29 June 2011

Fitt the Fourth (Our Hero Enters)

 In this short section, King Hrothgar is presented as helpless, and a mysterious "man of the Geats" hears stories of his plight. He is, we are told, the "mightiest man" alive at this time. He does not rush off half-cocked to help Hrothgar, but consults with older men who, in turn, consult the signs and portents before encouraging him. He then assembles a band of fourteen trustworthy comrades (with himself, they made fifteen), finds a ship, stocks it, and sails off. The journey to Denmark is one of the beautiful bits of description. When the man with no name (yet) disembarks in Denmark, a watchful coastguard immediately rides down to challenge him.

As happens in intense or important moments of the poem, the intensity is marked by more and more lines alliterating on three stresses instead of two. This is very hard to reproduce in a translation, so I do so where I can, and where I can't, I substitute by having two pairs of alliterating words. For example:

Three alliterating stresses: "The skiff scudded on, skipping over waves," (skiff, scudded, skipping).

Two pairs of alliterating stresses:  "found some comrades, full of courage," (found, comrades//full, courage).

For the record, it is much easier to find two pairs of alliterations than to find three alliterations, so I over-use this technique.


In this time of heartbreak Healfdene’s son
had whirling thoughts. His wisdom could not        190
restrain their troubles. The strife was too great,
that lay on his people, loathsome and long,
fiendish and fierce, the first among nightmares.

He heard news at home, Hygelac’s thane,
a good Geatsman, of Grendel’s deeds.
He was, of all men, the mightiest one
in that earlier day of earthly life,
princely and strong. He said to prepare
a walker on waves. The war-king who lived
over the swan-road he swore he would find,        200
since that mighty lord was lacking men.
The prince was not discouraged by his prudent friends
from facing this danger, though dear to them.
They pressed on the hero and praised the omens.
The good man had, among the Geats,
found some comrades, full of courage,
the finest of men, to make fifteen.
Seeking a sea-wood, the soldiers followed
an able seaman to the edge of land.

The short days passed; the ship floated on waves,    210
the boat under cliffs. They climbed aboard
and went to the prow. The waters turned
sea against sand. The sailors carried
into the boat’s bosom bright war-harness,
weapons and mail. The men pushed off
on a trip they craved in the trim craft.
The skiff scudded on, skipping over waves,
the foam-necked floater, flying like a bird
until the due time came, on the day after,
that the curving prow approached journey’s end.    220
So the sailors sighted the land:
sea-cliffs shining, shores towering,
headlands wide. Then wandering halted
at the sea’s limit. They leapt over the sides,
and the Wedermen waded ashore
and moored the sea-wood. Their mail rattled,
those battle garments. The band thanked God
that the Lord had stilled the sea-lanes for them.

Then he saw from the wall, a sentry of Scyldings
fulfilling his duty, defending sea cliffs,        230
that carried on gangplanks were glittering shields,
fighting equipment. Questions filled him.
To learn what manner of men these were,
he cantered his horse to the coastline below,
Hrothgar’s bondsman. He brandished his spear,
the great wood shaft, and greeted them as he should:
“What are you, then, wearers-of-armour,
“in shirts of steel, who steered this ship,
“setting a course across the sea-ways,
“here over waters, wearing helmets?            240
“I am coast warden, watching the sea
“so in the Danish realm no reaver could
“launch an attack from a longboat fleet.
“No-one has ever more openly come
“with linden shields, and, lacking the password
“our warriors say, you certainly lack
“our kinsmen’s agreement. No greater have I seen
“or more noble than a man with you,
“that mail-clad one; no commoner
“jumped up with a sword, to judge by his looks,         250
“so different from others’. But I must now
“learn your family, before allowing
“enemy spies who entered Denmark
“to go farther in. Foreigners, now,
“seafarers all, receive from me
“one simple thought: the sooner the better,
“tell me the land you left for here.”

28 June 2011

Could Beowulf Be a Role Model to Today's Youth?

Admittedly, the title of this post is more than a little ironic. The majority of today's youth (like the majority of yesterday's) would not read a 3182-line poem. If they know of Beowulf, it is probably through the 2007 movie (shudder!). It is worth asking, though, if a dose of Beowulf's character would more likely make them better people or vainglorious psychopaths.

