Translating English into English is just the start

Nænigne ic under swegle selran hyrde
hord-maððum hæleþa, syþðan Hama ætwæg
to þære byrhtan byrig Brosinga mene,
sigle ond sinc-fæt; searoniðas fleah
Eormenrices, geceas ecne ræd.
þone hring hæfde Higelac Geata,
nefa Swertinges….

I can’t make anything of it, either.

But our former American scholar, the translator and poet Meghan Purvis, can. It’s a bit of Old English, a bit of Beowulf, the first English epic. (You can now see the original manuscript online at the British Library.) ‘I translated Beowulf,’ Meghan says, ‘because I was intrigued by a poem so closely tied to the idea of Englishness … but so different from what we think of as our English world.’ You don’t have to look further than the language — what are those strange letters? — to get that.

The world of Beowulf is violent, feudal, and supernatural, but it is also a world deeply concerned with very modern questions: do we evaluate a person’s actions by words or by deeds? How do we value the ties that connect us? Is it possible to admire a hero while questioning his heroics?

Beowulf, by Meghan Purvis (Penned in the Margins, 2013)

And while we’re on the subject of heroics, I should mention that not only has Meghan’s translation been published (Penned in the Margins, 2013), she has won awards for it (the 2011 Times Stephen Spender Prize, the Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation for Summer 2013). A feat that eluded even Beowulf himself.

What’s it like? The publisher’s blog says, ‘Written across a range of poetic forms and voices, Meghan Purvis’s vigorous new rendering of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem captures the thrust and gore of battle, the sinister fens and moorlands of Dark Age Denmark, and the treasures and glories of the mead-hall.’

And here’s a prize-winning extract from the translation:

‘The Collar’

Eagles hunt high. Their feathers glint gold against the sun,
mica among the loam-specks of crows a sky-current below.
They hunt by sight – a rabbit tensing to the ground, grass tenting
over a field-mouse’s flight – or light against a gold collar,

a signal-fire gone wild to an empty sky. Coast closer.
The collar sits on Hygelac still, prideful where he clasped it
that dark morning, waves pushing him towards Frisia.
He fell under his shield, and his people’s flag covers them both.

A hand covers the collar and the eagle loses interest,
Franks come for golden carrion once the bravery of battle is gone.
Hygelac’s men sleep with him still, downed scarecrows
guarding a field of corpses. The wind has changed.

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