Reading Literature in Translation: Beowulf as a Case Study
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While Beowulf is generally considered the earliest major work of English poetry, it is almost always taught in translation and its verse form and poetic techniques are often unfamiliar. By comparing a number of translations of Beowulf with each other and with the basic poetic elements of Old English alliterative verse, this lesson asks students to reflect upon the nature of translation not as an act of accurate representation of a literary work but as an act of interpretive re-creation. Students first listen to several translations of a passage from Beowulf , keeping a running list of how the translations differ and why the differences may exist. Next, groups of students compare new translations of the passage with the Old English poem using the checklist previously created. Finally, students share their findings as a class and discuss what it means to translate literary works and the decisions that translators make.
From Theory to Practice
In his article, John Niles reminds us that translations of a literary work are not the literary work itself, but an "imaginative reconstruction" of it. Regardless of whether or not a translation is good or bad, a translation reflects a number of interpretive choices made by the translator. For instance, the translator of a literary work is confronted with the fact that it might not be possible to accurately represent the style, diction, grammar, syntax, meter, rhythm, connotation, ornamentation, verse form, and use of language of the original work, and therefore they must decide which, if any of characteristics of the original, will be attempted. Likewise, translators must decide whether or not their translation should strive to be a work of art in its own right or if it should sacrifice artistic quality for accurate representation.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
- Introduce your students to the basic poetic elements of Beowulf and Old English poetry. The lesson plan An Introduction to Beowulf: Language and Poetics can help you do this.
- Review the Beowulf: Language and Poetics Quick Reference Sheet. If you would like additional information on the meter, style, and grammar of Old English poetry, see chapters 13, 14, and 15 of The Electronic Introduction to Old English.
- For additional background, Beowulf: A Study Guide is an excellent meta-page with links to many other Beowulf resources and 20 questions for discussion. Another excellent resource which is both an introduction to the poem and a starting point for further research is the site Resources for the Study of Beowulf.
- For each student, print out a copy of each page of the Beowulf Translations Handout you wish to use. If you wish to use some of the translations for assessment purposes, decide which ones, and separate them from the translations you will use in-class.
- Test the Literary Guide: Beowulf on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool.
- be introduced to Beowulf's original language, Old English.
- engage in close readings and analysis of a number of translations of the poem.
- discuss the nature of translation and how a translator's decisions shape our understanding of a literary text.
- Distribute the Beowulf Translations Handout pages you wish to use.
- As a class, briefly review Old English poetics. The Beowulf: Language and Poetics Quick Reference Sheet and the Literary Guide: Beowulf can help walk you through this.
- Explain to the class that you would like them to listen to the passage read in Old English and to follow along with the handout. The idea behind listening to and seeing the Old English is not to try to understand the language but to hear and see the alliteration, meter, rhythm, and diction of the poem.
- Having listened to passage, have the class look at two or three translations of the poem. Use the Donaldson and Lehmann translations. The Donaldson translation is useful here as a word for word translation of Beowulf. While it is not 100% accurate, it is widely considered the best word for word translation available and is regularly used as a reference by students learning to read Old English. And the Lehmann translation is useful because it, maybe more so than any other translation, imitates the original verse form the poem.
- Begin by having volunteers read each of the translations out-loud.
- Ask the class how the translations differ from each other and why these differences may exist. Keep a running list.
- Encourage them to think about choices in the use of prose or poetry; of alliteration, stress, rhyme, and meter; the use, or lack thereof, of Old English poetics; use of punctuation; syntax, grammar, and diction; the way people, places, and actions are described; and the number of lines used (while the original has 25 1/2 lines in this passage, some of the poetic versions have as few as 20 lines).
- Introduce the class to the idea that translations cannot be accurate reflections of an original but are instead “imaginative reconstructions.”
- As a class, develop a checklist of criteria for evaluating translations of Beowulf.
- Begin by having volunteers read each of the translations out-loud.
- Explain to the class that Beowulf has been translated many times and that in your next session you are going to continue your examination of Beowulf translations to explore the choices translators make, how those choices result in “imaginative reconstructions,” and how examining a number of translations can help provide a better understanding of the poem than any one translation can impart.
- Review the checklist of criteria created in the previous session.
- If desired, demonstrate the use of the checklist with the Translations section of the Literary Guide: Beowulf.
- Break the class into 4 or 5 small groups and give each group one or two new versions of the section explored in the previous session.
- Ask each group to compare their new versions with the Old English poem and the translations they have already studied, using the checklist created during the last session to help analyze the new translations.
- Encourage students to expand or modify the checklist if they decide it is not complete.
- Come back together as a class and share the findings. You might want to create a comparison chart on the board.
- Ask the class to discuss what it means to translate a literary work. Urge them to identify the kinds of decisions that a translator makes.
