Hwæt – Beginning Beowulf


used as an adverb or interjection: Why, what! Ah!; How, what; well, so, indeed, certainly

-Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary


Hwæt – the first word in the 3,182 line Old English epic seems like a fitting first word for my first blog post now that my research is officially underway.


Page 53 of my ever-growing document comparing Heaney's translation with the Old English original.

Page 53 of my ever-growing document comparing Heaney’s translation with the Old English original.

Because I’m examining the relationship between translations, adaptations, and their source material, a key part of my research is translating the entire Old English epic – line by line, word by word. When I first planned out my summer, I thought I could translate 70 lines a day, compare the section with other adaptations, and read other resources or relevant articles.

….it turns out I was a bit naive.

Since my summer began, translating has bogged me down. I generally only manage 50 lines a day, and spend big chunks of time going back to do close comparisons of word choice with Seamus Heaney’s translation and a 2018 graphic novel.

Why is translating so tedious?

Well, it depends. Sometimes, sentences are short and simple. For example:

“He beot ne aleh, beagas dælde, / sinc æt symle.” (OE ll. 80-81a) 

This line is fairly straightforward, with a very direct translation that turns into something like:

“He left no promise unfulfilled, rings were shared out, / treasures at the feast.”

Other times, sentences or complete thoughts span more than 15 lines – and it takes more focus to connect the half-lines together into coherent poetry.

With so much reading and translating, snacks are essential.

With so much reading and translating, snacks are essential.

Over time, my translating skills have gotten stronger. Although Old English is full of many unique words, there are some frequent fliers I’m recognizing and now know without consulting my dictionaries, which helps cut down on some of the translating time. It also took a while to get back into the groove again, to sit and focus for hours (without panicking I was going to lose my eyesight).

June was definitely a learning curve, but now I have a handle on translating and comparing with adaptations. It’s not perfect though – I still need to fit in secondary reading in there somewhere…hopefully I can figure something out.


  1. Kathryn Eckler says:

    As a part of my British Literature Class in high school, I was required to read Beowulf in the opening weeks of the course. While I am sure that I would appreciate the classic work more today that I did four years ago, I always remember the epic poem fondly. My teacher would write lines of the original Old English on her dusty slate chalkboard. I always found it a great curiosity that the English language has changed so much over time. Translation is an arduous task that takes a large amount of time, perseverance, and dedication (and snacks!). Some of my research for the summer includes translating German and Austrian newspapers and periodicals. And while the words can run together, I remind myself that I am telling a story to an audience that might otherwise not have access to the information that I am able to understand. Your task is even more fascinating; you are translating one of the most important works in English language so that the story of Beowulf can be told once again.