set down an Anglo-Saxon extract
(1) as it is in my Klaeber copy: this
is inserted as a scanned image because some characters may not be
readable by all browsers—as it is, I still had to improvise by using a
long ‘y’ with a circumflex (^) above it instead of the intended
macron (–), my own character set lacking in this respect;
(2) repeated with a word-under-word
(3) as a prose translation by John R.
Then you’ll find two
verse translations, first my own, then Heaney’s.
* * *
* * *
describes the haunt of Grendel’s mother:
There may be seen each night a fearful wonder,—fire on the flood!
Of the sons of men none lives so wise as to know the bottom. Although, pressed by hounds, the ranger of the heath, the
hart strong in its horns, may seek the forest, chased from far, he will
give up his life, his being, on the brink, sooner than he will plunge in
to save his head. That is
no pleasant spot!
There èach níght may a mán
a dréad wònder nóte
a fíre on the wáter.
There líves not the wísest
the sóns of mén
who has séen
might séek the dèep hólt,
his lífe he will fórfeit,
bréath on the édge,
ere he ínto it plúnge
sáve his héad.
That is nót a nìce spót.
night there, something uncanny happens:
water burns. And the water
alive has ever fathomed it.
too the heather-stepper halts:
hart in flight from pursuing hounds
face up to them with firm-set horns
die in the wood rather than dive
* * *
wanted my translation to reflect how the original was put together, so
it’s very close to it in structure.
Heaney’s is a different animal and reads more easily because it
follows modern English syntax patterns.
However, anyone familiar with Latin or German, or with an ounce
of common sense, will have no problem with the meaning as it comes
through in my version. Mine
may be viewed as a teaching aid, if you like, with the Heaney as the
thing you’d want to read for pleasure.
I’m being extraordinarily modest and disingenuous, you
understand. For there is a
In his article Heaney makes a great to-do about the impossibility
of doing justice to an original. This
is a commonplace, however augustly dressed up.
‘I suppose I am trying to find a way of talking about the liminal [ = ‘on both sides of the threshold’] … situation
of the literary translator, the one standing at the frontier of a
resonant original, in awe of its primacy, utterly persuaded, and yet
called upon to utter a different yet equally persuasive version of it in
his or her own words.’
I have some trouble with this commonplace.
I refer you to my essay Entanglement
of Text and Comment.
The most damage that was ever done to the idea of poetry was by
one of its greatest apologists, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose
definition, ‘prose = words in their best order;—poetry = the best
words in the best order’, has caused no end of preciosity and
confusion. One stands in
awe of primacy because before the original the poem did not exist.
But that doesn’t mean that no poem can be bettered, nor that
all translations are inferior betrayals.
Heaney speaks of Ted Hughes’ notion that the language of a
tribe conserves ‘the voltage of the whole group’s awareness
and energy’—‘the badge’ (to go on in Heaney’s
paraphrase) ‘of the group’s eccentricity when they come to
speak it as part of society’s lingua franca’.
He goes on quoting Hughes, who has something more interesting to
say than Heaney himself: ‘From the point of view of the lingua franca,
the solidarity system and mythology of any sub-group tends (sic) to
appear parochial, old-fashioned, limited and limiting—to be indulged,
if at all, only as local colour. […
On the other hand, to the sub-group] the lingua franca appears shallow,
arbitrary, empty, degraded and degrading, even destructive, if not
altogether meaningless’. Magnificently
put, but that was Hughes, not Heaney.
A good original poem is
therefore, I assume, like a rhapsody or shanty hatched from a sub-group
(ultimately from a sub-group of one, namely the vates)—if, that is to
say, the writer has rightly identified himself with his roots, if he is
not writing in the imperial jargon of the lingua franca.
But what is a translation
to do? Reflect the rugged,
local dialect? Or slide
smoothly into, and side with, the lingua franca?
Presumably Heaney would like to think he is on the side of tribal
angels, and his forays into his Ulster provenance is a trick to make us
think so. But he doesn’t really side with the tribal energy in
Beowulf. Compare his
easy-to-read translation with my version, more literal but truer to the
swing of the Anglo-Saxon. I
make no great claims for my own little scrap, nor for his.
Anglo-Saxon was a gutsy,
staccato language, and the poetry was highly formalised.
I don’t know if you realise what a miracle Beowulf is.
Our first written version is from circa 1000 AD, though the
original must have been recorded before the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and
the rest came over here. The
sophistication of the text, in its elaborate syntax, alliterative
verse-form, control of story and so on, is as great as anything you’ll
find in Latin. That was way
back in the pre-500 AD Danish glades.
