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Demonising the demon: the power of translation

Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother in the 2007 Zemeckis film about Beowulf

Most of us are familiar with the phrase ‘lost in translation’, which brings to mind all kinds of embarrassing misadventures abroad and comical moments on Google Translate.  This phrase underlines the inherent weakness of translation, its inability to hold up to the original.  But what about the power of translation, a creative and transformative power?

John Howe’s depiction of Beowulf fighting Grendel’s mother

Many of us have been required to read Beowulf at some point in our lives, and most of us will only ever read it in translation.  The translation we use is usually assigned by a teacher or professor, and without the ability to read Old English, we can only hope that the translation remains faithful to the original. is an ingenious database of excerpts from Beowulf translated by different authors.  You can search by date (1805-2005), by translator or by one of five memorable moments in the story.  Translations are in prose or poetry, and the website even contains audio clips and visual art.

I have always been particularly interested in Grendel’s mother.  She has fearsome strength and manages to threaten Beowulf much more than her son does.  Yet she is nameless.  How are we to envision her?  Is she the terrifying, asexual swamp troll portrayed by N. D. Hill?  Is she the sensuous succubus of the 2007 Zemeckis film?  What does the text tell us?

Beowulf fighting Grendel’s mother, with dead Grendel in foreground, by N. D. Hill

In some translations Grendel’s mother (whom I affectionately abbreviate G-Ma) has ‘loathsome fingers’ (Bradley and Morgan) or ‘horrible fingers’ (Meyer), but in others she has ‘savage talons’ (Heaney) and ‘hostile claws’ (Liuzza).*  Is she human?  Animal?  Monstrous hybrid?  The actual words in the Old English are ‘laϸum fingrum’ (l. 1505b) – the words ‘loath’ and ‘finger’ are clearly there.  So why give her talons and claws?

In another passage, Heaney refers to G-Ma as a ‘swamp-thing from hell, the tarn-hag in all her terrible strength’.  The Old English reads ‘…grund-wyrgenne, mere-wif mihtig’ (ll. 1518b-1519a).  Heaney’s translation is marvellously evocative.  The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary translates the compound ‘grund-wyrgen’ (which appears only in Beowulf) as ‘wolf of the deep’, while Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English defines it as ‘accursed (female) creature of the deep’.  ‘Grund’, like Modern English’s ‘ground’, means the bottom, the lowest part of anything, whether it be earth or sea (or in this case mere or lake).  ‘Wyrgen’ comes from the verb ‘wyrgan’, meaning ‘to curse’.  ‘Mere-wif’ is what it looks like – ‘mere wife’ or ‘mere woman’ (a ‘mere’ being a sort of lake) – as is ‘mihtig’ – ‘mighty’.  Thus, with ‘swamp-thing from hell’ and ‘tarn-hag in all her terrible strength’, Heaney demonizes G-Ma, the ‘accursed one of the deep’ and ‘mighty mere woman’.

Grendel’s mother wrestles Beowulf, by Charles Keeping

Heaney is not alone in his decision to make G-Ma monstrous.  Bradley calls her a ‘she-wolf of the water’ and a ‘brawny water-hag’, while Liuzza refers to her as a ‘water-witch’.  Morgan ominously names her ‘the abyss’s curse, the great sea-demon-woman’.  Meyer is perhaps the most accurate when he calls her simply a ‘lakewife’, but he also calls her ‘lake shewolf’.  Again, we can’t be sure whether we’re dealing with a woman, a wolf or a monster.

At one point G-Ma is described as ‘ides, aglæc-wif’ (l. 1259a).  ‘Ides’ is a term used for respectable women of Anglo-Saxon nobility.  Queen Wealhtheow is an ‘ides’, which is usually translated as ‘woman’ or ‘lady’, certainly with no negative connotations.  ‘Wif’ means ‘woman’ or ‘wife’, and ‘aglæca’ is a delightfully ambiguous term referring to someone hostile, threatening or generally formidable.  Beowulf is called an ‘aglæca’, as is Grendel and G-Ma.  How then do we end up with Heaney’s ‘monstrous hell-bride’?  How would we understand G-Ma’s character differently if we simply read this as ‘the lady, the hostile woman’?

