Jun 22, 2010


I've been reading Seamus Heaney's brilliant bilingual edition of Beowulf on the train to work every day. Not just because the ladies dig it (the one next to me this morning kept looking at me and sighing as I flipped through my Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary), but also because the Anglo-Saxons are awesome.

Heaney does a great job in his translation, managing to both keep true to the intended meaning of the text (or what he thinks is the intended meaning) and the cadence of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Unlike modern English poetry, which, at least in the public's mind, rhymes, the Anglo-Saxons had a big thing for alliteration. So, in each line, you'll see either one or two major sounds repeated across the caesuras.

For example, in the opening line of Beowulf:

Hwæt! Wē Gār‐Dena   in geār‐dagum

you can see that the G and D repeat between Gār‐Dena and geār‐dagum.

Mr. Heaney maintains that very well (e.g. "So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by"). However, I do take issue with his very first word--the indelible hwæt.

Hwæt is a strange word, because in time its meaning has altered. You can easily see how it became our modern 'what' (similarly hwā=who, =how, hwȳ=why, and hwǣr=where). In fact, it is often translated as 'what'. However, at the beginning of a heroic poem such as Beowulf, the meaning is far different.

Epic poetry in the Anglo-Saxon world was similar to epic poetry in the Greco-Roman world, at least insofar as the beginning of the poem was used as a call to attention for the listener. The Greeks used the 'invocation of the Muses' (e.g. "μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος" ("Sing, oh Goddess, of the wrath of Peleus's son Achilles")). The Anglo-Saxons used hwæt.

In his introduction, Heaney describes how he came about translating hwæt as 'so':

Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with "lo" and "hark" and "behold" and "attend" and--more colloquially--"listen" being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle "so" came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom "so" operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention."

OK. I get what he's saying. It's true that 'so' obliterates previous discourse, an interjection used to move onto the next topic. However, I would disagree with his contention that it is used as 'an exclamation calling for immediate attention.' 'So' is a word utilized, in the sense he is attempting, as an intermediate word. I begin a story with 'so' as either a way to pull someone in from awkward silence or to move to a new subject, having been discussing something different. I don't think that's what the author of Beowulf is seeking here. 'So' does not call for attention; it interjects. Hwæt in the opening of the poem should be bold, loud, and forthright, not timid.

The best translation I've seen of it--just the word hwæt, not the entire poem--is that of "What ho!" I think that it does an excellent job of grabbing the listener's ear and of reflecting the seafaring nature of the culture. Sure, we don't say 'what ho' colloquially anymore. However, we hear it enough to be able to understand its meaning and connotations.

So, below, is the original Old English of the first few lines, the literal translation, Seamus Heaney's translation, and my translation.

Hwæt! Wē Gār‐Dena   in geār‐dagum
þēod‐cyninga   þrym gefrūnon,
hū þā æðelingas   ellen fremedon.

Literal Translation:
What. We [of the] Spear-Danes
(gp)   in yore-days
[of the] thede-kings (gp),
   power heard (2nd pl. pret.),
how the aethelings
   brave deeds did.

Seamus Heaney's 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.

My Translation:
What ho! Of the spear-Danes
   in yore days,
of their folk-kings'
   fame we heard,
how the lords did
   daring deeds.

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