Anonymous (Harper Perennial; trans: Frederick Rebsamen)
135 p. Third reading.
The recent discovery in Staffordshire of a Saxon treasure-hoard inspired me to read Beowulf again. This time I read a new (to me; it was first published in 1991) translation of the poem by Frederick Rebsamen that I had picked up a few months ago. I enjoyed the story as much as ever, and I think that with each new reading I am learning to better appreciate this great poem.
Attentive and long-suffering readers of this space may recall that a few years ago I read Beowulf in a translation by Sullivan and Murphy. At the time I praised their version, comparing it favourably to the popular translation made by Seamus Heaney. Part of the pleasure of reading this new version was comparing its strengths to those of Sullivan and Murphy.
One of the qualities of Sullivan/Murphy that I liked was the compressed and rough-hewn language. A faithful commenter pointed out that they still used more words per line than did the original poet, but compressing syntax while still telling the story is more difficult in modern English than it was in Old English. Rebsamen’s version of the poem also clearly tries to limit the number of words, frequently making use of compound neologisms, and the result is blunt and spare. Here is an example, from a late passage in which the dragon, wounded by Beowulf’s blade, crashes from the sky and dies. Nearly every line contains a freshly-minted compound word:
That old death-flyer
no longer wielded his wealthy ringhoard
but steel blade-edges stopped his life-fire
hard and battle-sharp smith-hammer’s leaving.
That soaring night-flyer stilled by murder-wounds
fell to the earth near that fire-kept treasure.
No longer at sunset did he sail with hate-flames
roaming the night-dark raging for his cup
scorching the skyways but he sank at last
hushed by the swordwork of heartstrong warriors. [2826-2835]
In my opinion that works well, but, even so, Rebsamen does not achieve the same degree of terseness as did Sullivan/Murphy. In my Book Note for their version I quoted the passage in which the dragon, having discovered that his gold hoard has been looted, prepares to devastate the countryside. Here is the corresponding passage in Rebsamen:
That waking flame-serpent
rushed round his treasure raged for that thief
who crept past his sleep swelled him with goldgrief.
Hot with hate-thoughts he hurtled outside
circled the barrow he saw no creature
on the wild heathland hiding from fury.
At times he shot back to his bountiful riches
searched for his cup — soon he discovered
that some man-creature had diminished his hoard
plundered his goldnest. No patience eased him
as he watched and waited for waning of that day.
That fearful treasure-guard fumed with yearning
writhing to ransom his rich jewel-cup
with flames from the sky. The sun grew heavy
dragged down the day — the dragon was ready
on his wall by the sea soared with balefire
fueled by his fury. The feud had begun,
sorrow for landfolk which soon would be ended
by their great people-king, greviously paid for. [2294-2311]
“Goldgrief” is a nice invention, as is “balefire”. But this passage takes 19 lines, compared to just 13 in Sullivan/Murphy. Overall their translation is about 10% shorter than Rebsamen’s. Being brief and blunt is not everything in this repertoire, but it certainly counts for something. Wordiness wars with the ethos of the poem.
A quality of Rebsamen’s translation that I really did like was the vividness of the violence. It is probably a fault to take too much pleasure in descriptions of violent acts, but, let’s face it, this is a violent poem, and there’s no point in tip-toeing around it. Here is the famous passage in which Grendel, not knowing that Beowulf is lying in wait, bursts into the mead-hall of Hrothgar and attacks one of the sleeping men:
Nor did that thief think about waiting
but searched with fire-eyes snared a doomed one
in terminal rest tore frantically
crunched bonelockings crammed blood-morsels
gulped him with glee. [739-743]
Crammed blood-morsels / gulped him with glee. That is suitably disgusting. Grendel’s glee does not last long, however, for Beowulf arises and grasps his arm with an iron grip. Then he begins to tug and twist:
— Grendel yearned away
his arm stretched thin thronging with pain —
a great death-wound gaped in his shoulder
sinew-bonds weakened snapped viciously
bonelockings burst. [814-818]
It is Beowulf’s first great victory in the court of Hrothgar. It was a feat of such greatness as to earn him everlasting fame (here we are, after all, admiring him). Such fame was the ambition of every great Saxon warrior:
Each one among us shall mark the end
of this worldly life. Let him who may
earn deeds of glory before death takes him —
after life-days honor-fame is best. [1386-1389]