It is not my intention to criticise any of these translations – to the contrary, I love them all.  These editions demonstrate the creative power a translator can have.  Translation is an exercise in imaginative as well as practical skills.

What is your favourite Beowulf translation?  How monstrous is your G-Ma?

Grendel’s mother, by David Wyatt

*Translations referred to above are by: Edwin Morgan (1952), S. A. J. Bradley (1982), Seamus Heaney (1999), Roy M. Liuzza (2000) and Thomas Meyer (2012).


19 comments on “Demonising the demon: the power of translation

  1. Alison
    July 3, 2013

    Enjoyed your post 🙂 I did my MA thesis on Grendel’s Mother!

    • beoshewulf
      July 5, 2013

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Alison! What aspects of Grendel’s mother did you work on for your thesis? How do you imagine her?

      • Alison
        July 5, 2013

        My argument for my thesis that she is a woman rather than a monster. You’re post really reminds me of one of my chapters! I also wrote about Grendel’s Mother in modern adaptations of books, films, tv, and comics. It was a pretty enjoyable thesis!

      • beoshewulf
        July 5, 2013

        Sounds great! Do let me know if there are any Beowulf adaptations (book, TV, film, comic) that you recommend. I’m always on the lookout for new Beowulfiana!

  2. Alison
    August 12, 2013

    I meant to reply to this earlier, but a really good comic is ‘The Collected Beowulf’ by Gareth Hinds, as the artwork is really good!

    • beoshewulf
      August 12, 2013

      I’ve got a book ‘Beowulf’ by Gareth Hinds – is that the same as his ‘Collected Beowulf’? I love the illustrations in it!

      • Alison
        August 12, 2013

        Yeah, that’s the one! You can actually order prints from the book off his website. I’ve been tempted quite often!
        I’ve been doing a blog mostly about Grendel’s Mother here if you’re interested:

  3. Ben Hellman
    December 6, 2014

    I’ve translated parts of Beowulf and found it amazing how much leeway there is between definitions for certain words. So much of the way Beowulf is translated is rooted in how it has been translated for the last hundred or more years. I would love to see a series of translations that are honest to the text, but seek out knew interpretations. A feminist Beowulf, highlighting the ways in which the poem is critical of glory-seeking men, would be awesome.

    I love this post and plan to use it with my students who are studying Beowulf.

    • beoshewulf
      December 7, 2014

      Thanks, Ben, I’m glad you liked the post! I love working with different translations in my classes on Beowulf. The module I teach uses Seamus Heaney’s translation only, and it’s 1st-year UG so the students don’t have any Old English. I think it’s important to read other translations (if not the original) so that the students realise how much a translator makes a medieval text his/her own, and it’s a great exercise in close reading. I’ve gotten mixed responses when I do exercises using images. Some of the students seem to think that’s ‘dumbing it down’, but I love having the visual aspect since it makes you see how little we actually get of the Grendel-kin’s physical description. I’d love to hear about how you teach your Beowulf classes.

      • Ben Hellman
        December 7, 2014

        I teach high school students who did not choose to take a course which reads Beowulf, so I need to do a lot of work to get them to be able to enter the text. I have been more successful this year than any before and can only attribute it to presenting the text (Heaney’s translation) in smaller chunks, which we close read and annotate. The smallest, seemingly simplest passage from Beowulf can confound a reader with difficulties making inferences. Students have the most difficulty in following the subject or actor in any given passage. They have a hard time keeping track of “Hygelac’s trusty retainer” and “the captain of evil” and the many other epithets and variations. The foreign names themselves cause difficulty. I have to balance their learning to read the text and getting the most out of the text. I hate leaving out certain side stories, Hildaburh’s lament, Frea’s wedding, the fight at Ravenswood, because I think they inform the rest of the poem. It is very difficult to get an inexperienced reader to accept a fresh, seemingly disconnected plot line once they feel they are at the end of the story, but I think that the fight between Ongentheow, Wulf and Eofer is both exciting and related to Beowulf’s fight with the dragon. Visuals are actually very useful, as is curating and abridging the text. I show the kids several images of Grendel and ask them to choose the one one they think fits. I ask them to explain their choices, which shows me what they get out of the text.

