Translating Beowulf: Translators Crouched and Dangers Rampant

Translating Beowulf: Translators Crouched and Dangers Rampant

Schulman, Jana K.

Medieval English Studies, vol. 12 (2004) No. 1


Those who read Beowulf in Old English find themselves concerned :if not immediately, then eventually:with issues of translation, of audience, of ambiguity. Each time I have worked with the poem in Old English, I read the same lines that I have read before differently. For example, when I last taught Beowulf, I found myself reluctant to translate the word elleng 1st as “demon” because I had previously argued that the word should be reevaluated. I translated the word as “powerful visitor” and found that in so doing, I carefully chose each subsequent word. Therefore, my translation of the opening lines that describe Grendel (ll. 86-89b) depicted a much more sympathetic character: “Then the powerful visitor, who dwelt in darkness, suffered hardship painfully, when he heard joy, loud in the hall, every day.”

This is not the usual depiction of Grendel; all editors and translators view him as the cannibalistic monster that he proves himself to be only 20 lines later. I, also, do not deny that he is a cannibal. However, to translate elleng1st as demon misses the ambiguity in the word g1st, ambiguity produced definitely by the lack of spelling standards in Old English and possibly by the poet himself, reveling, perhaps, in a brief moment of misleading description to increase the audience’s suspense. After all, many guests visit Heorot; two of them, both Grendel and Beowulf are uninvited and very strong, a fact that has not eluded translators and scholars. Many have, in fact, commented on the ambiguities that color these two characters, which sometimes, especially as the poet gets caught up in the narrative and the action, makes it hard to distinguish one from the other.

Click here to read/download this article (HTML file)

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine