What is the best translation by Beowulf

The story of the heroic deeds of Prince Beowulf of the Goths was written down in an Anglo-Saxon dialect that is incomprehensible today and has been - and is - translated time and again not only into modern English, but also into German. Stefana Sabin compares the last two German translations.

Translation comparison

Hero against hero

The account of the heroic deeds of the Goth Prince Beowulf has the same status in English literature as the Rolandslied in French, the story of the Cid in Spanish and the Nibelungenlied in German: a heroic epic from ancient times that established a national linguistic and literary tradition Has. “Beowulf” was also passed down orally; the epic is believed to have been sung rather than spoken for centuries before someone wrote it down around 1000.

The only manuscript was considered lost for a long time, was found again, then ignored, then damaged, first found its way into the British Museum, then into the collection of the British Library, was transcribed, edited, translated into modern English, elevated from Romanticism to the identity-creating national epic by of modernity ennobled for school reading and finally digitized in a large-scale philological-electronic project in 1995 (ebeowulf).

In contrast to the Roland and the Nibelungenlied, which also became useful for cultural self-discovery and positioning because of the geographical correspondence between the location of the action and the later nation-state, “Beowulf” is set far from the British Isles in northern Europe, in today's southern Sweden and Denmark; There is talk of Swedes, Danes, Frisians and Goths. (The Danish scholar Grimur Jonsson Torkelin had transcribed the manuscript at the end of the 18th century and wanted it to be understood as a Danish national epic.)

In fact, Danes appear in the first line: In the translation by Gisbert Haefs, the epic begins with an almost Homeric evocation of the "bold deeds of the Spear Danes", whose King Hrothgar had the magnificent Heorot Castle built and there "a happy life" leads until the "grim spirit" Grendel every evening "brings ruin with wild rage, hatred and slaughter." In the translation by Johannes Frey, it is reported of "Ger-Danes of bygone days" who build "the largest of the halls" for their king and lived there in "happiness and joy" until an "enemy from hell / his doings began and performed trickery." So Beowulf comes across the sea to assist King Hrothgar - to "defensive battles and to help," says Haefs. With Frey, Beowul wants to "meet the giant alone in the courtroom" and fight with him: "Hero against hero." First Beowulf kills the giant Grendel, then Grendel's mother, is celebrated as a savior and given rich gifts and returns home to King Hygelac with the treasures ; when first this and then his son Heardred die, Beowulf himself becomes king. He ruled peacefully for fifty years, but when his empire was invaded by a dragon, he had to fight again as an old man. Although he succeeds in defeating the dragon, he is mortally wounded in the process. "The soul fled from his breast and sought the seat of the righteous," says Haefs, and Frey: "He himself did not know / what his departure from earth looked like his end." So instead of a happy ending, the hero's death in battle and his solemn burial. At Haefs, Beowulf is mourned by his followers as "of all men the mildest and most philanthropic"; at Frey, "the orphans lamented the woes of their time / the death of their prince," of whom it is said: "He would be a true hero / a king on earth, and the best of all: / just and also generous, kind and benevolent / and always ready for eternal glory. "

Written in an Anglo-Saxon dialect that is now incomprehensible, “Beowulf” has been translated into English again and again - most recently in 2000, when the Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney gave the millennium-old epic a poetic luster, with which the old English verses escape the stink of school reading and the fantasy of fashionable literature are. Heaney's broadcast became a literary hit on both sides of the Atlantic. And Hollywood also discovered the story-telling Old English saga and in 2007 turned Beowulf into a global heap in a big cinema spectacle.

Like many canonical works, “Beowulf” has been translated, retold and retold into German again and again. As Gisbert Haefs announced in 2007, there were various options for a new version: “As a fantasy novel or as a laconic saga, right up to free retelling or even a repositioning in politically correct, pacifist, gender-equitable language.” Haefs, who is also an experienced narrator is like being a translator and who has mastered the stylistic register of fantasy literature as well as the means of commercial literature, had opted for a prose version, which, however, was closely based on the verse translation by Martin Lehnert from 1986. Syntactic normalizations and the renunciation of redundancies customary in the genre improved the flow of the narrative; Explanations embedded inconspicuously in the text made the fabulous circumstances comprehensible, and simple, plot-related chapter headings (“Beowulf's Homecoming” or “Beowulf's Death”) gave the story, which progresses in flashbacks and predictions and in subplots, narrative coherence. An additionally invented prologue about the writing of the epic faked the source fiction and gave the story a historical and cultural hold. Beowulf, whom Seamus Heaney had already stylized as a hero in human format, became a "warrior in need" at Haenfs, whose fighting energy was not aggressive but defensive and whose unwanted fight with the dragon made death inevitable in one of the most important cities The power of fate Wyrd ruled the world suggests.

If Haenf's antihero prose translation is too unspectacular, Frey's rhymed version can now be used. Haenfs had freed the epic, in which Germanic legends mix with Christian motifs, of pathos - Frey gives it back to him. Frey has already made “Beowulf” a “heroic song” again in the subtitle and wants to preserve the “literary beauty and force” of the original in verse with all-in-all. Whether Haenf's modern (anti) heroic epic or Frey's old-fashioned dragon tale - Beowulf is a great story!

created on 03/11/2013
updated on 3/8/2014