Let us start with Beowulf's first claim to fame, that he gathered fourteen companions and sailed to the court of King Hrothgar to offer their help in ending Grendel's depredations, that had gone on for twelve years at this point. This was no light decision on Beowulf's part. He consulted the "wisest carls" for their opinion first. Their opinions plus his own weighed heavier than his king's warnings and worry. (We learn about the king's resistance only when Beowulf returns home).

Beowulf certainly hopes that he will gain honour for the risk he is taking, but is equally prepared to die. Hrothgar, though, believes that Beowulf has come to help because Hrothgar had once helped Ecgtheow, Beowulf's father. Hrothgar had settled a feud that had sent Ecgtheow into exile. In return, Ecgtheow had sworn a loyalty oath to Hrothgar. Now, though Ecgtheow was dead, Beowulf fulfilled the oath.

Beowulf's motivations were certainly mixed. He wanted to gain a reputation beyond his own kingdom, to pay back family obligations to Hrothgar, and perhaps to act from pity for old King Hrothgar, "for that mighty lord was lacking men." The first cause is understandable in a young man, even now, and the other two are still widely praised.

When Beowulf is preparing to face Grendel his plan is that only he and his companions will guard the hall and that he will "war without weapons." Is he being irresponsible in these decisions, and in his later decision to face the dragon alone? Or can we see them all as a desire to take responsibility for his own actions, win or lose? This sense of personal responsibility called "honour" is his standard for judging himself.  It simply outweighs any other consideration, including common sense.

If this seems strange it is because we, most often, judge an action as simply a success or a failure, correct or wasteful. I think that Beowulf did not. He decided on a course of action that would remain the correct course of action whether or not he succeeded. Success or failure was not in his charge anyway: that would be the choice of Wyrd (Fate) or Wyrd's Master (God).

Think of it in this way: if a person were being raped or mugged before you by several big people, and you had no cell phone to pass the responsibility on to a professional, then you would have two possible courses of action. One is to say, "I would just get myself killed if I tried to interfere" and to walk away. The other is to say, "This is wrong, so I will try to stop it." If we ask ourselves, "What Would Beowulf Do" in a situation where he felt that a wrong was being done, I think it is clear that he would involve himself, live or die.

A sense of honour leads to courage. It lets Beowulf risk his life to end threats to others' safety. It is, therefore, a necessary ingredient in social responsibility.

The other day, the title of a children's book by Joan Givner slyly communicated the same idea. The title character, Ellen Fremedon, is a young girl whose environmental activism is resisted by neighbours and the powers that be. Her name comes from line 3 of Beowulf--"hú ðá æþelingas      ellen fremedon"--and means "(they) accomplished great deeds." Violence need not be part of such deeds, but honour and courage must.

Beowulf shows characteristics that are admired and necessary. As I think through my path to becoming a better person, he could certainly stand as a role model for those characteristics.

26 June 2011

Another thought on the first sentence

As I've said, the first sentence of Beowulf is hard to get right in a way that combines satisfying ease of reading and satisfying accuracy. This time, I'm focussing on the second line. It says

þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon, 

The first word means "people's kings," and I have been using "their nobles" to approximate it. I want to have an "n" sound in there to alliterate with "we know their fame." Is this an improvement?

that nation's kings...

or, since we need to vary the rhythm a bit,

the kings of that nation

This isn't bad, but I haven't decided to make the change yet.

Upcoming posts: I want to create a post on one of Beowulf's most attractive characteristics: his way with words and the way he always says just the right thing considering whom he is talking to. I have another Fitt translated, of course. I have a few thoughts, too, about whether any of Beowulf's characteristics can still let him serve as a role model, or if the virtues of those early Europeans and English warriors are trapped firmly in Baltic amber, unable to affect us today. Join me later.

25 June 2011

Fitt the Third (Grendel's Visits)

He set out to scout, when the sky darkened,
the lofty hall and learn how the Danes
after feasting and beer fell into sleep.
He noted inside the nobles together,
sleeping after the feast; they feared no sorrow
nor hardship in life. Unhallowed being, 120
grim and greedy, he grew ready soon,
savage and reckless, and seized from their rest
thirty thanesmen. From there he retreated
homeward again, happy with spoil,
laden with corpses, looking for cover.

