Comparison of Seven Beowulf Translations

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Comparison of Seven Beowulf Translations

There is not unanimity among Beowulf translators concerning all parts of the text, but there is little divergence from a single, uniform translation of the poem. Herein are discussed some passages which translators might show disagreement about because of the lack of clarity or missing fragments of text or abundance of synonyms or ambiguous referents.

After the Danish coast-guard meets and talks to Beowulf, the guard then begins his next speech with a brief maxim or aphorism:

Aeghwaepres sceal

scearp scyldwiga gescad witan,

worda ond worca, se pe wel penced. (287-289)

T.A. Shippey comments in “The World of the Poem” that :

Translating this ought not to be difficult…. The problem here is caused by the fact that proverbs are not merely linguistic phenomena…. the hidden factor is the extralinguistic frame; we have been taught in childhood when to use proverbs, what their metaphors mean, who to say them to, and how to take them. It is this nonverbal knowledge that we need to be able to understand the coastguard’s ‘gnome.’ Reluctance to reconstruct such intangibles and dogged staring at the text have led literary critics into controversy (Shippey 34).

So let’s cross-reference six translators and determine how serious a discrepancy exists here. Howell D. Chickering translates the troublesome part of the passage: “must know the distinction between words and deeds, keep the difference clear” (Chickering 65). E. Talbot Donaldson: “who thinks well must be able to judge each of the two things, words and works” (Donaldson 6). Kevin Crossley-Holland: “one whose mind is ...

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... multiple synonyms, vague references, etc.


Alexander, Michael. Beowulf A Verse Translation. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.

Chickering, Howell D. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. Beowulf The Fight at Finnsburh, edited by Heather O’Donoghue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Donaldson, E. Talbot, trans. Beowulf The Donaldson Translation, edited by Joseph Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co., 1975.

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf, A New Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000.

Rebsamen, Frederick. Beowulf A Verse Translation. New York: Harper-Collins Publishers, 1991.

Shippey, T.A.. “The World of the Poem.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987..
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