Bruce Moore reviews 'Beowulf' translated by Stephen Mitchell

The Old English Beowulf, the most important poem in English before Chaucer, was probably composed in the eighth century. The poem traces Beowulf’s three fights against the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. The dragon is defeated, but Beowulf also dies in the battle. The poem ends with an elegiac lament not just for the loss of its hero, but also for the dissolution of the society that he represents.

The language, grammar, and syntax of Old English are so removed from present-day English that most people must experience the poem via a translation, and there have been many of these. The latest is by Stephen Mitchell, a very experienced translator, whose works include translations of the Iliad, Gilgamesh, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Tao Te Ching.

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Published in March 2018, no. 399

Comments (1)

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    A good review and a useful discussion of translation issues. It would be interesting to know the extent of translator Mitchell's knowledge of Old English. Given the wide linguistic range of his other translations (Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Chinese) one wonders how much he himself draws on the work of others, or whether he is one of those impressive intellects skilled in many languages. I agree with reviewer Moore that the Beowulf translations of Alexander and Heaney stand out, but even better is Alexander's Penguin Glossed Text of the poem whereby the reader (with a fair amount of work) can find their way into the original - Old English text on the left hand page, glossary on the right. Sydney Uni taught me Old English, Old Norse and Middle English in the 1960s, and, happily, I see it is still teaching others the same.

    Thursday, 01 March 2018 11:15 posted by Robert Wills

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