Book of the week

| 1 Comment


Beowulf, translated by Burton Raffel

You'd think Beowulf would be boring, or at least difficult to wade through. And if you just glance at the plot -- hero defeats some monsters and doesn't defeat a monster, blah blah blah -- it doesn't sound like the most exciting read.

But it IS. It is the most exciting read, and what's more, it's beautiful:

Ready for what came they wound through the currents,
The seas beating at the sand, and were borne
In the lap of their shining ship, lined
With gleaming armor, going safely
In that oak-hard boat to where their hearts took them.
The wind hurried them over the waves,
The ship foamed through the seas like a bird
Until, in the time they had known it would take,
Standing in the round-curled prow they could see
Sparkling hills, high and green,
Jutting up over the shore, and rejoicing
In those rock-steep cliffs they quietly ended
Their voyage.

And there follows a tale of the mightiest hero the world has ever known doing battle with giants and sea creatures and demons and dragons (one dragon), in a world thick with tradition and ritual and damn fine drinking songs. I really do not know what more you could want.

The only thing that might trouble you is if you happen to live with someone, as I do, who read Beowulf in the original. I always assumed this would be like reading The Canterbury Tales in the original. Yeah? No. Here is an excerpt:

Fyrst forð gewat. Flota wæs on yðum,
bat under beorge. Beornas gearwe
on stefn stigon; streamas wundon,
sund wið sande; secgas bæron
on bearm nacan beorhte frætwe,

guðsearo geatolic [...]

Listen, even the Swedish Chef is flinging up his hands in exasperation right now. So it's tough not to be intimidated by this guy I live with, but I persevere.

I read Burton Raffel's translation, and I'm glad I did, because otherwise I might never have known that somewhere out there was a parent strange enough to name her child Burton Raffel. And also Raffel's translation is rich, clear and thrilling. However, I'd be willing to try another as well, if anyone has a suggestion. I think the odds of receiving such a suggestion are low, but I thought I would put it out there.

1 Comment

did he understand the original?