Abstract: The review explores the work of Seamus Heaney (1999) in translating the epic Anglo-Saxon document, “Beowulf.” This translation is compared to the digital restoration work being done with the original documents found in the British Library. Both Heaney and the Beowulf restoration group (at the University of Kentucky) are working with identical documents; however, Heamus has translated the text into a more accessible story, and restoration experts such as Keirnan (1984) have worked to preserve the original document for study. This essay evaluates whether Beowulf is a “story” or an artifact of Anglo-Saxon history, and the significance of the difference between translation and restoration.
In one interpretation, the epic poem Beowulf can be understood as a story of heroes and monsters, good and evil. The poem tells about the accomplishments and deeds of a legendary Geatish hero who first rids the Danish kingdom of Hrothgar of two demonic monsters: Grendel and Grendel's mother. Later in the story, Beowulf meets a dragon, kills it with the help of Wiglaf, but dies of wounds.
No one knows who wrote Beowulf. The poem called Beowulf was composed some time between the middle of the seventh and the end of the tenth century of the first millennium, in the language that is today called Anglo-Saxon or English (Heaney, 9)
It was not really written in the way that literature is written now. It is an epic oral history, meant to be spoken aloud. Very few of these oral histories were ever written down, and very few of those that were composed to text actually survived into modern times. As such, there is no document that offers the original “Beowulf;” rather, what historians are left with are the documents that have survived history, documents that indicate a history of translations have been composed for centuries (Keirnan, Prescott)
Translating the surviving documents, then, is a work of translating the surviving translations (Heaney, 25). Heaney’s “New Verse Translation” is the work of replacing the ancient dialects of Anglo-Saxon into a modern English verse, thus making the reading of this epic history more accessible to today’s readers, changing the history of the myth into a poem for enjoyment.
In this regard, Heaney has provided the reader with a new version of an ancient myth, an English poem, a translation of Medieval versions of ancient Anglo-Saxon into Modern English. As such, the myth of “Beowulf” turns from an historical artifact and myth belonging to Medieval Anglo-Saxon history, and becomes a poem, or a story, where modern-day interpretations are invented for a modern-day audience. Critics so far have praised Heaney for this work recognizing the difficulty of the task, and appreciative of the changes made to the original language of the known existing documents (Kelly, 11).
Kelly’s review asks, “Who, today, believes in dragons? If the immense popularity of computer games is any indication, the answer is that many revel in and respond to the popular mythology of the malevolent dragon.” (11)
Heaney himself goes to great lengths to describe the process of translation, dealing with ancient texts and the arduous work of translating the languages without sacrificing the poetics of the original copies (Heaney, 18). For example, Heaney’s “New Version Translation” contains the following verse:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. (Heaney, 32)
In his Introduction to the work of translating the text, Heaney provides the original scripts he relied upon for determining the above passage:
Hwæt w’ G’r ‘Dena in g’ar-dagum Þ’ od-cyninga þrym gefr ‘non, H’ p’ æþelingas ellen fremedon (Heaney, 17)
There is no way for the lay-reader to understand the work that enabled Heaney to arrive at his “new verse” interpretations, although Heaney does admit, “I came to the task of translating Beowulf with a prejudice in favour of forthright delivery. I remembered the voice of the poem as being attractively direct, even though the diction was ornate and the narrative method at times oblique,” (Heaney, 19)
So, what the new interpretation offers is not a direct translation, but a poetic interpretation of an ancient myth, one that was transcribed to paper at some unknown time, and that has been since transcribed into what are recognized today as the surviving manuscripts (Keirnan, 31)
Scholars such as Keirnan and Prescott have been at working together with the surviving documents, and digitally preserving them for historical study (Prescott, 186). In this venture, the work of translation is not the primary focus, but instead the work of restoring accessible text pages from the original documents takes precedence. In this case, Beowulf is not regarded as a story about dragons, but as an ancient Anglo-Saxon artifact, represented through a series of ancient scribes and literary technicians of Medieval England.
Like the Greek epic, The Iliad, there is recognition that the “poem” itself represents an irretrievable path of rewritings, where an oral history has been changed over time into a documented poem. As such, Beowulf as an original does not exist. What do exist are the decaying pages currently housed in the British Library’s archives (Prescott, Heaney).
The difference between restoration, here, with digital technologies, is that the reader is given the opportunity to see the original documents, without risk of damage to the pages. The reader can see the history of the changes made to documents, trace the changes in language as Old English was subject to cultural changes in British history (Keirnan, 29).
The value, then, is different. When Heaney has provided an accessible poem that provides a “new verse” translation of a poem, Keirnan and his group are restoring the original documents of Beowulf for forensic study. Where Heaney assumes the seat of a poet, Keirnan and his group assume the role of historians.
Is there anything to complain about in Heaney’s New Verse Translation? Not at all – it is readable, very accessible, poetic, and lyrical in its own way, which is Heaney’s intention (Heaney, 14). By the same token, the restoration of the documents abandon the pretense of translation and instead provide more tangible evidence for study, as a way to better understand the history of the myth, and the history of the documents themselves. Beowulf, more than a story about dragons, is an artifact representing Anglo-Saxon history in ancient England. To translate it into a new poem is one way of bringing readers to the history of Beowulf, and Heaney’s poem is an adventurous interpretation. But it is not a translation of Beowulf: it is a re-interpretation of previous translations, and as such should be recognized as such.
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