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Why Tolkien’s Beowulf is an ‘amazing book but a terrible translation’

In the spring of 2014 a translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien was published. Last week, Andy Orchard, one of the world’s leading scholars of Old English, offered his thoughts about the book and revealed that he will be writing his own translation of the famous medieval poem.

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Andy Orchard calls the Beowulf edition by J.R.R. Tolkien an “amazing book but a terrible translation”

Orchard is the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, the same position held by Tolkien from from 1925 to 1945. Last week he visited the University of Toronto, where he had taught for 13 years, and spoke on topic of “Tolkien’s Beowulf and Lessons from History”. The freewheeling lecture touched on many topics, including Tolkien’s career at Oxford, the Beowulf manuscript, and even the chance discovery of a piece of writing by C.S. Lewis that had been hidden in a book for nearly 85 years.

Orchard calls the published version of Beowulf by Tolkien “a horrible, horrible, horrible translation” one that the English scholar never imagined would be published. The translation was made by Tolkien in the 1920s and intended it to be “crib notes” that was to be used by students he was teaching at Oxford.

Orchard believes that Tolkien never had the time to make a proper translation of the Old English epic, as he was kept busy with an extremely hectic teaching schedule, which included offering a course on Beowulf nearly every year. Moreover, his spare time outside of university was also taken up – this time by his writings of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and other works about Middle Earth.

Still, this edition of Beowulf, which was posthumously published over forty years after Tolkien’s death, is very valuable to scholars according to Orchard. He calls the end notes offered with the text “brilliant” and something that can be very useful to those who are studying the poem.

Orchard also gave some opinions about the Beowulf text, which survives in only one manuscript from the 11th century. He notes that the work was written by two scribes, and finds that first one – referred to as Scribe A – “an idiot” who made many mistakes and possibly had a very limited understanding of what he was writing. Orchard believes that when the second scribe – known as Scribe B – took up the pen part way through the text, it was because he was an older and wiser scholar. This scribe went back and made corrections to the first part of the work, and also finished it. Orchard adds that Scribe B eventually had to make his writing smaller and smaller so that it could he fit the poem into the remaining space of the manuscript.

Among the other topics that Orchard talked about was that while he was reading through a book on Old Norse at an Oxford library he came across a slip of paper with handwriting by C.S. Lewis, who also taught at that university and was a close friend of Tolkien. The note was originally written on November 20, 1929, and had been left in the book for decades.

Finally, Orchard also revealed that as part of his three-book deal with Oxford University Press, he will be writing his own edition and translation of Beowulf. Here is a portion of his own translation, the section where Beowulf defeats Grendel (lines 791-836):

The protector of Warriors did not wish by any means
to let the deadly visitor escape alive
nor did he count his life-days of use
to any of the peoples. There many
of Beowulf’s warriors brandished ancient heirlooms,
wanted to protect the life of their lord,
of the famous prince, for as long as they could.

They did not know, when they entered the fray,
stout-hearted sword-warriors,
and thought to hew on every side,
to reach the soul, the sinful destroyer,
that no war-sword on earth,
best of blades, would touch him,
but he had bewitched victorious weapons,
every blade. His parting from life
on that day of this life
had to be wretched, and the alien spirit
had to depart far into the power of fiends.

Then the one who previously had carried out
many wicked deeds, afflictions of the mind,
against mankind (he was in a feud with God)
discovered that his body would not support him
but the courageous kinsman of Hygelac
had him by the hand, while living,
each was hateful to the other. The terrible awesome assailant
suffered bodily wound; there appeared on his shoulder
a visible mighty gash: sinews sprang apart,
muscles burst. Triumph in battle was granted
to Beowulf, Grendel, mortally wounded,
had to flee from there under the fenland slopes,
to seek a joyless abode; he knew the more surely
that the end of his life he had reached,
the daily tally of days. Their desire had been fulfilled,
for all the Danes, after that deadly rush.
The one who had come from afar, wise and brave hearted,
had cleansed Hrothgar’s hall,
saved it from attack; he rejoiced in the night’s work,
courageous deeds. The prince of the Geatish people
had fulfilled his boast to the East Danes,
and also cured the hall-grief,
the evil sorrow, which they had endured
and had to suffer out of dire necessity,
no little affliction. That was a clear token,
once the battle-brave one placed the hand,
arm, and shoulder (Grendel’s grasp
was all together) under the spacious roof.

You can listen to Andy Orchard speak about some of these same topics as part of a paper he presented: ‘Tolkien’s Oxford: Books, Beer, and Beowulf,’ which was given at a conference held last month. Orchard’s lecture begins at about the 28 minute-mark of the the video:

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