Review #1: On Two Translations of ‘Beowulf’

1. Heaney, Seamus. 2001. Beowulf:A New Verse Translation (bilingual edition, paperback). New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

2. Tolkien, J. R. R., ed. Christopher Tolkien. 2015. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell (paperback). New York: Mariner Books.

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In the year 2016, I have read the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf twice. Being unable to read Old English (a.k.a. Anglo-Saxon), I have read ‘translations’ in modern English. To be more clear: I have read two different versions: one by Seamus Heaney (best-known for his poetry), and one by J. R. R. Tolkien (best-known for The Lord of the Rings).

1. Heaney’s Translation. The first version that I read was a ‘bilingual’ version by Seamus Heaney. It had the original Old English on the left-hand page, and Heaney’s modern English rendition in verse on the right-hand side facing it. Even though I do not know any Old English, I still am really happy about the fact that this version is bilingual. Also, the formatting leaves plenty of space for readers’ annotations (on both sides). The book includes very useful marginal notes (about one every page or so) that broadly indicate the scene, plot, etc. In terms of formatting, I very much like this version; but I also want to touch upon the issue of translation.

Heaney’s translation is very readable, but only carries with it a hint of the tone of an epic from the distant past. Heaney’s vocabulary choices for this translation seem to generally favor words of Germanic and Nordic origins over words of Classical and multi-cultural origins; however, his style seems to err a little too much on the side of simplicity. But most of all, I want to emphasize the fact that Heaney’s translation is very easy to read, which makes the book very engaging; after I started reading it, I simply could not put it down, reading the entire thing in a few hour-long spurts over the course of an afternoon.

2. Tolkien’s Translation. The second version of Beowulf that I read was a prose translation by J. R. R. Tolkien, published posthumously by his son Christopher. J. R. R. Tolkien had written in prose, yet the editors of this book still managed to make it match up line-for-line with the original poem, which is a remarkable feat, and one for which I am extremely grateful. (My heart leaps for joy when a verse translation matches up line-for-line with the original poem, and here we have a prose translation that does that!) Tolkien’s translation is slightly more difficult to read than Heaney’s, seemingly because it is more literal. Liberated from the restrictions of meter, it seems that Tolkien’s translation strives to imitate the original as closely as possible, even copying the word-order in some places. Since Old English grammar was expressed mainly by word-endings, while modern English grammar is almost solely concerned with word-order, that makes for a few sentences and phrases here and there that are really hard to make sense of.

Despite these difficulties, I still very much admire Tolkien’s translation, because it is so literal and seemingly captures the setting, attitude, and atmosphere of Beowulf more so than Heaney’s translation. The texts of lectures that are included in this book are really fascinating, and are probably very useful for students and scholars of Old English/ Anglo-Saxon literature. Lastly, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sellic Spell, a Beowulf fan-fiction (of sorts),  is definitely a worthwhile read–both for fans of Beowulf and for fans of Tolkien.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I think I would give Seamus Heaney’s version an 8.0, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s version an 8.0 as well. This is taking into account not just the translations themselves, but also the formatting, commentaries, and other such features contained in the respective books. I simply cannot force myself to choose one over the other. They are both books that I enjoyed reading and will probably re-read in the future.