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

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VERSIFICATION

The Meter of the Translation

It should be emphasized that this translation of Beowulf does not attempt an exact reproduction of the meter of the original (which is a debated matter anyway) but only something reasonably similar. [1*]

Verses and Lines

The basic metrical unit of the present translation is the verse. Verses range from 2 to 10 syllables in length; most are 3 to 7 syllables long. Here is a string of fourteen "normal" verses:

"When I first set out
on this far adventure
with my faithful thanes,
I was firmly resolved
either to end
the evil plight
of Denmark forever
or to die fighting
your ancient enemy,
either to achieve
a mighty victory
or to meet death,
grim and inglorious,
in this great wine-hall."

In many modern editions and translations of Beowulf, pairs of verses are printed together as lines, with a typographical gap separating the two verses of the pair:

"When I first set out on this far adventure
with my faithful thanes, I was firmly resolved
either to end the evil plight
of Denmark forever or to die fighting
your ancient enemy, either to achieve
a mighty victory or to meet death,
grim and inglorious, in this great wine-hall."

In the surviving manuscript of Beowulf, the text is written out as if it were prose, [2*] so any modern rearrangement into verses or lines is arbitrary, undertaken by editors and translators in order to highlight certain prosodic features at the expense of others. In the present translation, individual verses are printed separately in a vertical column. This arrangement has the advantage of emphasizing the metrical independence of each verse[3*] and also enabling readers to distinguish at a glance among the three different types of verses which appear in the translation. It also—and this is of much greater importance—encourages a more fluent and fast-moving reading of the text than the line-by-line layout (which suggests to modern readers that Old English poetry was uniformly leisurely and stately—sometimes even sluggish—like a good deal of English blank verse).

Types of Verses

The translation contains three types of verses: normal verses, light verses, and heavy verses.

Normal Verses and Light Verses

A normal verse contains two heavily stressed syllables and a variable number of lightly stressed syllables. A light verse contains one heavily stressed syllable and a variable number of lightly stressed syllables. In the text printed in this Web site, light verses are distinguished from normal verses by indentation. Here is a string of thirteen normal and light verses:

And now, once again,
noise mounted
in the meadhall,
mirth, revelry
and proud boasting,
until presently
Hrothgar decided
to rise and take
his nightly rest;
he knew the enemy
had been waiting to raid
the wondrous hall
all the day long,

Both normal verses and light verses are found throughout the translation. (Their distribution does not reflect the way these two types of verses are distributed in the original.)

Here is the passage again, with heavy and light stresses indicated and—to the right of each verse—a notation of the subtype which this stress pattern represents.

Metrical diagram for lines: And now, once again, 2B2a / noise mounted 2C1- / in the meadhall, a1b / mirth, revelry 1D1 / and proud boasting, 2C1a / until presently d1b / Hrothgar decided 1A*1a(i) / to rise and take 2B1a / his nightly rest; 3B1a / he knew the enemy +1A1a(ii) / had been waiting to raid 3B*1b / the wondrous hall 3B1a / all the day long. 3E1
In order to read the translation, silently or aloud, with proper stressing, it is not necessary to have an analytical understanding of the many different subtypes. It is sufficient to know that a normal verse contains two heavily stressed syllables and a light verse only one. (For those who are interested, however, there is a full inventory of the various subtypes. Moreover readers of the translation can display the number and verse-type notation of every verse by using the controls provided by the interface.)

Heavy Verses

Heavy verses are comparatively rare in Beowulf. There are only twenty-three in this translation; all of them occur in exactly the same places as do the twenty-three heavy verses of the original. Heavy verses usually—but not always—occur in pairs. Odd-numbered heavy verses contain three heavily stressed syllables; even-numbered heavy verses contain two heavily stressed syllables, like normal verses, but a greater number of anacruses than are permitted in normal verses.[4*] In the text printed here, heavy verses are distinguished from normal verses by being extended to the left beyond the normal-verse margin. Here is a string of fifteen normal and heavy verses:

[T]he king of the Geats,
the heir of Hrethel,
gave Eofor and Wulf
unwonted wealth
to reward their valor:
a hundred thousand
hides of folk-land,
farmsteads of fabulous value;
nor could he be faulted for that largess,
idly censured by others,
since they had earned it in battle;
and Eofor got the king's
only daughter
as a prize for his hearth
and a pledge of favor.

