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Beowulf manuscript from the Nowell CodexEarliest known manuscript
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
c. 700

Literary form

Literary, epic, mythology, adventure

Writing language
Old English

Author's country

Approx. 30,000 words

The monster and its interpreters

You may think that translations from Old English, in which Beowulf was composed, into modern English might not differ much from each other. The original was in English to begin with, wasn't it?

But just try reading the Old English passage quoted in the translation comparison below and you'll realize it is indeed a foreign language to modern English speakers.

You'll also notice a strange format to this poetry from the so-called Dark Ages: there's a break in the middle of each line, called a caesura. It's not always printed with blank space as in this example but the caesura is at least sensed in the lines. On each side of the caesura are two stressed syllables. At least one stressed syllable in the first half of the line begins with the same sound as—that is, alliterates with—a stressed syllable in the second half of the line. (Vowels starting words all count as having the same sound, namely an expulsion of breath.) Different effects are accomplished by alliterating different stressed syllables. For example, alliterating the first three syllables of the line and not the fourth will create a different rhythm than alliterating the second and fourth syllables. That's how Old English poetry worked, instead of using rhyme and metre like later English poetry.

Old English and four translations of passage compared ▽ Old English and four translations of passage compared △

Opening passage of Beowulf in Old English and four modern English translations:

Old English

Gewat ða neosian,   syþðan niht becom,
hean huses,   hu hit Hring-Dene
æfter beorþege   gebun hæfdon.
Fand þa ðær inne   æþelinga gedriht
swefan æfter symble;   sorge ne cuðon,
wonsceaft wera.   Wiht unhælo,
grim ond grædig,   gearo sona wæs,
reoc ond reþe,   ond on ræste genam
þritig þegna;   þanon eft gewat
huðe hremig   to ham faran,
mid þære wælfylle   wica neosan.


Went he forth to find at fall of night
that haughty house, and heed wherever
the Ring-Danes, outrevelled, to rest had gone.
Found within it the atheling band
asleep after feasting and fearless of sorrow,
of human hardship. Unhallowed wight,
grim and greedy, he grasped betimes,
wrathful, reckless, from resting-places,
thirty of the thanes, and thence he rushed
fain of his fell spoil, faring homeward,
laden with slaughter, his lair to seek.


With the coming of night came Grendel also,
sought the great house and how the Ring-Danes
held their hall when the horn had gone round.
He found in Heorot the force of nobles
slept after supper, sorrow forgotten,
the condition of men. Maddening with rage,
he struck quickly, creature of evil:
grim and greedy, he grasped on their pallets
thirty warriors, and away he was out of there,
thrilled with his catch: he carried off homeward
his glut of slaughter, sought his own halls.


Then Grendel prowled,   palled in darkness,
the sleep-warm hall   to see how the Ring-Danes
after beer and feasting   bedded down for rest.
He found inside   slumbering warriors
unready for murder.   Bereft of remorse
from love exiled   lost and graceless
he growled with envy   glared above them
towering with rage.   From their rest he snared
thirty hall-thanes   loped howling away
gloating with corpses   galloping the moors
back to his cavern   for a cold banquet.


So, after nightfall, Grendel set out
for the lofty house, to see how the Ring-Danes
were settling into it after their drink,
and there he came upon them, a company of the best
asleep from their feasting, insensible to pain
and human sorrow. Suddenly then
the God-cursed brute was creating havoc:
greedy and grim, he grabbed thirty men
from their resting places and rushed to his lair,
flushed up and inflamed from the raid,
blundering back with the butchered corpses.

Recreating this alliterative rhythm in modern English is difficult. Some translators give up altogether and render Beowulf into prose or into a more modern verse form. Others use some features of Old English verse, such as alliteration, but drop others, like the caesura.

Another issue with Beowulf is that Old English is inflected, which means the cases of the words—and thus the meanings of sentences—depend on word endings. In modern English, which is generally not inflected, we have to use more words to say the same thing. So it is not so easy to keep the same number of syllables in each line of the verses.

As the standard Old English work studied by Anglophone college students around the world, Beowulf has had many translations in the two centuries it has been available. We'll mention just a few of the editions you might come across.

