If there’s one thing that grinds my gears, it’s got to be questionable choices when it comes to Anglo-Saxon texts. All right, for everyone who didn’t just immediately fall asleep after reading that: lay off the meth, that shit will kill you. For anyone actually interested in what the hell I’m talking about, pull out your tweed jackets – you know, the ones with the leather patches on the elbows – and settle in for a literary bitch fest of pre-Vowel Shift proportions.
Anglo-Saxon, or as most people know it, Old English, is a real bitch to translate in to Modern English. This is because the language bears very little resemblance to the language we speak today as it comes from a period of time before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which is largely considered the point in time that the language began to adopt French influences from the conquering Normans.
In truth, Anglo-Saxon looked (and sounded) much more Germanic back then – unsurprisingly, since it’s a Germanic root language – but it also suffered from the same kind of variable case bullshit that you encounter in Latin where each god damned word needs its own declination, which makes you consume pots of coffee and cartons of cigarettes and shake and curse and — whoa, holy shit. I didn’t realize you could get PTSD from postgraduate work. Changing the subject.
Anyway, this whole rant was prompted because a friend of mine lent me his copy of The Further Adventures of Beowulf, a collection of short stories that fills in the blanks of the life and times of our favorite Geatish badass. However, the anthology starts off with a a version of the original Beowulf poem that is my absolute least favorite one: the John Earle prose translation.
Now, I don’t like slinging mud on an old Oxford don like Earle, and I’m not holding my MA from a state university up in an attempt to compete with someone who earned a degree that actually ranks above a PhD, but the translation reads like someone ran a set of stereo instructions through Google Translate.
It’s not really Earle’s fault, as professors don’t always make the best authors, JRR Tolkien notwithstanding – and even Tolkien’s no immune from this, as his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is enough to make me want to contemplate suicide, and I still can’t bring myself to finish reading The Silmarillion. Also, Earle wrote the translation during the Victorian era, which would have had an influence upon his word usage and translation decisions, and combined with trying to shoehorn Anglo-Saxon poetic literary style just turns it into a muddled, dated mess.
Take a look at the first paragraph of Earle’s prose translation, and you’ll see what I mean:
We have heard tell the grandeur of the imperial kings of the spear-bearing Danes in former days, how those Athelings promoted bravery. Often did Scyld of the Sheaf wrest from harrying bands, from many tribes, their convivial seats: dread of him fell upon warriors, whereas at birth a lonely founding: -of all that humble a beginning he lived to experience solace: he waxed great under the heavens, he flourished with trophies, till that everyone of the neighboring people over the sea were constrained to obey him, and pay tribute as was expected a good king.
This is exactly what happens when you let someone who is completely tone-deaf translate a piece of lyric poetry. The translation is sound, and accurate, but it’s the equivalent of trying to pedal a bicycle wearing a tuxedo and clown shoes: you try your hardest to look stately but it just ain’t workin’, man.
Now, look at this instead. It’s the same passage from Seamus Heaney’s verse translation:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns. There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes. This terror of the hall-troops had come far. A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on as his powers waxed and his worth was proved. In the end each clan on the outlying coasts beyond the whale-road had to yield to him and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.
Go ahead and try to tell me with a straight face that Earle’s translation is better.
No, really, go ahead.
Yeah, this is what happens when you let a poet and a goddamn Nobel Laureate take a crack at Beowulf. You get pure literary sex. Heaney has an ear for language that can’t possibly be denied – it bears remembering that the story of Beowulf began its life as a tale that was recounted by skalds and bards long before it was ever written down – and it makes Earle’s translation look weak and anemic in comparison.
To paraphrase from the late, great George Carlin, Earle’s Scyld of the Sheaf is a little old lady with her hands up in the air saying “fuck me,” while Heaney’s Shield Sheafson is a huge fucking dude screaming “fuck you!” while he barrels towards you with a bearded axe in his hands and a massive, murderous erection in his pants.
Or for those of you comic book nerds: Earle’s translation would have been illustrated by Rob Liefeld, while Heaney’s would have been illustrated by Frank Frazetta. Which one would you rather pick up?