Today I’m breaking out the glittering armour, gift from the ring-giver, a tight-knit coat in the battle-storm.
Yep. Today’s entry is the first about Beowulf.
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Background to the Project
It’s a project that started in my third year of studying for my BA, though it didn’t really take off until just after I had finished that degree. I’m using the bilingual edition of Seamus Heaney’s translation that has the Anglo Saxon original on the left and the poet’s translation on the right (an online version of the original can be found here).
Heaney’s arrangement is great, but the running glossary in George Jack’s student edition is even more helpful – when I borrowed it from the library for a graduate class I barely used my dictionary.
However, now that Jack’s edition is back in Victoria and I’m over in Ontario, I make good use of my copy of the Fourth Edition of the Anglo-Saxon Dictionary as edited by Hall and Meritt. If I can’t find a word in the dictionary then I’ll usually look it up in the website Old English Made Easy’s dictionary.
The weight of this project hasn’t crushed me just yet, but it is something that has provided an ongoing struggle. Not just because of the size of the poem, but because its use of multiple adjectival clauses can really cloud sense and make things seem obtuse.
However, when things get grammatical, my Magic Sheet is never out of sight. This handy little chart from the English Faculty at the University of Virigina summarizes the declensions and conjugations of everything in Old English, so it’s super useful.
So armed, I’ve been able to translate 5/6 of the poem over the years and once I’m finished my plan is to bring a consistent voice to the whole thing (possibly by re-writing), type it up, and try to get it published. A bold move perhaps, but this is something that I’m passionate about. Maybe it’s just a bunch of barbarians hitting each other (and monsters) over the head with pointy sticks to some, but to me it’s a piece of grand old art.
And it’s something that’s fun to translate.
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Old English Appreciation
Sure, the grammar can get sticky and there are points that scholars still contend to this day (was Beowulf swimming until nightfall to get to the bottom of the mire? Why does the Danish bard sing such a sad song after Beowulf’s victory?). But there’s a joie de vivre in the poet/scribes’ language that isn’t really present in a lot of Modern English.
And no, I’m not a snob. I think that Middle English (Chaucerian English) and Early Modern (Shakespearean English) are just as lovely. But when all of the grammarians stuck their fingers in the delicious hot pie that was English in the 17th and 18th centuries they sucked a lot of life out of it. They set it up to become a reliable and powerful lingua franca for all, but they made it a little bit dull in the process.
Now when somebody drops a consonant and replaces it with an apostrophe people are all up ins. And slang is slang. Before the grammarians came about (I’m looking at you Samuel Johnson) all of English (all the dialects) were pretty slang-laden. It’s just the way that the language was.
And it was grand.
Not so great for national or international communication maybe, but the plays, treatises, and poems that remain are all excellent examples of what a language can do.
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Anyway, I don’t want this entry to be fully derailed by a rant. Right now I’m working through the scene where Beowulf fights the dragon, so I’m really sticking to the story-telling principle of starting in media res.
But, true to most modern novels, I’m starting just where the action is picking up – Beowulf has just gotten his band of 11 fellow Geats together and has compelled the slave that brought him the dragon’s cup to guide them the the lizard’s lair.
All of this happens in lines 2401-2409.
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Two words really struck me in section:
First, “gebolgen” on l. 2401. It reminds me of the “Gáe Bolga,” the mysterious, foot-held spear that Cuchulain was trained in by the warrior woman Scáthach, and with which he killed his friend and rival Ferdiad in the Táin Bó Cuailnge.
The other word that caught my eye was “meldan,” from l.2405. This one means finder according to Heaney. The dictionary definition is “tell, reveal, accuse” – but I’m guessing that Heaney let his translation lean on “cwom” (come) the combination of which with “tell, reveal, accuse” suggests a kind of giving – like coming with tales or news, things which are only useful if given.
Plus, a shiny cup from a whole pile of treasure would indeed be welcome news to any Geat (or Anglo-Saxon listener).
Though, I do admit that combining words in this way is kind of like trying to stretch a single ox hide over an acre of land.
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If you’ve got any suggestions/corrections for me, leave them in a comment. I’ll be back next week with Beowulf’s arrival at the cave.