Say Anything; or Translating Fiction

There was an interesting essay in the Atlantic about Beowulf, how it still captures us, translations and graphic treatments of it still being explored, cinematic ones, plays; who knows what’s next, a video game?

Beowulf is, for all its bloody adventurism, its heroic arm-tearing and epic wrestling, essentially nihilistic. Or philosophical in that dust-to-dust way. I vaguely remember reading some of it in high school. I chose the course on the history of languages over the more popular one on 20th century literature, which does not surprise me. I would make the same decision again. Languages and their branching meander fascinate me, and the mystery of the development of language, and the decline of languages, and translation — all stuff I love (even as I often measure my words, hold my tongue) (or err on the other side — when people say, “I admire your frankness,” I know I’ve said too much…which I often do).

The Atlantic author notes that the first word of Beowulf, “Hwaet,” has been variously translated as “Hear me!,” Attend!,” “What ho!,” and “So…” — and we’re still attending, responding to the what ho, awaiting what’s beyond So’s ellipses. An Old English to Modern English online dictionary gives me for “hawed”: anything; brave; brisk; lo; something; what. Taken all together like that, indeed, I’d certainly read on!

Later research has indicated that perhaps it is not intended as an exclamation at all but merely that mild “what” or “how,” as in, “How we have heard of the might of the kings,” as scholar George Walkden has argued, based on his understanding of Old English syntax. (I have to love a guy who has an understanding of Old English syntax.) But it’s just not as compelling a beginning, is it?

On the advice of a friend who loved it, I toiled through part of the enormous Norwegian epic Kristin Lavransdatter. I’m not sure I made it even halfway before I become exhausted by the formal language, the slow pace, the dreary setting and life of Kristin. It wasn’t until I saw a few years ago that I saw reference to a 2005 translation that had been issued that it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t the story itself but the translation that bogged me down. The friend who was happy enough with the old translation asked how the new one could be different — wasn’t a word a word, a story a story? But no, a translation is a reflection of the translator and her times and sensibilities. I have not read it yet, but reviews indicate the newer translation uses modern usages rather than the “methinks” and thees and thous, which may make the long story move faster. I’ll have to see. Critics of the two translations are mixed about which one is closer to the style of the original Norwegian writing. As a translator, one wants to keep close but keep readable. The author, Sigrid Undset, was writing in 1920 but writing about the 1300s — did she made language choices to keep close to an archaic-sounding time? Is the Norwegian of the 1920s different from contemporary usage? I don’t speak Norwegian, so I don’t know, but part of a translator’s job is to find out and then decide how to bring it all forward somehow.

I’m moved to find a version of Beowulf with the Old English presented alongside someone’s translation so I can pore over the garbled cries of hero and monsters alike, in the same way, I guess, that I pore over old family photos of people I’ve never met but who might look vaguely like me. What is there left of the old language in me, the old victories and sacrifices?

The Poetry Foundation obligingly offers the whole of Beowulf in Old English here: But the first page offered up by Wikipedia shows no punctuation after Hwaet.

In the end, spoiler alert: Beowulf dies. The dragon whom Beowulf kills kills Beowulf. His language died, for the most part (or what’s left of it succumbing to tweets and emoticons?). The hero is dead. Long live the hero. The word is dead. Long live the word. Until we speaking monsters cry our last garbled cry, our hands around each other’s necks, and then go mute. Until then, the story is not dead. Long live the story. What?

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