Looking back into mythic time

September 27, 2000

Arthur Nead

Warrior heroes, monsters, treasure, treachery and war, all set in a time long, long ago and far, far away-are these the ingredients of the next episode of Star Wars? Far from it. This is only a part of what makes up the Old English poem Beowulf, and for the millions who cherish the verse or are about to face it for the first time as a course requirement, there is big news: Tulane medieval literature scholar Roy Liuzza has just published a new translation.

"Beowulf is the major poetic text in Old English," says Liuzza, an associate professor of English. As such, it is central to the study of the earliest works in English literature. It's also a good story, and people love a good story," says Liuzza.

An English scribe wrote the poem down circa 1000. The text looks back to an even more rugged time several centuries earlier, before the conversion of Britain and Scandinavia to Christianity. It's the story of Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, a tribe that lived in an area of what has now become Sweden.

Readers follow Beowulf's journey across the sea to help a Danish king whose faithful retainers are being eaten each night by the troll-like monster Grendel. Since the rediscovery of the poem in 1800 among a collection of old books and manuscripts, there have been many attempts to translate it into modern English. Liuzza, who teaches Old English literature classes, was dissatisfied with the available translations and conceived the idea of making his own.

"I teach a lot of Beowulf in translation because it's a difficult poem in Old English, and it usually takes at least a semester of preparation before you can read it in Old English," says Liuzza.

As a reviewer for the academic journal Old English Newsletter, Liuzza offered critique and analysis of Beowulf translations.

"I remember thinking after reading one particularly bad translation: 'I could do this,' and I sat down and started doing it-for fun, at first," says Liuzza.

After using his translation in class for a couple of years, Liuzza went looking for a publisher. Broadview Literary Texts in Canada was interested and published the translation earlier this year, together with an introduction by Liuzza and a number of appendices with comparative and scholarly materials. Teachers of Old English literature at many universities have responded favorably to the book, says Liuzza, and they are ordering it as a text for their classes.

The book is now in its second printing. The job of translating is a balancing act that involves weighing the needs of several different audiences, says Liuzza. "First of all, there's the audience of other scholars. A small audience, but an important one, since they are the ones who will pass judgment on the book." For them, he needed an up-to-date and accurate translation.

"Another audience that I conceived of as my primary audience are students who are reading the poem, maybe for the first time," Liuzza says. Students need a translation that flows-one that is not overly difficult to get into and read. But this, too, is a delicate matter for the translator. "There's a danger in making it too easy, like flattening out the peculiarities of the language and the syntax," says Liuzza.

Liuzza aimed at capturing the mood that pervades the Old English poem. "I wanted a poem with a voice-the voice that I heard when I read Beowulf, which to me was a serious voice. It's not a lively, modern voice, but a rather more solemn voice with a solemn tone."

The Beowulf poet, looking back at people of several centuries earlier, "had an appreciation for their dignity, their courage and the finesse with which they did things," says Liuzza. All translators grapple with a central issue: Is a translation the same work of literature as the original, or does translating create new and different works?

"Translations are necessary evils-that's the best way to view them," says Liuzza. "All translations take liberties. Just putting a poem in a different language context changes in some way the meaning of the poem. "Having said that, I think there are such things as faithful translations," he says.

Translations, for all their pitfalls, do succeed in bringing works of literature to people who otherwise would never have the chance to read them. "People want to read classics," says Liuzza, "People have a hunger to read the great works of literature-and Beowulf is a great work of literature. It's a poem I've found repays the effort of reading and re-reading it. "I'd love to see people read a translation that makes them want to read the original, and not use the translation as a substitute, but as a kind of stepping stone."

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