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

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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, [1*] 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[2*] 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).


Notes

[1*] 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

[2*] 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.

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