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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?
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. BeowulfTranslations.net 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?
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’.
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?