Beowulf: An Online
Each modern edition and each modern translation
will always be radically different than the original manuscript.
There are many reasons for this:
Problems with Translation:
The obvious difference is that most students
read Anglo-Saxon texts translated into modern English. However,
that means students never read the Anglo-Saxon itself, but rather
an individual's interpretation of the text. These interpretations
vary widely. It seems easy to translate a simple word like "two"
into another language--say French (deux), or maybe Spanish
(dos), or even Latin (duos). If you know the vocabulary,
it seems no more complicated than plugging numbers into an equation,
x = y.
But it's not that
easy. Translating poetry is tricky. Words often involve elaborate
connotations or allusions that aren't evident in another language.
Sometimes poets even make up words that never appear in normal
speech. In the opening of the poem, the speaker refers to the
"hron-rad" or "whale-road." It is a made-up, poetic word to
refer to the sea that wouldn't appear in normal conversation.
That particular type of made-up word is called a kenning,
and kennings appear frequently in Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry.
Even a word in
normal, everyday usage might not translate from one language
into another. The first word in the poem (Hwaet) has
no direct equivalent in Modern English. A poet or public speaker
would shout out this word to get people's attention in a formal
setting, much like ringing a fork against a champagne glass
at a dinner party. "Hwaet" implies the listeners should be quiet
and listen. Some editors translate hwaet as "Listen!"
or "Hark!" or "What!" A more literal translation might be "Hey!"
or "Shut-up!" I have given some students the assignment of creating
a rap-version of Beowulf, and they even translated the
word as "Yo!" or "Whassup!" Note that none of these translations
(or, I would argue, any translation) will ever have the
same flavor as the original. Here, my choice of "Listen!" sounds
too imperious in modern English. It doesn't sound particularly
polite. The word "hark!" has connotations of the archaic, and
the archaic choice pleases many editors, but note that the original
word hwaet would not sound archaic to listeners in the
mead-hall. "What!" and "Hey!" and "Yo!" are all too informal.
"Shut-up!" has connotations of rudeness that the original doesn't,
and so on. Individual words have individual flavors. When we
translate, we struggle with the terrible reality that we are
always picking the second best word--the poet used the best
word already in the original.
(2) The Standardized
Nature of Modern Print: Modern
editions are printed in standardized form, rather than handwritten
like medieval manuscripts. Even the word manuscript comes
from the Latin word for hand (manus) and the participle
for written (scriptus). The original often has letters
that vary in their size and legibility. It was common for different
scribes to doodle in the margins, or add glosses (short notes
in the margins for later readers) and the scribes would leave
room in the margins to allow for such glossations. In some cases,
scribes would even add glosses to the glosses of previous readers!
If modern readers
find some writing in the margins of a textbook, they usually
think of this writing as secondary to the main text. What some
other student penciled in the edges isn't as important as the
printed word. We privilege print because it is more expensive
and time-consuming to print something than to handwrite it.
Print carries a baggage of authority that a handwritten text
does not in our culture. That is not the case in the medieval
period. Often, corrections to mistakes appear in the margins.
Medieval readers would have to pay attention to what's going
on in the edges of the text as well as what's going on in the
center of the page.
(3) Material Structure
of Medieval Books: The
early editions were written on vellum or parchment (the skins
of animals that have been cured, the hairs scraped off, and
then soaked in lime). Sometimes bookworms would eat holes in
the pages, or there would be scars and growths on the skin that
force the scribe to write around the blemishes. In the case
of the Beowulf manuscript, many of the pages were damaged
in the Cotton Fire of 1731, and the entire manuscript still
smells strongly of smoke, even three-hundred years later.
take place in the dry, aesthetic perfection of typesetting and
perfectly shaped pages. It was a physical, tangible experience
in a way that cannot be reproduced on a computer screen. The
physicality of such books, however, meant they were terribly
expensive. In an age when people might starve to death without
sufficient food, or freeze to death without sufficient clothing,
it was a tremendous investment to kill livestock, skin them,
and take months (or even years) to prepare a large book by hand.
Books were luxury items, the way expensive computers and sports
cars might be considered luxury items today. It's easy to forget
that fact when we can easily obtain a paperback at a used bookstore
for a couple of dollars.
The Absence of Modern Puctuation:
Punctuation is a fairly
modern invention. Hyphens don't appear until the eleventh century
in Europe and not until the thirteenth century in England. Colons
don't appear until the fourteenth century, and then were only
used to indicate a pause. Commas appear in the 1520s and semicolons
appear in the late sixteenth century. Quotation marks and dashes
weren't invented until the eighteenth century. The very earliest
writers in Rome and Greece didn't even bother to put spaces
between words, and the older versions of Hebrew had no means
of indicating vowel sounds. Reading was much harder until these
inventions. To illustrate this point, see how easily you can
read the following sentence with the vowels removed.
What does that say? Let's
add a new invention, capitalization, and try again.
Still hard to read? Try
adding the invention of spacing between words.
Y cn rd ths sys Jhn
Getting better. Now try
it with the invention of punctuation like commas and quotation
"Y cn rd ths," sys
Odds are pretty good that
have figured out the meaning by now, even though there aren't
"You can read this,"
The use of punctuation
and capitalization help us figure out meaning more rapidly.
It allows us to indicate subtle nuances of meaning. Much of
these word-tools, however, don't exist in surviving texts from
Greece, Rome, and the early Middle Ages. Any modern editor who
wants to create a readable version must select his own punctuation,
but doing so always involves a choice that "fixes" the meaning.
suppose you are an editor editing a manuscript, and you come
across a hypothetical text that reads as below:
a woman without her man
How many ways
could you puncuate this sentence? Try to come up with three
or four, then click
here when you've written them
If you are interested
in more information about medieval punctuation practices, check
out Stephen R. Reimer's website on Manuscript Studies, section
IV. vii, Paleography:
here to return to the previous