In dawn’s dimness, as day was breaking,
Grendel’s power grew apparent.
After their breakfast, they broke into wails,
a morning roar. The mighty king,
the sage ruler, sat wretchedly, 130
deeply mourning the death of his men.
When they had found the footprints there
that Grendel had left, grief overwhelmed them,
loathsome and lasting. No long respite then,
but he started anew on the night after
with more foul slaughter, and felt no regret,
firm in the hold of fighting and horror.
They were easily found, those who fared elsewhere
and at a safe distance sought to find rest,
to bed in the country when they caught the news, 140
were truthfully told, with tokens to show
the hall-raider’s hatred. Not hiding but fleeing
quicker and farther would quit that fiend.
In this way he ruled and wronged justice,
one against all, till all had left
that lordliest house. Long seasons passed,
a dozen winters of desperate woe
for the Scyldings’ friend, shocks from all quarters,
immense miseries. So to men came word,
to the sons of men was sent the news, 150
in sorrowful songs of the ceaseless feud
of Grendel with Hrothgar, the grudges he held,
cruelty and crime across many seasons,
perpetual war. He wanted no peace,
no deal to be made with Danish men
to stop life-destruction, end strife with gold.
On the king’s council none counted on payment,
on rich amends from murdering hands,
but the wretch went on, reaved without pause,
an ominous reaper1 of old and young. 160
Watching and hunting, he held through the nights
the misty moors. Men do not know
where in their haunts the hellrunes2 wander.
So, many offences that foe of mankind,
that monstrous outlaw, often committed,
awful outrages. He occupied Heort,
the adorned hall in the dark of night.
He was not compelled to kneel at the Gift-Throne,
the treasure, by God. He gave it no love.

That was a shattering of spirit to the Scyldings’ friend, 170
a long misery. Many often sat,
the mighty in counsel, mooting what plan
was the better hope for brave soldiers
to test against the terror’s strike.

Sometimes they prayed in sacred places
left sacrifice, and sent out pleas
that the soul-killer would send relief
from the people’s pains. They practiced this,
the heathens’ hope. Hell was in their minds,
their heart of hearts, not hearing of the Lord, 180
the weigher of deeds, unaware of God.
The Wonder-Wielder went unhonoured,
Heaven’s Helmet. Hurt comes to the man
who in a panic pushes his soul
into Hellfire’s hold: no hope of relief
waits for him there, but well is the man
who past his death-day approaches the Lord
and finds refuge in the Father’s arms.

1The Old English term here means “death-shade”; I translated it as reaper because we now imagine the spirit of death as a grim reaper.
2Runes are letters that were used in northern Europe. Runes stood for more than just sounds, though; they had secret meanings that were used for fortune-telling. Saying that Grendel is a “hellrune,” then, means that he is both mysterious and evil.
Although the "Song of Creation" in the second fitt is compatible with Christianity (specifically, it retells part of Genesis), the last lines of this third fitt are the first clear mention of the poet's God, who is explicitly contrasted here to the pagan gods of old Scandinavia, who would be Odin, Thor, and the rest. Those who think that this poem came from pagan times believe that this part must be a late addition to the poem. If so, the Christian amenders must have been busy throughout the poem because many lines refer to the Father, the Lord, Heaven's Helm, Wyrd's Ruler, and so on, and many more to God's enemy, but no lines name the pagan gods.
If the poet were a Christian, though, it was a strange kind of Christianity. He makes no reference at all to Christ. That fact is a mystery I cannot begin to explain.

23 June 2011

The First Sentence

The first sentence of Beowulf is one of the hardest in the poem. It spans three lines, and its word order is nothing that modern English could produce. Here it is in Old English.

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena      in géardagum

þéodcyninga      þrym gefrúnon·

hú ðá æþelingas      ellen fremedon.

The first word is "What!" Obviously, we need a substitute that indicates that attention is being demanded from the audience. "Listen" and "Hark" and "Lo" and even "So" have been tried. "Yo!" is a close equivalent, but too informal for an ancient poem.

