse.

At the same time, though, since it was written over 100 years ago, the language is somewhat dated as Kirtlan throws words like “byrnie” and “banesman” around without any kind of explanation. A quick internet search will reveal the meanings of these words, but that might detract from the story for some. Likewise, he’s written with a bit of an “Olde Englyshe” affectation as he changes word order and spelling to look more archaic than the English of 1913.

Luckily, however, Kirtlan keeps the story’s pace going strong and even with the quirks of the language used, manages to tell an entrancing rendition.

All in all, Kirtlan’s is a pretty balanced translation in that its prose format keeps the story moving (even through asides), while its free use of older words maintains the flavour of the original.

Here’s a link to several formats of the complete J.B. Kirtlan translation online (via project Gutenberg). You can judge for yourself, but I think this is a translation that brings Beowulf into the modern age while also retaining some of the original’s old-ness and mixing in some turn of the century philology as well.

When it comes to a story as old and foreign-seeming as Beowulf, what do you think makes an ideal translation?

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