Here is the passage again, with stresses and verse subtypes indicated:[5*]

Metrical diagram for lines: [T]he king of the Geats, 2B2a / the heir of Hrethel, +1A1a(i) / gave Eofor and Wulf 3B*1a / unwonted wealth 3B1a / to reward their valor: ++1A1a(i) / a hundred thousand +2A1a(i) / hides of folk-land, 1A1a(i) / farmsteads of fabulous value, 1A*1a(3A1) / nor could he be faulted for that largess, a1d(1A*1b) / idly censured by others, 2A1(1A*1a) / since they had earned it in battle; a1c(1A*1a) / and Eofor got the king's +2E1b / only daughter 2A1a(i) / as a prize for his hearth 2B2b / and a pledge of favor. ++1A1a(i)

Alliteration

Structural alliteration—alliteration that occurs in regular recurring patterns and is therefore an element of formal structure—is obligatory in both the Old English original of Beowulf and the present translation.

The word "alliteration" denotes a correspondence between the initial sounds of heavily stressed syllables; thus big and bat; single, cycle and psychic; quarter and akimbo; nebulous and Scandinavia; ache, eight, and creation. Note that alliteration involves a correspondence of sounds, irrespective of their spelling; also that alliterating stressed syllables can occur within words as well as at their beginning.[6*]

In the present translation, a given Modern English sound normally alliterates only with itself, as in the above examples. But there are some special cases:

—. any vowel or diphthong alliterates with any other vowel or diphthong, thus

Otherwise, ever
after, he is doomed

—. each of the following sounds alliterates only with itself, never with any of the others (or with simple s-):

sh- (as in "shallow" or "assurance")
sk- (as in "skull" or "square")
sp- (as in "speed")
st- (as in "sturdy")

—. the sound [w], however spelled (e.g., whether as in "want" or as in "once"), alliterates with the sound [wh] (as in "white" or "whale").

—. the sound [r] (as in "rapid" or "arrest") alliterates with the sound [hr] (as in "Hrothgar").

Distribution of Alliterants

In odd-numbered normal verses, either the first heavily stressed syllable or both heavily stressed syllables alliterate with the first heavily stressed syllable of the even-numbered verse that follows. In even-numbered normal verses, the first of the two heavily stressed syllables—and only the first—alliterates with the alliterating syllable(s) of the preceding odd-numbered verse.[7*] Thus we find both

5 how the great war-chiefs [odd-numbered normal verse]
gained their renown [following even-numbered normal verse]
and
9 mastered the meadhalls [odd-numbered normal verse]
of many peoples [following even-numbered normal verse]

In light verses, which can occur in either odd- or even-numbered position, the single heavily stressed syllable alliterates with the alliterating syllable(s) in its companion verse, e.g.,

143 the gifts God [odd-numbered normal verse]
had given him [following even-numbered light verse]
or
87 than the warriors [odd-numbered light verse]
who had once sent him [following even-numbered normal verse]

In odd-numbered heavy verses, two of the three heavily stressed syllables alliterate with each other. In even-numbered heavy verses, the first of the two heavily stressed syllables alliterates with the alliterating syllables of its companion verse.

Here is a string of normal, heavy, and light verses, showing the various alliteration patterns:

"As a king who tries
to encourage truth
among his people,
and who remembers days
sunk in darkness,
I say this warrior
was born a hero!
Beowulf, my friend,
your fame has reached out
to far peoples,
men in remotest regions!
Because you have both might and wisdom,
fierceness in fighting and judgment,
I am not afraid to support you
fully with my friendly counsels.
In the future, I reckon,
you will be your land's
blessing and hope,
unlike our late
lord Heremod,
who brought no blessing
but bloodshed, grief,
danger and death
to the Danish race,
the heirs of Ecgwela.
In his angry fits
he killed his comrades
and close associates
until forced to flee
his fatherland
and the delights of men,
a forlorn exile.

