Culture and language have always been, by their very nature, intertwined. Neither can exist without the other. As the world shifts perspectives and culture evolves, so must language evolve with it. Old tales become wordy and dated, hardly seeming relevant in modern society. In a world obsessed with instant gratification, our language grows ever condensed, and few tales can demonstrate this shift so well as Beowulf.
In order to appreciate the evolution of the poem toward our modern-day translations, it is important that that we look at the past. From the mead halls of old to the modern classroom, each retelling of the story demonstrates the subtle shifts in the culture that surrounded it. In an early translation by English scholar Thomas Arnold in 1876 titled Beowulf: An Epic Poem Translated from Anglo-Saxon Into English Verse, Arnold translates the description of the titular character’s journey as follows: “Then the foamy-necked cruiser, hurried on by the wind, flew over the sea, most like to a bird, until, about the first hour of the next day, the vessel with twisted stem had run [so far], that the mariners saw land, the sea-cliffs glittering, — steep mountains, large headlands.” Interestingly, Arnold made the decision not to pace the story as a poem, but rather to interpret it in a novel-like fashion. Epic poetry had fallen out of fashion; poets such as Tennyson tended toward shorter, less narrative verses, whereas authors like Charles Dickens experienced great success in the world of fiction narratives.
There was, however, a shift back toward poetic style by 1920s in America. Duncan J. Spaeth, professor of English at Princeton University, produced a new translation of Beowulf titled Old English Poetry: Translations Into Alliterative Verse with Introduction and Notes in 1921. It would seem that Spaeth made effort to be accurate to the Old English in his choice of words. For instance, Spaeth chose to preserve the kenning in the line, “O’er the swan-road, he said, he would seek the king” (200). In contrast, Arnold chose to alter the kenning to say “the wild swan’s path.” While a subtle change, it demonstrates Spaeth’s desire to remain faithful to the source. This was perhaps influenced by the technological advancements and increased materialism of the 1920s. As movies and popular culture began to expand, writers and great thinkers of the age grew more critical of society. Big names like Fitzgerald and Hemingway actively fought against the increased sense of individualism. In turn, writers strived for preservation and traditionalism in their works, and Spaeth’s translation of Beowulf is no exception.
The 1940s marked another major cultural shift with the beginning of World War II. Around this time, a tale like Beowulf would have been praised, as many such tales are during wartime, for its illustration of European heroism. We see this reflected in Charles W. Kennedy’s 1940 translation, where he writes, “Of living strong men he was the strongest / Fearless and gallant and great of heart. / . . . Brave was the band he had gathered about him, / Fourteen stalwarts seasoned and bold . . .” (196-206). Kennedy’s translation places emphasis on the bravery of the characters and the glory that is sure to come to them. Spaeth’s translation, on the other hand, offers only a brief line from this excerpt in terms of the characters’ heroism. Spaeth writes, “Gallant and bold, he gave command” (198). Arnold’s translation is similar, calling him only “noble and powerful.” Kennedy’s interpretation clearly reflects the desire for bravery and heroism in the face of war. It serves as a clear window into the mindset in Great Britain during the wartime.
Looking back at the various American translations, we come to the 1960s. The decade was one filled with controversy. Like Kennedy’s translation, the growing tension in the country in face of war (in this case, the Vietnam War) seemed to influence the choice of language. In Burton Raffel’s 1963 Beowulf: A New Translation with an Introduction by Burton Raffel, he writes, “. . . [Beowulf proclaimed] that he’d go to that famous king, / Would sail across the sea to Hrothgar, / Now when help was needed” (199-201). Unlike the previous translations, Raffel’s translation emphasizes Beowulf volunteering to help in a time of need. This reflects a common wartime mentality, and one particularly common among Americans.
Returning to Great Britain, we are presented with Michael Alexander’s translation, Beowulf: A Verse Translation from 1973. Alexander’s pacing and choice of words are perhaps more difficult to follow than previous translations when he writes, “He bade a seaworthy / wave-cutter be fitted out for him; the warrior king / he would seek, he said, over swan’s riding, / that lord of great name, needing men” (199-202). Alexander’s translation attempts to accurately mirror the pacing of the Old English translation. The lines are choppy, broken up by frequent punctuation. Due to the economic depression Britain faced in the 1970s, it is possible that this extremely traditional style was meant to reflect on more prosperous times. Often in the face of hardship the past is glorified, and this translation of Beowulf seems to be no exception.
Interestingly, in an 1982 translation by English author and poet Kevin Crossley-Holland, the excerpt depicting the journey was omitted entirely. This was perhaps an early signal of our culture shifting towards our desire for instant gratification. Rather than bother readers with more lengthy passages, Crossley-Holland made the decision to skip writing about the journey and instead gratify us with its result. With television continuing to increase in popularity and even the invention of the first personal computers and mobile phones, society required things to be more instantaneous than ever, and our literature at the time was not exempt.
Some of our most recent translations include those by Seamus Heaney and Roy M. Liuzza in the year 2000. Both translations mark the turn of the millennium, and therefore are both fresh and renewed in their approach of the aging poem. In Liuzza’s version, he describes the end of the journey: “Over the billowing waves, urged by the wind, / the foamy-necked floater flew like a bird, / . . . then the waves were crossed, / the journey at an end” (217-224). While maintaining its lyrical pacing, Liuzza’s version brought much of the poem into modern terms. But it is perhaps Heaney’s translation of the poem that does this most successfully:
Over the waves, with the wind behind her
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird
until her curved prow had covered the distance
and on the following day, at the due hour, those seafarers sighted land,
sunlit cliffs, sheer crags,
and looming headlands, the landfall they sought.
It was the end of their voyage. (217-224)
In Heaney’s translation we find a balance between the poem’s pleasing poetic style and simplistic language choices, making for a poem both curt enough for the modern ear and faithful to the original work. Overall, it is a translation well-suited for its time.
It is impossible to say how language will evolve in the future, but it is certain that it will do so. It only takes a brief glimpse at the past to realize its inevitability. Literature is a reflection of the times, and undoubtedly Beowulf will continue to evolve with future interpretations. In fact, we should wish for it to change. There is nothing capable of giving a work quite so much staying power as being relevant.
Alexander, Michael. Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973. Print.
Arnold, Thomas. Beowulf: An Epic Poem Translated from Anglo-Saxon Into English Verse. London: Longmans, 1876. Print.
Crossley-Holland, Kevin. Beowulf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. Print.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. Print.
Kennedy, Charles W. Beowulf: The Oldest English Epic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1940. Print.
Liuzza, Roy M. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Peterborough: Broadview Press Ltd., 2000. Print.
Raffel, Burton. Beowulf: A New Translation with an Introduction by Burton Raffel. New York: Penguin Books, 1963. Print.
Spaeth, J. Duncan. Old English Poetry: Translations Into Alliterative Verse with Introduction and Notes. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1927. Print.