Lost in translation: The queens of Beowulf
Laura Ann Horton-Depass
Master’s Thesis, University of Colorado at Denver, 2013
The poem Beowulf has been translated hundreds of times, in part or in whole. In past decades translators such as Howell Chickering and E. Talbot Donaldson firmly adhered to formal equivalency, following the original text line-by-line if not word-by-word. Such translations are useful for Anglo-Saxon students but cannot reach a larger audience because they are unwieldy and often incomprehensible.
In the past fifty years, though, a group of translators with different philosophies has taken up the task of translating the poem with greater success. Translators such as Marc Hudson, Edwin Morgan, and Seamus Heaney used dynamic equivalency for their versions, eschewing strict grammatical accuracy and literal diction in order to recreate the sense and experience of the poem for a modern audience. How two translators, E. Talbot Donaldson and Seamus Heaney, treat the queens in the poem as revealed by a close textual analysis proves to be an excellent example of the two methodologies; formal equivalence translators do not endow their female characters with the agency and respect present in the original text, while dynamic equivalence translators take liberties with the language to give their readers a strong sense of the powerful but tragic queen figures.
Harold Bloom’s theory of the development of poets in The Anxiety of Influence can help explain this shift from formal equivalency to dynamic equivalency. Translators of Beowulf necessarily react against their predecessors, and since translators usually explain their process and philosophy in forwards or introductions, their motivations for “swerving away” are clear. Formal equivalence translators misrepresented the original text by devaluing the literary merit of the original poem and dynamic equivalence translators seek to remedy the misrepresentation by elaborating and expanding the language of the original to reach a wider audience. Each generation must continue to translate against the grain of its predecessors in order to keep the poem alive for a larger audience so that the poem will continue to be enjoyed by future audiences.
Introduction: When Bēowulf first arrives to the Danish shore with his troop of armed warriors, he is of course challenged by Hrōðgār’s sentinel to state his purpose. This delicate situation could end in violence or in welcome depending on Bēowulf’s reaction.
The text of line 259 reads:
Werodes wīsa, word-hord onlēac:
The leader of the band unlocked his word-hoard. Bēowulf has been silent to this point, but now he must speak eloquently to avoid trouble; word-hord implies that his language is like a beautiful treasure that is locked away and only brought out in times of need. And the language of Bēowulf is indeed beautiful—the metaphor suits not only the situation at hand but also the poem as a whole, a work of art comprised of beautiful language.