After that we have this:

We, about the Spear Danes of former days,
the kings of the people, heard of their glory
how those nobles performed deeds. 

We have a problem using "The Spear Danes" because it is only three syllables, and we need at least four per half-line. If we include the "Hwaet!" to make four, we still have another problem: finding words to alliterate with "Spear" or "Danes" that fit into the next part of the line. You could have "The Spear Danes of days long past" or "The Spear Danes of days sped by" but that is about it.

Do we actually need the term, "Spear Danes," though? The same group is sometimes called the Bright Danes, the Ring Danes, the South Danes, and so on. The one constant is that they are always Danes, except when they are called Scyldings. "Spear" is more a description than a name, it seems: an epithet like "godlike Achilles." On the other hand, it does give an appropriately aggressive image of the Danes which we could retain like this:

Those fighting Danes of former days...

I like it! I'll make the change...

22 June 2011

The First (or Second) Fitt

There is a bit of a difference of opinion about how to number the Fitts (the sections that Beowulf is divided into). The first one has no number. The second is numbered "1." So, a translator has two options. He can follow the original numbering and call the first Fitt a "Prologue" or "Forward" or something similar, or he can call it Fitt 1 and renumber the rest accordingly. I'm doing the latter, so here is Fitt 2. I'll include a few comments after.



Then Beowulf stayed in the stead of Scyld,
a beloved king, long remaining,
famous among his folk, after his father passed,
his forerunner. He fathered a son,
lordly Healfdene. While he lived, he ruled,
grey-haired and grim, the grateful Scyldings.
His four children, the first to the last     60
woke in the world from the war leader:
Heorogar and Hrothgar and Halga the good,
and Yrse, I heard, was Onela’s queen3,
sweet bed-companion to the Swedes’ war-leader.

Then Hrothgar was sent success in war,
glory in fighting, so gladly his friends
readily served him and his retinue grew,
a powerful band. Then his purpose came
to order the making of a mansion house
a mead-hall bigger than men had built
so their sons should always ask them of it,    70
and within its portals portion out all
yielded by God, to young and old,
save common land and the lives of men.
I have heard the work was widely shared
by many folk across Middle-Earth
to finish this meet-place. He finally saw it,
created early. The craftsmen had made
the best of halls. Heort he named it—
he, a man whose words had worth in all lands.
He broke no vow, but provided rings,     80
riches at his feasts. There reared the hall,
horn-crested and high, but hateful waves
of flame would lash it. Not long after,
the edge-fury of father-in-law and son
must awaken from murderous hatred.
Then a hardy spirit could hardly master
the bitterness he endured, who bided in darkness,
who daily heard happiness spill
loud from the hall. A harp’s sound was there,
and the bard’s clear song. He sang what he knew,   90
told the story of the start of man.
He showed how God had shaped the earth,
that beautiful field, bounded by water,
triumphantly set the sun and moon
as lamps to shine on land-dwellers,
and with beauty enriched the regions of Earth
with limbs and leaves, and life as well
for each kind of being that breathes and moves.

So the lord’s men lived happily,
contentedly, until the time that one     100
fashioned horrors, a fiend of hell.
Grendel was the name this grim soul bore,
a hated marsh-walker inhabiting moors,
ruins and fens, the realm of fiends.
The wretched creature ruled since the time
the Creator for a crime condemned
all Cain’s kinsmen. A killing brought vengeance
at the Almighty’s hand, the murder of Abel.
From his deed, no joy, as he was driven far
by Heaven’s King from human kind.     110
He brought to life a loathsome brood:
ettins and elves, orcs of the sea,
and fierce giants, who fought with God
as ages passed. He repaid them well.


After wrapping up what is left of the Royal Danish line of descent, the poem introduces Hrothgar. He is a major character in the first two thirds of the poem, the king that Beowulf comes to help. We learn that he is a man deserving respect as a fighter and leader. He has the other Germanic virtue, too, of generosity, so he builds his palace so that he can share his wealth.

This fitt introduces a constant theme in the poem: if something is introduced as wonderful and good, we get a peep into the future to see how it will not last: The poem paints the hall as a marvel, so it immediately tells us that it will be plagued by violence and will burn down. Keep an eye open for such two-sided descriptions.

