Witan: Books and Books and Books


1. to wit, know, have knowledge, be aware. 

2. have knowledge, be aware of 

– Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary

My research buddy appreciated good sources as much as the next guy.

My research buddy appreciates good sources as much as the next guy.

With all this talk of reading and translating and comparing, I thought it might be helpful to share all my sources, and take a look at my typical translation process.

So, without further ado, welcome to the Old English Book Tour (now with color-coding!):

George Jack:

Brown & Green 

It all starts with this student edition – the text is in Old English with line numbers, and Jack includes a gloss of key words in the margins, as well as footnotes unpacking more complex sections. This is the main edition of the Old English text we used when I took a Beowulf class at St Andrews, so you could say I’m still building off of those initial foundations.


Color Key: Brown

Brown indicates Old English. I write out the Old English lines in my translation binder first, and add Jack’s glossary definitions after that.


This color (like the book cover) indicates glossary definitions Jack offers. Since he only glosses key words, it’s lucky I have a couple other sources.

John Porter:



Porter comes next in the lineup – his text offers a side-by-side comparison. Old English is on the left page, while translations of individual words are on the right-hand page.

Unlike modern English translations you might buy at Barnes & Noble – like Seamus Heaney’s translation – Porter’s word-by-word translation isn’t stylistic or pretty. It isn’t cleaned up to make grammatical or stylistic sense, it just offers a side-by-side comparison of what each word means in modern English.



Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary

Blue & Pink 

Porter and Jack only offer one or two translations of Old English words, so I also consult a more detailed and extensive Anglo-Saxon dictionary.

First published in 1898, the dictionary was based on the work and manuscripts of Joseph Bosworth, and edited by T. Northcote Toller. Today, it is the largest complete dictionary of Old English. Copies cost around $3oo, not including the enlarged supplemental volumes added by Alistair Campell in 1972.

Luckily, I purchased a “somewhat” cheaper secondhand copy of the dictionary from a library.


Color Code: Blue – Print 

I use blue to indicate the print dictionary’s contents, and crack it open for more detailed investigation into words, or when none of my other sources can deliver an answer. Rifling through the heaps of pages is time-consuming though, and makes the tedious translation process take even longer.

Pink – Online 

Luckily, a project to digitize the Bosworth-Toller dictionary began in 2001, and this online version has been a godsend. Searching for words and deducing root-words from conjugated forms goes so much faster, so I can save my hefty print volume for emergencies and later on in my research when I’m analyzing word connotations for the written thesis.




There are also two print-based translations I am comparing to the Old English source material – a translation by Irish poet Seamus Heaney first published in 1999, and a 2018 graphic novel created by Santiago García and David Rubín. Heaney’s translation is a traditional poetic take, whereas the graphic novel is visually striking but hugely condenses long speeches and chunks of text.

These two works, along with the 2007 Beowulf film, offer a range of translations and adaptations to compare for my thesis. How do their word choices or artistic choices affect audiences’ perceptions of characters, themes, and situations?

For example, in the film, Grendel is depicted as a sad, sniveling creature covered in scabs and suffering from sensitive hearing. In the graphic novel, Grendel is a hulking, wiry beast, sketched in blacks and reds – one who seems dangerous and formidable. And when Heaney describes the Grendel’s attack on the Geatish guards, he describes Grendel as having “claw” and “talon”  (Heaney ll. 746, 748), whereas the corresponding Old English section says Grendel uses his “handa” and “folme” – which means only ‘hands’ or ‘palms’ (ll. 746b, 748a). Even though all three adaptations depict Grendel, they describe or portray his character in very different ways. It’s these kinds of nuances I’m interested in unpacking – I want to understand if translations should be viewed as their own creative act, or if accuracy is essential for translated texts to truly be accessible.


  1. cmwilson01 says:

    Hi Anna! Your color coding system is very impressive and well-thought-out. It seems like that will be helpful in maintaining the variation of meanings offered for each word across all of the translations and even across dictionaries. From your source photos, there is even interesting variation in the styles of the covers. The newer, mass-culture adaptations by Heaney or Rubin and Garcia have such similar colors and violent motifs of splotches and slashes: they really appeal to an action-adventure audience more than the more historically minded covers from Porter and Jack. Wishing you all the best with your continued research! -Colleen

  2. elkitchens says:

    Anna this translation work sounds fascinating! Having conducted the majority of my ethnographic research in Italian, with many non native Italian speakers, I have seen many examples of how language shapes the way we view the world. Seeing how different translations of Beowulf compare and effect their audience will be very interesting, and I enjoy seeing your process.

    There is a book I have read called “Grendel,” by John Gardner, that is Beowulf from Grendel’s perspective that I think you would find very interesting. It is a more modern literary take on the story and humanizes Grendel. (It’s also very short)