Several translations appeared in the nineteenth century. The first complete translation into English was by John Mitchell Kemble in 1837. Kemble's is a literal, prose translation, rather rough-sounding to our ears. Benjamin Thorpe translated Beowulf in 1865 into verse with caesura, but also with very literal meaning and erratic alliteration. James M. Garnett was the first American translator in 1882; he used the Old English metre but again it's a rather dull alliterative translation. Better is the faithful John Lesslie Hall translation of 1892. Many of these and others of the period can be found on the Internet as their copyrights have long ago run out. They're all rather stiff and unimaginative though.

A more recent version, which is also freely available online, is Francis B. Gummere's translation of 1910. Gummere retains the alliterative rhythm and caesura (albeit unmarked). It's better but still heavy going to my ear. Check out some longer passages by Gummere to see what I mean.

The most lively translations have all appeared in the past forty or fifty years, it seems. I haven't read the Burton Raffel rendiiton of 1963, but it has been praised for being a rather free translation into metre roughly similar to the original.

One you are more likely to find because it is published for Penguin Classics—and the one I cut my own teeth on—is Michael Alexander's 1973 translation. It's alliterative verse with unmarked caesura, but relatively easy on modern ears, especially compared to earlier translations. It finds an acceptable compromise between slavishly following the original text literally (a trap too many earlier translators fell into) and being too creative in rewriting the lines in the modern idiom. It's been called a "taut, gritty translation in imitative verse, influenced by Ezra Pound, of whose poetry Alexander is a scholar". I couldn't say if the Pound connection is apt, but the work is indeed taut and gritty.

The volume that scholars seem to prefer though is Howell D. Chickering's 1977 translation into verse with marked caesura but only occasional alliteration. Talk about terse though. This is one of the few translations that uses almost as few words as the original. The edition includes the Old English and the translation on facing pages.

My own favourite is the 1991 translation by American scholar, short story writer and poet Frederick R. Rebsamen. Just compare the sample shown above, especially noting the chilling last line. The "cold banquet" is certainly poetic license as nothing in the original spells out a feast, uncooked or otherwise. But the poem certainly intends to indicate such barbarism and Rebsamen's choice of words gets this across to a modern audience, while also echoing the modern expression about revenge being a dish best served cold, bringing out that Grendel's barbarism is indeed an act of vengeance. Despite this creativity, Rebsamen's translation is also stylistically faithful to the original poetry, retaining the proper stresses, caesura, and alliteration.

The most popular recent translation however is by the late Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winning poet in his own right. Heaney uses his native Irish turns of phrases in the translation and they fit in surprisingly well (the Celtic meeting the Saxon?). He also uses conjoined words in phrases like "God-cursed Grendel", "great-shafted spear", "the wine-hall", and "gem-studded goblet" to keep his text compact. It comes across like the sprung rhythm of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, quite readable but with a coiled energy. Exciting, many readers find it.

One of Heaney's most startling innovations is in his translation of the very first word of Beowulf. In Old English it is "Hwaet", literally meaning "what" but used as an interjection to begin a story. Many early translators, perhaps influenced by the King James Bible, use "Lo," and then launch into their tale. Alexander adapts the Greek translator's tradition and starts with the commanding "Attend!" Rebsamen bravely adopts the enthusiastic "Yes!" Heaney however is the most colloquial with the even shorter "So." Like an anecdote that begins "So, this monster walks into a bar...."

Apart from straight translations of Beowulf you will also find various retellings of the story. Rebsamen, for instance, earlier published Beowulf Is My Name (1971), the same story as told by Beowulf in prose. Poet David Breeden has produced an illustrated adaptation available online; here's how he presents the passage shown above in translations:

One night, after a beer party,
the Danes settled in the hall
for sleep; they knew no sorrows.
The evil creature, grim and hungry,
grabbed thirty warriors
and went home laughing.

Good, fun stuff. By all means, read these. But they don't give the full Beowulf experience. For that you need a translation, not an adaptation.

Also keep an elfish eye out for the long anticipated translation by J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings author translated the complete Beowulf into prose, as well as the first quarter into verse, though it's never been published. An announcement was made in the early 2000s that it would appear in a few years. However the project seems to have stalled.

In any case, Tolkien gave a lecture, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" in 1936 that is considered to have salvaged Beowulf from historians, redeeming it as literature and greatly influencing other modern translators. That is available, both in book form and online.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotesText • Translations • At the movies