The name of the hall is given as Heorot or, sometimes, Heort, a word that remains in modern English as "Hart," a male deer. The building is sometimes described as being decorated with deer antlers, so that may be the origin of the name.

Lines 90-98 are sometimes called "The Song of Creation." I think they are lovely. The "limbs and leaves" in line 97 are tree limbs. Animals are dealt with in the next line.

Fitt 2 has introduced Hrothgar and Heorot. It concludes by introducing us to Grendel, who will plague them both. Grendel's evil is explained in a biblical fashion by introducing him as a monstrous descendant of Cain, the first murderer, cursed by God. Once Hrothgar and Grendel are brought together in Heorot, the last major character will enter the story: Beowulf himself.

21 June 2011

The Book Itself

Beowulf is the only epic in Old English that survives, and it survives in only one copy. The problem with that is a single book is vulnerable. It can be lost, burned, buried, or put to use in an outhouse. Certainly, the book holding Beowulf has had its life-threatening adventures. Here is the most dramatic.


A Fire in the Library

On October 23, 1731, a man stumbled out of one of the great homes of London, wearing a night robe and clutching the most valuable possession in his care. He was Dr. Bentley. The house was Ashburnham House, which was unfortunately well named, because it was burning up. The book was a copy of the Bible that had been hand-written twelve hundred years before.
Dr. Bently was the librarian for the Cotton Library, which was burning up with the house. Choosing one book to save must have been as painful for him as choosing one child to live. The library held so many irreplaceable treasures that it was itself an irreplaceable treasure.
At first, it was the personal collection of Robert Bruce Cotton, 1st Baronet, (1570/71 to 1631) that he kept in a room 26 by 6 feet (7.9 by 1.8 metres). At one end of each bookshelf was a printing press with a carved head of some famous person from Classical times: Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, the minor Roman emperor Vitellius, and eleven more. To find a book, one would be directed to the bookshelf marked by a particular head, a specific shelf designated top to bottom by a letter, and a book indicated by a number showing its position on the shelf. For example, a book might be catalogued as Cotton Nero D iv: the fourth book on the fourth shelf from the top of the bookshelf with the Emperor Nero beside it. At the time Robert Cotton's death, the library had almost a thousand volumes.
The books and manuscripts on those shelves were, in many cases, ones that had been sold when King Henry VIII had confiscated the property of the monasteries throughout the United Kingdom between 1536 and 1541. Some of these monasteries had been founded in Anglo-Saxon times, many others in the Middle Ages, so their libraries held most of the surviving books in Old English and Middle English. A few items were saved for the King by John Leland, and others by a few private collectors, but others were sold individually for the value of the precious metals and stones on their covers, and the rest sold in bulk. According to John Bale, writing in 1549, pages from these were used as toilet paper, to clean candlesticks or to polish boots. Still, many valuable books and manuscripts had been neither destroyed nor collected in Robert Cotton's time, and he set out to locate and purchase them.
Cotton became a politician in 1601, during the reign of James I. His dual love of books and politics caused problems for both himself and his library. Although the library was popular with lawyers, scholars, and politicians, studying it deeply convinced Cotton that kings should trust parliament's advice in matters “of marriage, peace, and warre.” Writing this opinion in 1628 put Cotton on the enemies list of King Charles I. He was, therefore, charged with treason in 1629, and his library was closed to all use in 1630. Cotton died, according to some “of a broken heart,” in 1631.
The library was not returned to his family until after the English Civil War, the reign of Oliver Cromwell, and the Restoration of Charles II. In 1700, Cotton's heirs donated it back to the government and country, which did not demonstrate much gratitude by looking after the gift. Cotton House slid into ruin, so the library was then moved first to Essex House, which was judged to be a fire-trap, and then Ashburnham House, which was one.
Dr. Bentley woke up to the smell of smoke on that 23 October 1731. The librarians had to smash bookcases and throw books and manuscripts out of the window to save as many as possible. About a quarter of the collection was destroyed or damaged. One of the damaged ones, luckier than most, was Vitellius A.xv. Its pages were smoke-damaged and their edges, blackened, crumbling, and sticking together. Parts of some words are missing at the ends of lines. However, this book is the only source we have of the long poem Beowulf. 

