Set yet speaking: Welcome to my website + Beowulf lines 1687-98a

Hello everyone. If you’ve come here via my Twitter account – and let’s face it, you definitely have – then you will know that I like to post translations of Old English and Old Norse texts. I enjoy translating poetry in particular, despite (or maybe because of) the anxiety in balancing “fidelty” and creativity, of bringing often enigmatic early medieval verse to life for a modern reader. Twitter has been a good outlet for this, especially as a tool for public education and outreach, but the platform isn’t exactly designed for sustained reading. So, I’ve decided to publish a website to host my various projects, as well as provide translation commentaries and occasional general blogposts on medieval stuff.

My own poetic renderings are intended to be relatively good guides to (as John D. Niles once put it) “what the text says”, but I do also want to make them readable for the general public, and make creative choices accordingly.

As my first post, here’s a translation of Beowulf, lines 1687-98a. At this point in the poem, King Hrothgar examines a sword brought to him by the eponymous hero after his fight with Grendel’s mother. It is one of my favourite parts of the poem, and one of the few of my own translations that I can look back on and not hate:

Hrothgar muttered to himself, eying the hilt,

an old memory etched with writing

telling tales of former turmoil,

how the surging salt-bath

cruelly engulfed the kin of giants,

a people remote from relentless God;

the Lord left them a loathsome inheritance

with that tumultuous tide.

Glimmering in gold on the cross-guard,

skilfully scored in rune-letters

set yet speaking

was for whom that blade was first worked,

its coiling grip carved with dragons,

a most prized weapon.

(Hrōðgār maðelode; hylt scēawode/ealde lāfe, on ðǣm wæs ōr writen/ fyrngewinnes;       syðþan flōd ofslōh,/ gifen gēotende gīganta cyn/ frēcne gefērdon; þæt wæs fremde þēod/ēcean dryhtne; him þæs endelēan/ þurh wæteres wylm waldend sealde./ Swā wæs on ðǣm scennum scīran goldes/ þurh rūnstafas rihte gemearcod,/ geseted ond gesǣd,        hwām þæt sweord geworht/ īrena cyst ærest wǣre,/ wreoþenhilt ond wyrmfāh).

Commentary:

I’m not going to provide a full outline of some of the choices I made here, but there are a few things in particular worth highlighting:

1. I translate maþelode (‘spoke, declaimed’) as muttered, which will probably make some people queasy. Hrothgar does indeed go on to speak just after this passage, but I’m taken with the thought that he might first murmur to himself as he picks his way through the imagery and runic writing on the sword. Contextually, muttered just makes sense to me.

2. The kenning salt-bath (= the sea) has no direct analogy in the text, and instead renders the rather more simple flōd (‘sea, river, a body of water’).

3. The phrase set yet speaking, translating geseted ond gesǣd, is more literally set down and said. Here I decided to emphasise, grammatically, the tension between orality and literacy that characterised the period from which the poem emerged – the ‘visible song’ of textual culture as Katherine O’Brien O’Keefe once so evocatively described it.

2 thoughts on “Set yet speaking: Welcome to my website + Beowulf lines 1687-98a

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