The Oral Delivery of the Text

The present Web site contains an extensive sound file in which the translator provides an oral reading of his translation. Users of the site can either listen to this recording concentratedly and without distraction, or listen to it while following the printed text on the screen.

The entire sound file can be heard uninterruptedly from beginning to end (this takes about three hours)[8*] or it can be accessed at the beginning of each of the 44 sections into which the reading is divided (and which correspond to the numbered section-divisions of the surviving manuscript). To access the desired portion of the sound file, find—in the printed text—the section you wish to hear, then click on the sound icon at its beginning.

Anyone wishing to give his/her own oral performance of the text, or part of it, and who wishes to adopt the performance in the sound file as a model, should understand—what most potential readers will understand anyway—that the quality of the performance is dependent on the skill, taste, intuition, and discretion of the individual performer. The translator's performance is to be regarded as normative and exemplary, not prescriptive. It is—in musical terms—simply one possible realization of the score.

Hence individual performers have a good deal of leeway and scope for individuality. For example, the rule that every normal verse contains two "heavily stressed syllables" and a number of "lightly stressed syllables" does not mean that the verse contains only two levels of stress, or that a monotonous "two-stress-level" performance is to be encouraged. It only means that two of the syllables in every normal verse are more heavily stressed than the others. A performer who takes the ordinary, colloquial patterns of modern spoken English as a guide is unlikely to go very far wrong.


Notes

[1*] With four major exceptions, the meter of the translation is based on the Sievers/Bliss analysis of the meter of the original, that is, the analysis proposed by E. Sievers, Altgermanische Metrik (Halle 1893) as modified in important respects by A. J. Bliss, The Metre of Beowulf (Oxford 1962). (Sievers identified five diffrent patterns of stress-distribution in the verses of Beowulf and labeled them types ABCD and E in order of decreasing frequency.) The four exceptions are (1) the omission of all verse types involving secondary stress, (2) the elimination of the role played by resolved stress, (3) the introduction of verses of Type F, and (4) the admission of extended anacruses in forestressed verse types A, D, and E. For an inventory of verse types permitted in the present translation, see below.

[2*] This practice presened no real obstacle to understanding the metrical structure of the poetry, which was clearly signposted by the recurrent alliteration patterns. In some manuscripts of Old English poetry, additional guidance for readers was provided: individual verses were separated by a simple raised point (punctus). Treated in this way, the passage cited in the text would would look like this:

when I first set out · on this far adventure · with my faithful thanes · I was firmly resolved · either to end · the evil plight · of denmark forever · or to die fighting · your ancient enemy · either to achieve · a mighty victory · or to meet death · grim and inglorious · in this great wine-hall

[3*] Bliss presents evidence to suggest that the metrical structure of an individual verse may not be totally independent of the structure of its alliterative companion (pp. 135-8). If this is indeed the case, it would be an argument in favor of the line-by-line layout in presentations of the Old English text. It would not, however, have any relevance to the layout of this translation, in which no metrical relationship between two members of an alliterating pair is ever posited.

[4*] For an analysis of heavy verses and an explanation of the notation used to represent them, see Bliss pp. 88-97 and 129-133.

[5*] Plus signs preceding subtype notations indicate anacruses.

[6*] On a few occasions, in the translation, alliteration reflects the way the text is actually pronounced, not the way it is conventionally spelled or syllabicated, e.g.,

they never bring it
an ounce of profit

or

Moreover, written
in runic symbols

[7*] The alliteration of weakly-stressed syllables is "accidental" and metrically irrelevant.

[8*] For persons approaching Beowulf for the first time, it is strongly recommended that they listen to the sound stream all the way through without looking at the printed text. This will enable their imaginations to respond in a creative way to the imagery, emotions and rhetorical structures of the text.

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