Monday, 17 September 2012

Thomas Meyer's Beowulf

So it's been a while since I last wrote something on here, but I'm turning over a new leaf with the beginning of the semester. Expect to see more posts on teaching now that I officially have a composition and rhetoric class all of my very own. There will still be plenty of medieval here to see too -- starting today with a discussion of Thomas Meyer's Beowulf, newly published by Punctum Press.

Many of you have probably heard the news: there's a new Beowulf in town. What do I think? I think it's better than Heaney's. Let me repeat that: I think this version is better than the one by the Nobel laureate. I'll explain.

As far as I'm concerned, there are two kinds of Beowulf out there. On the one hand you have hyper-accurate scholarly translations and editions. Of these the generally accepted king is the one that has come to bear the name of its originator: Klaeber's Beowulf, which I believe is now in its fourth edition. There are others, more or less useful for other specific purposes. I prefer Liuzza's prose  verse translation (1) for beginners, because it's accurate enough to be useful for scholarly purposes without weighing ten pounds and being very intimidating, but there are others to be sure. The first type are necessarily prose translations: as Bede said when paraphrasing Cædmon's hymn, "verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another, without losing much of their beauty and loftiness."

The other type are the poetic translations. These aren't ever going to be accurate enough for scholarship, but have other merits, chief among which is their ability to convey (if done well) something of the artistry of the original that escapes prose translations.

For this type judging the best edition is a matter of taste -- who can say what makes a poem more amenable to one person than another. Each poet -- for this type of translation requires a poet -- makes choices. What meaning will be sacrificed in order to meet the requirements of meter, alliteration, etc.? To be sure, even prose translators must make some of these decisions, but for the poet there are many many more.

Meyer's poem, for me, captures something visceral about the original that escapes even the best prose editions. It occupies a peculiar meeting place between the wild lunacy of Ginsberg's "Howl", the impassioned restraint of one of Thomas's villanelles, and the original "Geat epic" in Old English. It also, in its formatting, captures something of the performance, of the way we think perhaps it would have been, could have been performed in Old English. Look:

Especially for the last part of the passage, some comparison is in order. 

Here's Heaney's:

Then as dawn brightened and the day broke
Grendel's powers of destruction were plain:
their wassail was over, they wept to heaven
and mourned under morning...

The Old English:

Ða wæs on uhtan     mid ær-dæge
Grendles guð-cræft     gumum undyrne;
þa wæs æfter wiste     wop up ahafen,
micel morgen-sweg.     (ll.126-129a)

And Liuzza's prose:

When in the dim twilight just before dawn
Grendel's warfare was made known to men,
then lamentation was lifted up after the feasting,
a great morning-sound...

Of course Liuzza's is the most accurate rendition, followed by Heaney, and at a distance Meyer -- but which do I *like* better? Which do you? Heaney is trying to straddle the line, I think, between accuracy and artistry, and I think Meyer has somewhat heroically decided to throw his hands in the air. He's given up the cause of literal accuracy and gone for something else, accuracy of the soul maybe. In the end, it's all up to a matter of taste, but in my opinion, we don't need another accurate translation. We have those. 

Meyer's version fills another need.

(1) It has been pointed out to me that Liuzza's translation, though it stresses accuracy over many formal concerns (like alliteration) is in fact a verse translation with an admittedly quiet four-stress line and medial pause. 


Jeff said...

Thanks for this--I'd not heard of this new translation, but I generally love this sort of translation. I'd never assign it in a survey class, but it's a sign of intellectual health that we don't have to judge every translation by its classroom efficacy. At this point, those of us who love poetry and know the source material well need fun, clever, engaging translations even more than students need another dozen dull, relatively faithful ones.

Nelson said...

Very interesting - the Beowulf translations seem to be steadily coming. Last year we had Craig Williamson's poetic translation, which also included a lot of other OE poetry. And now this one. It looks interesting, though I'm not sure how I feel about 'jiggetyjig' . . .

I suppose it's worth mentioning that Klaeber isn't a translation, but an edition - it's only got the Old English (unless the new 4th edition has taken the rather drastic step of including a translation). It is indeed 'the king' of Beowulf, but of the original poem rather than a translation.

Also, Liuzza's is poetry, not prose. He uses a very loose metre, but he explains his poetic principles in the Introduction (basically, a roughly four beat line with at least two beats alliterating). Liuzza's is my personal favourite translation so far, rather above Heaney's. It's hard to see the value of his version in excerpt, but the experience of reading his translation straight through is the closest I've ever seen a modern English version come to the overall experience of the original. It's remarkable for being so (relatively) accurate while conveying the overall effect.

I'll try to remember to take a look at this in a library sometime.

Vellum said...

Nelson -- Of course you're perfectly right on both counts, and I have made some slight changes to the post to account for that.