- While this lesson asks students to consider issues related language translation, there are other kinds of translation your students can consider, such as translations into other genres or types of media. Beowulf, for instance, has been adapted into a symphony, novels, comic books, movies, cartoons, and even a rock opera. John Gardner’s Grendel and Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead are readily available novel adaptations. Gardner’s novel tells the story from Grendel’s perspective, and Crichton’s book, which was remade into the movie The 13th Warrior, imagines a pseudo-historical basis for the poem (Crichton’s novel is also interesting in that its first four chapters are taken from Ibn Fadlan’s historical account of his mission from Baghdad to the king of the Bulgars). Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel, The Collected Beowulf, is also worth considering. It combines an old translation of the poem with illustrations.
A short and fun adaptation of Beowulf is Henry Beard’s poem “Grendel’s Dog,” which is a poem about Beocat, found in his 1994 collection Poetry for Cats. Both the 1999 Beowulf movie and the 2005 Beowulf & Grendel movie are loose adaptations of the poem and contain material which may make them unsuitable for classroom situations
For a fuller list of translations and adaptations, see Osborn, Marijane (1997) “Translations, Versions, Illustrations,” A Beowulf Handbook. Ed. Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles. University of Nebraska Press. 341-372.
- Students may also enjoy comparing passages from J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction with Beowulf. Tolkien is still considered one of the most important Beowulf scholars in history, and he drew much inspiration from the poem. In The Hobbit, the description of the Gate entrance to the Lonely Mountain (ch. 11, “On the Doorstep”) is very similar to the description of the dragon’s barrow in Beowulf. And Beorn the were-bear (ch. 7, “Queer Lodgings”) lives in a Heorot-like hall and is himself a Beowulfian figure. The Old English for bear is “beorn,” and Beowulf is actually a kenning: beo-wulf = bee-wolf = bear. The Grendel episode in Beowulf has been connected to “The Bear’s Son” folktale, and there is a were-bear connected to the Scandinavian legends of Hrothgar and the Danes. While The Hobbit’s Beorn is clearly not supposed to be Beowulf, he is at the same time clearly inspired by Beowulf and its related material.
Likewise, the Riders of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings are inspired by Anglo-Saxon culture and their language and names are Old English. Many scenes in The Two Towers are taken from or have parallels in Beowulf. Eomer’s initial challenge to Aragorn is parallel with the coast-guard’s challenge to Beowulf and the Geats; the initial approach to and description of Theoden’s great hall Meduseld is similar to Beowulf’s approach to and description of Hrothgar’s Heorot; and Gandalf and company’s initial reception at Meduseld is parallel to that of Beowulf’s initial reception. If you do decide to use the Riders of Rohan in conjunction with your study of Beowulf, remember that there are some significant differences between their culture and Anglo-Saxon culture. Specifically, when Tolkien created these characters, he imagined what their culture might have been like had the Anglo-Saxon peoples gone east into the steppes rather than west to England. While the Riders of Rohan are horse people who live and fight on horseback, the Anglo-Saxons, although they owned and used horses, weren’t a horse culture, and they fought on foot. Information on the connection between the Riders of Rohan and the Anglo-Saxons can be found in the widely available The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (2000).
While very different from Beowulf, Tolkien’s short story “Farmer Giles of Ham” has parallels. Inexpensive editions of the story are available in The Tolkien Reader (1986) and in Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham (1984). Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond’s edition of Farmer Giles of Ham (1999), while much more expensive, addresses the connections between Beowulf and “Farmer Giles of Ham” in the introduction. The book’s notes make it an excellent teacher edition. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien also provide some useful information on this subject.
- When reading other works in translation, consider spending some time looking at and listening to the work in the original language and, when possible, comparing a few different translations. Translations of Chaucer or adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays are excellent works to explore along these lines.
- Ask students to make their own adaptations of Beowulf, either the passage covered by the translations or some other section of the poem. For instance, there’s the well-known couplet: “Grendel’s tastes are rather planish; for breakfast, just a couple danish.” Students can play with genre and write a sports story, a news report, a play, or someone’s diary. Or by modifying the format, students might write a Beowulf song or create a series of PowerPoint slides or a movie (live action, Flash, or even pictures and narration using software like iMovie). Part of the assignment would be to ask students to reflect upon how their adaptation is an act of “imaginative reconstruction.” For a much more detailed discussion of the theory and practice of “imaginative reconstruction,” see Rob Pope’s Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Studies (Routledge, 1995).
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Observe your students as you work through and discuss the various translations. Do they seem interested and engaged with the discussion? Are they contributing to the class discussion? Do their comments and questions demonstrate an understanding of the material?
- One assessment option would be to have students engage in a close reading comparison of the translations. In this assignment, students would be asked to focus their analysis on one small part of the poem such as its use of diction, meter, punctuation, the description of Grendel, the first four lines, and so forth. Ask students to compare how two or more translations translate that specific aspect of the poem. Or, alternatively, you can ask students to do a close reading of many aspects of one translation.