By Thelma Trujillo
The tenth-century epic poem, Beowulf, is the longest surviving poem in Old English. Before the poem was transcribed in a single manuscript, now known as “The Nowell Codex, it was orally transmitted, which explains the alliteration, metrical structure, and memory aids alluding to previous events. At a surface-level, the poem is about a Geatish warrior who is employed to kill monsters, becomes king, and then gets killed by a dragon. Moreover, the poem also gives us some insight into the sociocultural context of early medieval England—the poem considers the politics of the comitatus bond (the relationship between lord and retainer), the history of several Germanic tribes, and as some scholars note, the transition from paganism to Christianity.
Since the manuscript is written in Old English, and because the text itself has been subject to emendations, rebinding, and even, a fire, for most readers, the poem is not accessible. Luckily, there are dozens of Modern English translations of Beowulf. The following three translations are a good place to start:
First published in 1977, this translation is intended for readers that have not studied Old English. Chickering provides lots of introductory material like context on the poem, its style, structure, history, and over 100 pages worth of commentary about the text. Even more compelling, Chickering includes a transcription of the Old English text, a facing translation, and a guide to reading the poem aloud. So, readers and scholars of Old English might also find this cross-comparison translation useful. For the most part, this translation is good and captures the essence of the poem; however, it is not a literal translation (though a literal translation is hard to come by). Chickering does not imitate the Old English alliteration and focuses on reproducing the meaning of the poem using the following form “four stress line with a heavy caesura, using alliteration and assonance only sparingly.” This form, he suggests, makes the most sense to Modern English readers. Consequently, this adapted form prevents this translation from being a true interlinear translation and is off by a few lines in either direction.
This translation is available as a paperback and can be purchased on:
This translation is also intended for readers who have not studied Old English. Risden provides a good amount of introductory material about the poem, such as the context of its composition, the culture from which it emerged, and some concerns scholars have had about the Beowulf text. Along with a brief explanation about Old English language, spelling, and pronunciation, Risden cites several known analogues for the poem (Bear Son’s Tale, Hrólfs saga kraka, and Tacitus’ Germania, to name a few) and includes a selected bibliography that students can use for further study. Risden maintains the original form of the poem as much as possible by using two alliterating half-lines; however, since he smooths out the quirky Old English syntax like the dangling modifier, this translation too is not interlinear. Nonetheless, this is a great, accessible translation, especially for readers who are encountering the poem for the first time and do not want to be overwhelmed by the temporal, cultural, and language barriers.
This translation is available as an E-book and can be purchased from Witan Publishing.
This translation is furthest from a literal translation of the poem, but it still has much to offer. Indeed, Headley’s translation maintains the main themes and scenes of the original poem but pokes a couple of holes in the text to emphasize and make space for new commentaries, such as the construction of hypermasculinity and the presence of gendered violence. Headley imitates the alliteration, kennings (compound-words), and rhyme scheme of the poem; however, she does so by fusing this Old English form with contemporary idiom and slang. Since this translation does not provide an extensive background about the original poem, it would be good to read as a follow-up to the previous two translations mentioned. It is also a great poem to read on its own. If you would like to listen to this translation, you can tune-in to Grand Journal’s marathon reading of the text, featuring twenty-five different readers including Neil Gaiman and Jeff VanderMeer.
Comparing the translations
To give you a better idea of how these translations compare, I have included a section from the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. Here, Grendel’s mother attempts to stab Beowulf with a knife; however, because of his chainmail and God’s power, Beowulf remains unscathed.
She sat on her hall-guest and drew her broad knife,
a sharp weapon, to buy back her son,
her only kinsman. Across his chest
lay the iron net; it saved his life
as she hacked and stabbed, would give her no entry.
The warrior Geat might have perished then,
Ecgtheow’s son, somewhere under the earth,
had not his war-shirt given good help,
hard ring-netting, and holy God
controlled the fight, the mighty Lord,
Ruler of the skies, decided it rightly, (lines 1545-1555)
She then sat on her hall-guest and drew her knife,
Broad and bright-edged; she wished to avenge her son,
her only progeny. On his shoulder lay
the woven breast-net: that saved his life.
It withstood entry against point and edge.
Then Edgetheow’s son had perished
under the earth, champion of the Geats,
but the battle-byrnie furnished help,
hard war-net, and holy god
brought him battle-victory: the wise lord,
ruler of the heavens, decided it rightly, (lines 1545-1555)
She bent over his breast, held the hall-invader
hard to the stones, and drew a long knife. The mere-wife
meant to avenge her son, her sole heir, but Beowulf’s mail
shielded him, his shoulder safe in the sclerite of some
smith’s genius, links staying locked to bend her blade.
Ecgtheow’s heir, would’ve been filleted, recategorized
as MIA, and left to rot in her cavern, had not his suit
saved him. That, too, was God’s work.
The Lord, maker of miracles, sky designer (lines 1545-54)
All three translations essentially have the same meaning. The intention behind the violence of Grendel’s mother and the reasons for Beowulf’s survival are the same: Grendel’s mother wants to avenge the death of her only son but is prevented by Beowulf’s armor and divinely sanctioned victory. There are a couple of nuanced details that might have been caused by case and word order, but for the most part, the translations only vary in placement and descriptors. For example, Chickering notes that the chainmail lay across Beowulf’s chest, while Risden and Headley mention that the mail was on his shoulder protecting him from Grendel’s mother’s jabs. Chickering does not use kennings at the start of every half-line like Risden does and Headley barely uses them at all. On the other hand, Headley adds even more details to the poem, the very first being the description of Beowulf as a “hall-invader,” rather than hall-guest. She also adds that the chainmail was made by “some smith’s genius,” a labor that provides an interesting contrast to “God’s work” in the following lines.
Thelma Trujillo is an English PhD student at the University of Iowa. Her research interests include Old English literature, the cult of saints, and the intersection between performing female gender and sanctity in early medieval England.