Beowulf: Lost in Translation

A lot of folks do a translation exercise with Beowulf.  If I remember correctly, the old Scott, Foresman books I used in high school had one.  This ReadWriteThink lesson plan looks like a good one.  I created one for my own students, and I thought I’d share it here.

This translation exercise examines one of my favorite parts of the poem: the scene when Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm off.  I took four translations done by Michael Alexander, Seamus Heaney, Kevin Crossley-Holland, and Constance Hieatt.  The last is a prose translation.  I found all of these translations at BeowulfTranslations.net.

After examining the translations, students will answer the questions on the second page (I refer on the handout to pages on the reverse because I always make double-sided copies when I can).  The excerpts in our particular texbook, Prentice Hall’s Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The British Tradition (also true of their new Penguin edition, though pages differ) are from the Burton Raffel translation.  This is most likely because the Raffel translation is published by Signet, who is owned by Penguin-Putnam.  I’m not sure of the exact relationship between Penguin and Prentice Hall, but there appears to be some sort of understanding.  If readers know, feel free to chime in.

These are the questions:

  1. Compare the translations. What are the major differences that you see? The major similarities?
  2. Burton Raffel translated the version in your textbook (p. 48, lines 381-393) in 1963. Compare this version with the others on the reverse.
  3. Which translation do you think is most interesting/exciting/easy to understand/appealing?
  4. What Anglo-Saxon literary devices that we’ve studied (kennings, caesuras, alliteration) appear? In which versions are these devices preserved?
  5. Which Anglo-Saxon literary devices don’t seem to translate well—in other words, they don’t appear to be easy for translators to work into their versions of Beowulf? Speculate: why do you think this might be?
  6. I included one prose translation of Beowulf, though many more exist.  How do you think a prose translation differs from a poetic one? What qualities might be compromised in a prose translation?
  7. What conclusions can you draw about the process of translation?
  8. What would your advice be to translators (consider the following:  What do they need to think about in order to produce a readable translation that is still faithful to the spirit of the poem? What should they avoid doing?)

I freely admit an affinity for the Heaney translation, but I think others make a more poetic statement with this particular passage.  I am not a huge fan of Raffel’s translation, despite having written a teacher’s guide for this version.  What I hope students gain from this exercise is an understanding that translation is somewhat subjective.  They may not be getting the most accurate, word-for-word version in modern English, and different translators focus on different elements.  Like the ReadWriteThink lesson states, I want them to understand translations are rarely the literary works themselves so much as they are an “imaginative reconstruction” of these works.  I also want them to think about the number of decisions translators must face.

You can download the handouts here:

They are also available on the Handouts page.

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5 thoughts on “Beowulf: Lost in Translation

  1. I wish I'd waited a couple more days to begin my Beowulf unit… I am in LOVE with this idea and am here, at the 11th hour, trying to figure out a way to rework this into classroom discussion. You have such fantastic ideas and I want to thank you for sharing your vast knowledge and treasure trove of activities!

  2. Thanks, Ashly. Glad to help. Joe Scotese has some great Beowulf stuff, too, but I think he has had to freeze membership at his site. Some of the resources might be available to non-members, though.

  3. Dana: Just wanted to say that this lesson was rather a success; we are in the midst of the Jewish holidays as you know, so I had to abbreviate a couple of things I wanted to do, but overall this worked out pretty well, and I will definitely use it again. Thanks so much!

  4. I'm glad it worked out, Ashly. I wish I'd come up with the idea, but I'm sure I got most of it from a textbook we used to use. However, I think I did create most of the questions.

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