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The Literature Collection

Ringler, Dick / Beowulf: A New Translation for Oral Delivery (May 2005)

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Beowulf has been translated into Modern English many times, so in translating it yet again I am hardly breaking new ground. This version differs from its predecessors in attempting to provide a somewhat stricter imitation of the meter of the original Old English text than is usually the case. The translation is intended to be as accurate as possible within the metrical constraints I have set myself and within the limits of colloquial Modern English. What I have striven for is a relatively transparent, neutral style, supple and flexible enough to imitate the various textures, modes and tones of the original, which range from fast-paced narrative through hymnic and moralizing to reflective and elegiac.[1*] The translation is designed to be read aloud and if this is done at a moderate speed the reading takes about three hours.

I was originally inspired to embark on this work when reading the Icelandic adaptation of Milton's Paradise Lost by Jón Þorláksson (1744-1819). This is composed in a stichic version of fornyrðislag, the Old Norse meter that is cognate with standard Old English meter and that was—from Jón's point of view—the ideal vehicle for a long narrative poem in Modern Icelandic.

I am deeply indebted—and this is not a mere formal or perfunctory acknowledgment—to Alger N. Doane and John D. Niles, colleagues in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who subjected themselves to a 3-hour marathon reading of an early version of this translation and subsequently looked carefully over the written text and suggested many improvements, some of them quite determinative.

I am also grateful to Peter C. Gorman, Senior Technology Librarian of the University of Wisconsin Libraries, for the care and imagination with which he produced the present Web site; to Richard L. Grote, Recording Engineer at Wisconsin Public Radio, who recorded the reading; and to Norman P. Gilliland of Wisconsin Public Radio and NEMO Productions, who did the final editing.

Finally I must express my gratitude to the many generations of students with whom I have studied this extraordinary poem, whose inner light has never dimmed for me in more than forty years of studying and teaching it. If this translation brings a new audience to appreciate its majesty and dignity, its earnestness, wisdom and compassion, then none of the labor involved will have been wasted.

* * * * *

The materials on this Web site may be freely reproduced and used for any nonprofit educational purpose. Teachers are encouraged to incorporate them into curricula when appropriate.[2*]


[1*] No serious attempt has been made to reproduce the nominal compounds of the original, nor what look like puns (or highly pregnant wordplay of the kind sometimes used by one character to send a covert message to another [e.g., MS hreþrinc 1836a]).

[2*] If they do so, the University of Wisconsin Libraries would appreciate being informed.

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