Korean Translation of Beowulf: Variety and Limitation of Archaic Words

Korean Translation of Beowulf: Variety and Limitation of Archaic Words

Lee, Dong-Ill

Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, Volume 16 No. 1 (2008)


My Korean translation of Beowulf was primarily designed to introduce Korean readers to 1) the world of western epic in which heroism is highly praised 2) the beauty and subtlety of ‘winged words’ which are embedded in compound nouns, epithet, formulaic expression, and appositive style. In this paper, whilst focusing on some key words and expressions, I will demonstrate how such definitions and meanings can be drawn out and can be translated into their appropriate Korean equivalents.

I strongly believe that the poem Beowulf is based on the heroic ideology. The precise meaning and full significance of archaic words are not always easy to define. That is quite true. However I felt during the preparation of my Ph. D thesis that many words and phrases are mistakenly rendered by modern English translators simply because they appeared to overlook the heroic ideology, and conducted insufficient philological research. I believe many words and formulaic expressions such as heard under helme, wlenco, oferhygd, dolgilp, maþelian can be accurately defined with the aid of philological examination and close textual reading in accordance with this heroic ideology.

Considering the implication of the situation, the word combination and the emphatic use of alliteration I feel the rendering heard under helme as ‘hard under helmet’ seems insufficient in bringing its real meaning alive. The true interpretation of heard under helme should be more than literal translation ‘hardy under helmet’. Maþelian shares the same root as mæþel, which has the meanings ‘assembly, council, judicial meeting, speech, address, conversation’, according to BT. With regard to public meetings, speeches made there may be assumed to be formal and to have eloquence and ceremonial dignity.

Maþelian is characterized by its frequent use in public speech with a high degree of formality in Old English poetry. This form of publicity is fairly typical of Beowulf, in which speeches delivered at court and before a public audience are introduced by maþelode in Beowulf 499, 529.

On the surface a series of words seems to be used to increase the sense of rashness and foolhardiness in Beowulf’s seimming-contest: for wlence, for dolgilpe. Beowulf’s dolgylp, ‘audacious boasting’ can hardly be understood as foolish declaration, since it was originally conceived to express his heroic willingness to take on an exploit. Such a boasting speech in a heroic society can act as a binding verbal commitment to act in a heroic manner. In the context of Unferth’s narrative, the neutral meaning of wlenco as high-spiritedness fits well into the progression of Unferth’s narrative.

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