20 June 2011

First Post!

Why start a blog? I have never done so (although I kept a personal website for a few years) because I never found a good reason to have one. Blogs exist for social reasons, as far as I can see, keeping friends in touch with my life and activities...rather like like a Christmas newsletter. I never write those, either.

My excuse is to document a project that I started back in September or October 2010 and that I'm well into now. I can record my decisions, my progress, and my frustrations as they occur. Those few who would like to read these are welcome to do so. The fewer who want to comment or correct are even more welcome.

The project is a translation of the long poem Beowulf from the Old English language that was spoken a thousand years ago into a clear and fairly modern English. I started it accidentally, as a by-product of a book I was writing on poetry. I wanted to include a bit of Old English verse from Beowulf, wanted it to show off the Alliterative Verse that Beowulf is written in, and didn't want to pay for the rights to a recent translation. In the end, I translated a short section myself.

Surprisingly, although it is hard work, translating Old English poetry is fun. I would go to sleep trying to find a line that combined the proper meaning with the proper form, then wake up the next morning with the same line in my mind. I would be turning over alternatives as I rode a bus to work, insulated from boredom. I would feel a flash of pleasure as a solution to the line appeared. Then, on to the next problem. In the end, I decided to just keep going until the whole 3182 lines were done.

In a way, this is the worst of all times to translate the poem. A Nobel Prize winning writer, Seamus Heaney, my favourite living poet, published his translation in 2001. It became a best seller, according to the New York Times. That is a hard act to follow. And, if that were not bad enough, many of Heaney's predecessors are still in print (Chickering, Rebsamen, Alexander) and others have since entered into print (especially Sullivan and Murphy's excellent Beowulf from 2004). Can I find a publisher for my efforts? If I cannot, should I bother to self-publish it? If I do not publish, is it worth continuing the translation?

I think so. As I have said, there is a real pleasure in creating a good line. There is also pleasure in reading it again. Even if the translation finds no other readers, the translator is already a fan.

Beowulf is divided into sections called Fitts. In the next posting, I'll put my translation of the first Fitt and discuss it a bit.


  1. I think it is great what you are doing and will be checking back in. Glad you are enjoying it.

  2. I discovered this blog thanks to Sylvain Reynard who mentioned you in one of his blog posts. It's great that you have such a passion for translating such an important work.I think that translating is hard but at the same time satisfactory. And as far as a publisher goes, well, I'm sure sooner or later you'll find him. Trying doesn't hurt, right? And since you're enjoying translating that, I say keep it up. Efforts are always rewarded in one way or another. I'll check back in soon!