“A-Wendan” – An Abstract on Beowulf Translations


verb, transitive: to translate, change, to turn upside down, pervert

– Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary

The first time I read Beowulf, it was in an English translation. Without really thinking about it, I assumed I was reading an “accurate” translation of the text, one that strove to be faithful to the Old English manuscript for my scholarly benefit. A naive idea, perhaps, but I was still an optimistic student. There were moments where I did wonder how closely I could analyze word choice – maybe there were some differences between translation and original text I wasn’t aware of. Growing up in a bilingual family, I had some awareness of translation’s challenges, and the struggle to find the “perfect” word when we tried translating jokes or subtitles for friends as children.

South, Anna 2

But it was Christine Alfano’s article, “The Issue of Feminine Monstrosity” that opened my eyes to the huge discrepancies between modern Beowulf translations and the Old English original. Her article focuses on discriptions of Grendel’s mother – while the Old English poet calls her a “ides” (lady), and “aglæcwif” (warrior woman), modern English translations use words like “monstrous ogress”, “witch of the sea”, or “monster woman” (2). Alfano worried that the translators prejudiced readers against more humane readings of Grendel’s mother (2).

I felt betrayed. I had noticed similar word choices in the translation I used to first read Beowulf. What else had been misrepresented to me? I started wondering what a translator’s obligation was to faithfulness, and to what degree translation could be considered its own creative act, with room for creative license.

These initial questions, musings, and curiosities have led to my Honors Thesis, and the focus of my summer research.

South, Anna 4


Beowulf is a text shrouded in mystery and obscurity, because its Old English language intimidates today’s students, who rely primarily on modern English translations to make the poem accessible. The impact of translations goes beyond making an old poem readable – we rely on translators to make any written work in a foreign language accessible. But what gets lost in translation? For my thesis, I plan to examine the impact of translators’ ‘artistic’ word choice deviations from the original text and take a closer look at Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, which interjects a layer of political commentary about English colonization of Ireland into his translation of the poem. I will analyze the 2007 film adaptation of Beowulf, and the corresponding video game as forms of adaptation. What are the impacts and implications of adaptations that take serious creative liberties with a text, and are the standards different for textual adaptations versus those for films, video games, or other visual mediums?

There are many questions, but hopefully a summer of research, interviews, and work on developing a personal translation of the Old English poem will help me develop some answers.


Curious? Take a look at the references:

Alfano, Christine. “The Issue of Feminine Monstrosity: A Reevaluation of Grendel’s Mother.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol. 23, no. 1, 1992, pp. 1-16.

Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary