The Letter Or The Spirit?

I mentioned in a previous post that the newly-published prose translation of Beowulf done by J. R. R. Tolkien had recently been downloaded to my Ipad.  Tolkien’s commentary on the oldest English poem is well worth your time.  But his translation of the poem into prose rather than verse will once again ignite the controversy over whether prose is an appropriate medium of translation for a poem.

The common argument is that a prose translation will allow a more accurate representation of what’s there in the original.  In the case of Beowulf, it’s the rhythmic beats per line that the translator is after, and that’s fair enough.  I can’t help believing, however, that reproducing the way the poem sounds is not enough.  The translator must also reproduce the meaning of the poem as well, and at least hint at the context, the atmosphere, of the poem, if he can.

Tolkien’s work, done when he was a young man, falls just a little short of conveying the atmosphere of Beowulf, in my view.  Here is Beowulf looking back at his life as the ward of King Hrethel, and the accident that happened between Hrethel’s sons, Herebeald and Hathcyn, in Tolkien’s translation:

“…when Hathcyn with arrow from his horn-tipped bow  smote grievously his lord–he missed his mark and shot to death his kinsman, brother slew brother with a bloody shaft. . . . In like wise it is grievous for an old man to endure that his son yet young should swing upon the gallows, that he should utter a dirge, lamentable song, while his child hangs, a sport unto the raven. . . . there is no sound of harp, no mirth in those courts, such as once there were.”

Here’s the passage in Burton Raffel’s translation from 1963:

“The crime was great, the guilt was plain, / But nothing could be done, no vengeance, no death / To repay that death, no punishment, nothing. / So with the graybeard whose son sins / Against the king, and is hanged: he stands / Watching his child swing upon the gallows, / Lamenting, helpless, while his flesh and blood / Hangs for the raven to pluck.. . . The place where his son once dwelled, before death compelled him / to journey away, is a windy wasteland, . . .the childless father / Shudders, seeing it.  So riders and ridden / Sleep in the ground; pleasure is gone, / The harp is silent, and hope is forgotten.”

Although Tolkien renders the passage with commendable accuracy, to get the full elegaic tone of it, and of the poem as a whole, we have to turn to Raffel.  Free though it is, “The harp is silent, and hope is forgotten” is one of the greatest bits of translation I’ve ever read, and an object lesson for translators everywhere:  If you want the work you’re translating to be remembered, capture its spirit above all, and leave aside as much of the letter of its language as you find necessary in the task.  Tolkien’s work we may read and respect, but it is Raffel’s that we will carry with us in our hearts.


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