But after that, was there an order of druids disguised as
Christian monks who kept the text alive? That side of things I know nothing of, nor do I know how much
is known—not a lot, I seem to recall.
The Christian additions
are flagrantly obvious and scholars can easily lay them aside.
(That is, there are layers, as you would expect with any ancient
text lovingly preserved.) What
strikes one is the deep affiliation with Old Norse, e.g. with the Grettissaga
(part of which I made into a narrative of my own once and recorded for
the BBC: see Glamsight).
As you know, there is more good Old Norse than good Anglo-Saxon.
The footnotes, end notes, appendices, glossaries (there are two)
and bibliography of my own copy of Beowulf (Klaeber, Heath &
Co, 1922) are detailed in the extreme and would warm your heart.
Look at this (I have used acute accents instead of macrons in the
hope they will be readable in more browsers):
mæg nihta gehwÞm
níð-wundor séon, / fýr on flóde.1
the mysterious fire may be nothing but the will-o’-the-wisp, it is
worth noting that “the burning lake or river . . . is one of the
commonest features of all, Oriental as well as Christian, accounts of
hell” (E. Becker, The Medieval Visions of Heaven and Hell
[Johns Hopkins Diss., 1899], p.37); cf. Angl. xxxvi 186 .—The subject
(indef. pronoun man) is left unexpressed, just as ‘he’ in
1367b. Cf. Lang. §25.4.
Nó þæs fród leofað … (þæt … wite).
A formula. Cp. Wonders of Creations (Gr.-Wü. iii I
54) 76f., Ex.
439 f., Chr. (i) 219 ff., Rid. 2.I f., Andr. 544ff., Hel.
4245 ff., etc.
Đéah þe hÞðstapa hundum ge-swenced, etc.
The elegant period might put us in mind of Virgil.
Cf. Arch. cxxvi 341
f.; also Tupper’s Riddles, p. 236 (on stag hunting among the
what I’d like to draw your attention to are various matters to do with
the art and language of the original.
First notice how many words in modern English were already in
place then, though a little disguised:
may, night, wonder, see, fire, flood, live, ground ( = Germ. ‘bottom’),
wit (from witan = to know), though,
heath, hound, hart, horn, holt, wood, seek, far, ere, he, on, that, the,
in, will, is (in ‘nis’ = ‘is not’),
stow (= ‘place’, found in place names).
Also possibly bairn. (‘Beorn’
here = man; but A.S. bearn’ = child; so did that mean ‘little
man’? My books don’t
might not know all there is to know about A.S. alliteration and the two
half-line lines which carried
it along. I’ve spent a lot of time on scansions of various kinds,
from Latin to French to G.M.Hopkins’ sprung rhythm and so on.
And I’ve reached one conclusion.
Someone once said that all grammars are leaky.
We can guess how many modern ones there must be by now.
When I last engaged with linguistics, in the 1980s, Chomsky had
changed his mind over his earlier models, and something called systemic
grammar was a good rival. Nothing
was sure. Now Artificial Intelligence approaches have cooked up
heuristic rules for making language translatable by—though of course
not understandable to—machines. The
same is true of prosodies2.
You cannot draw up a set of rules for any field without listing
the awkward exceptions. Still,
the rules are useful, they cover the main plot.
So here are a few things about the 4-beat Anglo-Saxon line of 2
beats + 2 beats with alliteration binding the two halves of each line. This is in no special order and I’m not looking it up, so
it’s not to be taken as academically spot-on, but it’ll give an
The acute accent (´)
etc in the A.S. replaces the diacritic over-score mark or ‘macron’ (–)
which may be easier for some web browsing programs and their available
character sets to read. In
the A.S. the presence or absence of a macron distinguishes vowel sounds;
in my modern version the ´ symbol (plus bold print) shows primary
stress or beat and the ` symbol to show secondary stress,
and the underscore mark to pick out alliteration:
There èach níght may a mán a dréad wònder nóte.
(1) Each 1st
half-line contains a word which alliterates with one in the 2nd
half of the same line.
mæg nihta gehwÞm
(2) In each half-line
there are 2 primary stresses.
There may also be secondary stresses.