  4. beoshewulf
    December 7, 2014

    I know what you mean. The side stories are interesting, but I remember being very confused by them the first time I read the text in high school as well. ‘Curating’ the text makes a lot of sense. I only get two 50-minute seminars to do the entire text of Beowulf with first-year UGs, so I’m torn between wanting to delve into the interesting but less essential narratives/characters and sticking to the main text. Challenging for sure! Have you read Thomas Meyer’s recent translation? It’s great for getting students to think about the visual reading culture we have as opposed to the oral/aural reading of the Anglo-Saxons. Meyer attempts to bridge this gap by presenting Beowulf in a more ‘visual’ form. It’s not as close to the original text, but it’s a fresh, insightful way to look at the poem, particularly comparing it to more traditional translations. The text is free (!), available in PDF here:

  5. Ben Hellman
    December 7, 2014

    Thank you!! Meyer’s translation is very exciting and I’ve only just glimpsed it. Translating Anglo-Saxon poetry is extremely difficult because of the word order. My intro course started with prose and when we got a good grip on it moved to works like The Wife’s Lament and The Wanderer. It was like starting over with a new language. I often wondered, and this brings me back to Meyer and your comment about visual versus aural cultures whether A-S poetic phrases were sort of like individual postcard images which the listeners assembled in a freer form than readers do today. There is something more free-flowing about it, and I’ve wondered if that is why there are so many possible nuances to the semantics of words and lines or whether it is simply that we lost touch with the language and have only a blurry image of how it was used. I found it dizzying to look at the actual word order when translated exactly and wondered how anyone could listen and understand it unless the information was much freer and allowed listeners more interpretive leeway.

    Regarding “less essential” narratives, I don’t know if they are less essential. I would agree that they are not foregrounded, but I don’t believe that any author includes non-essential details. Unfortunately we don’t have many long-form OE poems to compare Beowulf to, but I think that the author must have wanted us to make connections between the fore-and background narratives. I’ve wondered if Robinson’s theories on appositive style could be extended to abutting scenes. I wrote a paper comparing the dragon fight with the Ongentheow battle, arguing that the Ongentheow could represent both Beowulf and the dragon. If OE poetry was meant to allow such a great level of free interpretation from its audience, I don’t see why this is a far-fetched idea.

    Thank you for your time and responses. It’s been a great pleasure thinking and bouncing ideas around with you.

    • beoshewulf
      December 7, 2014

      Thanks for your comments and ideas, too. That’s why I started this blog, in the hope to have conversations like this. 🙂

  6. Ben Hellman
    December 7, 2014

    Do you know the Beowulf graphic novel by Stefan Petrucha? It is one of several I recently bought (and I would have bought anything available on Amazon). I think the translation is good and gets at some details that suggest he knows his source material. For example, the line about G-Ma: “She was not a gracious host.”

    • beoshewulf
      December 8, 2014

      That looks wundor-full indeed! I have just ordered it as a Christmas gift to myself. I look forward to reading it – thanks!

  7. Ben Hellman
    December 27, 2014

    I would leave this comment/question in another place, but not sure where to make more general posts. I’m writing to raise the question of whether Handcsio’s name was meant to be a joke. Let me get to it: Grendel eats him, even the hand and feet. His name is hand-shoe. Hand and foot. It’s even dropped in later in the poem at a time when you would have to remember that description. I’m arguing in a tongue and cheek manner that this was a joke, but I wonder if anyone else would agree.

  8. Pingback: In Praise of the Literary Monster That Defies Description | Flavorwire

  9. Pingback: ag-lǣc-wīf | Old English Wordhord

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This entry was posted on June 15, 2013 by in Monsters, Translation and tagged , , , , , .
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