All About Beowulf as a Translated Piece of Literature

Old English is just English, right? Can’t be more difficult than reading Shakespeare, right? Hah. Yeah...no. Click on the video to find why translating Beowulf would give Bard himself a migraine.

LiteratureBeowulf
ThemesIdentity
Morality and Ethics
Religion
The Supernatural
Tradition and Customs
Violence
Wealth

Transcript

00:16

Translating from Old English

00:18

to Modern English - you lose something.

00:20

You must, just by --

00:21

Almost by definition of how translations work.

00:23

But talk us through what's going on here.

00:26

Why is translating Beowulf so difficult?

00:29

Other than, you know, the basically Klingon that it was written in.

00:32

The first thing to think about is,

00:34

like you said, we're going from Old English

00:36

to Modern English.

00:37

And English did not go straight

00:39

from Old English to Modern English.

00:41

It went through tons and tons of variations.

00:44

For example, you've probably read Shakespeare.

00:47

Pick up Shakespeare - it doesn't sound

00:49

like Old English and it doesn't sound like Modern English.

00:52

So we're not just translating from,

00:54

you know, one language -

00:55

one type of English to another.

00:57

We're translating - skipping over so many changes

01:00

that came about.

01:01

So that's the first reason it's tough.

01:03

And even if you just look at the characters,

01:05

it really is a completely different language.

01:07

But translation in general is a big issue.

01:11

When you're reading something like Beowulf,

01:12

you have to remember that you are not

01:14

reading what was originally written.

01:16

Any translator is 100 percent biased.

01:19

You can not read a translation without

01:21

getting a sense for what that translator

01:23

thought of the book.

01:24

So, a few things that a translator might do -

01:26

One is they might try to create a specific mood or tone

01:29

with their writing.

01:30

You know, someone might try and turn Beowulf

01:32

into a super crazy adventure fighting story,

01:36

and another might try to

01:38

make Beowulf a super sympathetic character.

01:41

Or even make Grendel a sympathetic character.

01:43

So the words that are chosen

01:45

to translate the Old English --

01:47

And, you know, you have a bunch of options.

01:49

Say, someone might translate the word "glory" as "prowess"

01:54

or "courage" or "bravery." So, heroism.

01:58

So you have so many choices of what word to use

02:00

to translate a specific Old English word

02:02

that you just get a totally different

02:04

mood or tone depending on

02:06

what words you choose.

02:07

Other things to remember -

02:08

Translators have to decide

02:10

do they want to make the language

02:12

sound like it sounded?

02:14

So, Old English is a very alliterative language,

02:17

which means there's a lot of repeated consonants.

02:20

Lots of words might start with "T" in a row,

02:23

or something like that.

02:25

Does the English translator want to maintain that?

02:28

Or are they more worried about maintaining the meaning?

02:31

And it's very hard to do both.

02:33

So usually a translator will choose one or the other -

02:35

sound or meaning.

02:36

And then the final question that translators often ask

02:39

is about authenticity.

02:40

Do they want to translate

02:42

into concepts that modern readers can understand?

02:47

If there's, say, a concept

02:49

that existed in the fifth century or the eight century

02:53

when it was told, but doesn't exist anymore,

02:55

do they wanna kind of translate

02:57

that culturally into something that

02:59

we can understand?

03:00

Or do they wanna use the Old English concept?

03:04

We might not understand what it means,

03:05

but it's more authentic that way.

03:07

And that can be anything from, you know,

03:09

a specific tool that Hrothgar is using

03:12

that we wouldn't know what the word meant,

03:14

but it would be more authentic if they used that exact same thing.

03:18

So, anyway, tons of stuff at play here when thinking about translations.

03:22

Wow, brutal.

03:23

Okay, that's about all we know about translating Beowulf.

03:27

Why would Beowulf be difficult to translate?

03:30

Why is it important to keep in mind that a work is translated while you're reading it?

03:35

What could potentially be lost or gained in a translation?

03:43

You lose something. You must.