The line from my own version, already quoted, shows this:
There èach níght may a mán a dréad wònder nóte
the major stresses are on ‘night’, ‘man’, ‘dread’
and ‘note’. Yet
when one speaks the line, words like ‘each’ and ‘wonder’ rise
upwards in pitch. Indeed,
no two people are likely to say this line in exactly the same way, even
though they may agree as to meaning and emphasis.
This is what I mean by ‘all prosodies are leaky’.
The artist knows what liberties he is taking with the underlying
format or template. It is up to the reader, quite properly, to agree or disagree,
to put upon the line his own gloss (meaning) and ictus (rhythmic
(3) Strictly, ‘sound’
and ‘steer’ are not perfect alliterations, but as the
Beowulf poet and editors didn’t care (gumena . . . grund),
why should we? We tend to
like rules, but they sneak away from under us.
(4) A vowel-start
alliterates with any other vowel-start (e.g. eat … owlish:
(5) There should be at
least one alliterating stressed syllable in each half-line.
a fíre on the wáter.
There líves not the wísest . . .
(6) Main alliterations
occur with primary stresses.
Others are bonuses. (Some
lines of mine show this; none in the original 8.)
(7) If, as regards the 2
stresses per half-line, you have trouble, e.g. in:
heorot hornum trum
reading ‘hornum trum’ as ‘HORNumtrum’
(8) Every vowel is
sounded: ‘f e o r r a n’.
And the r’s are trilled
The ‘y’ is like the ‘u’ in modern French ‘tu’.
(10) There are two
‘a’ sounds: /æ/ or /Þ/
as in S.E. ‘bat’—and /a/ as in Southern English ‘bath’.
(11) ‘c’ = modern
‘ch’, as in séce, pronounce ‘saycha’.
is as in modern German: the ‘g’ is hard ad in ‘guard’ .
(13) ‘h’ = modern
Scots ‘CH’ as in ‘loch’. Our
‘gh’ in ‘night’ comes from ‘H’ in ‘niHt’.
The ‘i’ is long ( = an ‘ee’ sound).
Both þ and ð were ‘th’ sounds: þ unvoiced as in modern
‘thin’; ð voiced as in modern ‘the’.
image, in case the characters don’t come through.)
That’s enough Anglo-Saxon.
I spoke of the leakiness of prosodies.
They are leaky only if you look upon them as inflexible.
The right approach is this.
Consider a prosodic line as a basic template with slots in it.
If the template is simply syllabic, all you have to do is count
the syllables in each line. Even
here you must make up rules as to how to tackle vowel-combinations.
You may think that ‘byre’ and ‘buyer’ are different in
your own speech, but don’t push it.
Dictionaries say they’re pronounced the same way.
One says ‘buy-er’ (2 syllables) and ‘byre’ (1
syllable) only when making a distinction.
In the dialect of my youth all ‘-ire’ words (fire, shire,
tire, etc) had two syllables. That
was not Received Pronunciation, so I had to change my articulation.
Apart from this sort of thing, syllabics is a doddle compared to
other metres. (Making
syllabic lines musical is another matter; that’s where art comes in.)
The big thing in English metre has been stress + syllable count,
as in 5 stresses in 10 syllables making an iambic pentameter.
This has been so extensively explored that there is a fury of
allowances: reversals of a foot at the start of a line or after a
| should fórce
| his sóul || só to | his ówn
| con-céit |;
eleventh syllable in a feminine ending; the odd anapaest ( – – / )
in on the sly; heavy syllables plopped in unstressed slots and light
syllables nestling in stressed positions, and so on.
Yet in spite of all these allowances one must sometimes bend the
iambic pentameter into a new shape, thereby initiating an aberration or
new rule, depending on your view. (G.M.Hopkins
allowed any number of unstressed syllables, and sometimes so many
juxtaposed stressed syllables that it’s hard to disentangle the
predominant five.) That is, once you have chosen your meter, and know how it
works, you can muck about with it as you like.
Indeed, it becomes impossible not to violate the system.
Try justifying every line in Virgil or Dante or Shakespeare
according to its ‘rules’; you’ll always find exceptions.
For browsers that cant read all the characters, simplified (but
near-enough) versions are:
maeg nihta gehwaem nith-wundor seon, / fyr on flode.
thaes frod leofath … (thaet … wite)
the haethstapa hundum
(back to 1)
maeg nihta gehwaem
(back to 3)
A search on the Internet for articles on ‘prosody’ throws up a lot
of references to linguistics and the study of inflections in natural
language from the point of view of Artificial Intelligence.
That is, the research is interested in making machines sound like
us, not in the clumsy and arcane rules of poetry.