Comparing Beowulf Translations

September 2011

Translations of famous works are abstruse features of the literary world.  The success of a translation hinges not only on the translator’s arrangement and choice of words but also on his or her understanding of the primary text.  The translator’s analysis in turn affects the reader’s interpretation.  Along with this, translators imbue their own style into the work so that some of the original author’s mark is lost.  Because of this reality, the reader experiences different prose or poetry each time he or she reads a translation.  Such challenges are especially apparent in translation of works as old as Beowulf, since only one original text exists and the culture that birthed it is extinct.  Additionally, Beowulf is a poem with a rhythm and form that uses kennings and litotes that cannot be directly translated.  Therefore, translators must make creative decisions when reshaping the poem into modern English.  The Sharon Turner, S. A. J. Bradley, and R. M. Liuzza translations each exhibit a strikingly different form, thus producing different reading experiences.

            The Old English construction of Beowulf places great emphasis on the line.  A caesura breaks each line in half, with each half-line, or hemistich, containing two stressed syllables and a varied number of unstressed syllables. To further complicate the line, stressed syllables and all vowels alliterate with each other.  Such a strict structure is difficult to reproduce, and the translations ultimately fail in recreating the precise poetic sound.  However, each deals with the challenge in strikingly different manners.

            The Bradley translation completely does away with the line, preferring instead a standard paragraph form.  This drastic change comes with many consequences, the most obvious being the sacrifice of poetic integrity.  While it takes away much of the audible pleasure, this decision may acknowledge that the original form cannot be fully translated, thus deferring respectfully to the anonymous bard.  Also, it succeeds in modernizing the work, making the text more accessible to readers, while still remaining true to narrative.

            Turner, on the other hand, takes an entirely different approach.  She employs short lines that each emphasize a single action or image, such as “Bear over the hills / The bright shields / The instruments of battle.”  Such emphasis may substitute for the stress syllables that were deleted, while the short length may attempt to emulate the half-line.  The concise style also bears in mind that the original version was meant to be sung instead of read, and fewer words are more desirable for a performance.  However, the short lines also force the reader’s eye to hurry along, giving the poem a rushed feeling that may not be appropriate, since the caesura mark is designed to slow the pace of the narrative.

            Liuzza’s translation, which uses medium-length lines, takes yet another stylistic approach.  While there are a few exceptions, the most emphatic words usually fall at a line break or before a punctuation mark in the middle of a line.  Some examples of end-line emphasis are “watchman,” “curiosity,” and “challenge,” and a few mid-line emphases include “weapons,” “appearance,” and “lineage.”  This structure remembers the importance of emphasis without struggling to find the exact number of stressed words.  Moreover, Liuzza’s version is the most successful with alliteration, such as “earl/earth,” “warden/watch,” and “honored/only/weapons.”  Though the placement of these alliterations may not precisely reflect the original form of Beowulf, it manages to retain a musical quality without sacrificing the narrative’s meaning. Though the emphasized words are Liuzza’s choice, this style best preserves both the poetic integrity and the narrative.

            In addition to developing a new form, translators may also decide to omit certain parts of a work.  The Turner translation deletes the part where the Thane of Hrothgar singles out Beowulf as the most distinguished warrior in the group.  This is the most important part of his speech, as it is one of the first times the text references Beowulf and begins building his superhuman character.  Omitting the lines that herald the hero’s arrival makes this translation less reliable.

            Both the Liuzza and Bradley translations contain the above scene, yet each have chosen words that lead to different interpretations.  In Liuzza’s translation, the sentry says, “Unless his looks belie him / his noble appearance!”  Here, the Thane acknowledges that he is judging Beowulf’s warrior prowess by his appearance, clearly showing that there is a chance he may be mistaken.  However, the Thane’s statement in the Bradley translation is more ambiguous.  “May his face, a peerless countenance, never belie him.”  The word “may” is weaker than “unless,” and Liuzza’s translation provides a higher degree of doubt than Bradley’s translation. Therefore, the reader may walk away with two different understandings of the Thane’s temperament.

            Word choice continues to affect the reader’s interpretation.  In the Liuzza and Bradley translations, the Geats are described bearing their shields down a “gangplank.”  This image clearly depicts the warriors disembarking from their ship.  Conversely, the Turner translation says that the Geats “bear over the hills.”  The word “hills” fails because it suggests they are coming by land.  This cannot be the case, as the Thane is guarding the “sea-cliff.”  Here again, the Turner translation comes up short.

            Another notable difference in the three translations is the description of the Thane’s thoughts when he first spies the Geats.  While they all concur that the sight troubles him, each rendering leaves the reader with a different impression.  Liuzza describes the Thane as “bursting with curiosity.”  The word “curiosity” carries multiple connotations, and the reader may interpret it as either excited curiosity or foreboding curiosity.  While the latter is more likely, the point remains that “curiosity” may not be the best translation of the Thane’s reaction.

            Bradley’s translation has better success with his description of the Thane. “An urgency to know what these men might be obsessed his thoughts.”  The words “urgency” and “obsessed” are more precise words than Liuzza’s “curiosity,” leaving no room for ambiguity or confusion on the reader’s part.  While Bradley’s words are stronger than Liuzza’s, Turner may have produced the best rendering with a more descriptive metaphor, “Instantly he broke the fire vessel / in the doubts of his mind.”  A fire vessel is an outdoor stone receptacle that contains a flame.  A literal reading of this line suggests that the Thane broke a fire vessel burning near his lookout post.  However, the next line says that this vessel is “in his mind,” signifying that the remark is figurative.  Thus, the image becomes one of a flame extinguished by doubt, showing that the Thane cannot conceive of whom these men are or why they have arrived.  This is a creative description that brings home the Thane’s anxiety and curiosity, and while it may not be a direct translation, it successfully maintains the spirit of the text more powerfully than Liuzza’s and Bradley’s translations.

            Translators are compelled by the constructs of language to make creative decisions that result in similar, yet ultimately different works.  The reader’s experience is affected by the translation’s form, emphasis, and word choice that inevitably diverge from the original author’s writing.  In the case of the Liuzza, Turner, and Bradley translations of Beowulf, each strives to maintain the spirit of the original text in their own way.  However, I feel that Liuzza’s translation is the most effective since it incorporates successful alliteration, a motif included in the original text, while still retaining the integrity of the story and the line.  The dissimilarity in the three translations helped me to see how my understanding of a work depends on a translator’s interpretation.