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:
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 keen – must perceive the difference between words and deeds” (Crossley-Holland 11). Michael Alexander translates this part of the maxim: “clear in his mind, must be skilled to discriminate deeds and words” (Alexander 60). Frederick Rebsamen translates it: “can weigh carefully words and intentions, if he’s worthy in thought” (Rebsamen 10). Seamus Heaney translates it: “will take the measure of two things – what’s said and what’s done” (Heaney 21). Shippey himself translates the maxim: “must be able to judge everything, words as well as deeds” (Shippey 34). Chickering and Rebsamen seem to be lacking; the others give clearer impressions.
In the interests of streamlining the presentation of data, let’s discontinue the use of parenthetical citations for translators since the lines of text are numbered, and the use of quotation marks for simple, clear translations, and any other punctuation whose absence will not bring confusion..
“Lines 168-69 have often been discussed and are still somewhat problematical” (Chickering 287) because of the ambiguous reference of several words and the change of subject:
no he pone gif-stol gretan moste