Whatever Fitts

Before I give you the first part of my Beowulf translation, let's talk about why it is poetry. There's no rhyme here, no definite number of syllables per line, but this is not free verse. It has a very strict form.

First, if you look at any line you should see a pause near the centre that divides it into two halves. Sometimes a period divides the line, sometimes a comma, and sometimes the two halves are just two different phrases. We can be fairly relaxed about what creates the pause.

Next, read a line aloud slowly, with expression, remembering to pause where you should. You should notice that there are two stresses in each half line, making four in all. The third stress alliterates with the first one or the second or both. That means that the stressed syllables begin with the same sound. (One note: the Old English thought that any vowel alliterated with any other, so an e could be paired with an a, e, i, o, or u, for example. This makes life much easier).

Have a look at the first sentence of the poem to see how this works.

NOW. Spear-carrying Danes in days long past,
and their nobles too, we know their fame,
and how they earned honour through deeds.
  • Line 1, the pause is between "Danes" and "in." The third stress in the line ("days") alliterates with the second "Danes." Ignore the NOW. That's a call for attention, like beginning a rap with "Yo!" Think of it as being outside the line.
  • Line 2, the pause is between "too" and "we," just at the comma. The third stress ("know") alliterates with the first ("nobles").
  • Line 3, the pause is between "earned" and "honour." No, it is not as clear as the others. The third stress ("honour") alliterates with the second ("earned") by the rule that all vowels alliterate with each other.
There are more rules, of course, controlling where the unaccented syllables can go and how many are allowed. The curious can look up "Sievers' Types" for more information. I do my best to follow all the rules, but bend them when I have no choice.
The first section of the poem tells the history of the Danish royal family, with emphasis on their heroic founder. Since his name is Scild Scefing, I should mention that it is pronounced "Shild Shefing." ("Sc" is "Sh"). Heaney translated the name into its English equivalent, "Shield Sheafson."

The "Beowulf" in line 18 is not the Beowulf of the title, but another with the same name. 

Here, then is Fitt 1, as best as I can do it.


NOW. Spear-carrying Danes in days long past,  1
and their nobles too, we know their fame,
and how they earned honour through deeds.
Many times Scyld matched against foes
of many tribes tore up mead-benches,
overawed earls, after he was found
an orphan alone; later joy found him.
Under the sky he grew great and world-honoured
till every neighbour nearby or distant
over the whale-road offered submission    10
and gave him gifts. How good a king!

After, he was blessed, for an heir was born,
a son in the yard, sent down by God
to cheer the folk. He had felt the pain
all had endured without a lord
so long a time; the Lord to repay them,
Miracle Maker, marked him for fame.
Beowulf was renowned—the name was spread
of Scyld’s offspring through all the North.
So a youth should act: earn through good deeds,   20
and finest gifts for his father’s supporters,
allies for his old age, anchored to guard him,
willing comrades when war has come
standing at his shoulder. Sterling behaviour
is, for most peoples, the path to success.

Scyld fared once more at the fated hour
setting off in his prime, safe in God’s care.
They bore him off to the ocean waves,
as he had bidden them, his best comrades,
while he could muster words, their admired friend,   30
beloved lord, long the ruler.

Riding in the harbour, a ring-prowed ship,
ice-slicked and ready, right for a hero.
They laid him down, their dear ruler,
the ring-sharer in the ship’s centre,
the mighty one by the mast. Much was the wealth there,
fineries and armour fetched from great distance.
I have never heard of handsomer keels
with bright weapons and battle-wear,
broadswords and byrnies. On his breast there lay   40
many treasures to travel with him
over the ocean’s flood, float beyond sight.
These final gifts furnished by the thanes
were less in no way than the wealth once left
long before by the men who let him drift
lost on the waves, a lonely child.

But when they stood a standard of gold
high over head, handed him to the sea,
hove him over reeds, their hearts were sore,
their minds mourning. Men can never     50
confidently say—counsellors in halls,
heroes under heaven—whose hands took that cargo.

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.