Translation Theory for Beowulf

This blog post really revealed to me the obscurity of my thesis topic. I’m enjoying the challenge of finding creative resources. Honestly, I had a hard time with this blog post, because none of the three prompts really directly apply to my thesis subject without some tweaking. The primary texts I will be working with, Beowulf, and a multitude of the Icelandic sagas, have no known author, because they were mainly told orally until written down later by a nameless scribe. I think the best response to these prompts would be to research a little translation theory, since I know nothing about it and I’m working with strictly translations. Beowulf was written in Old English, and the Icelandic sagas were written in ancient Icelandic. Since it’s impossible to close-read the actual texts, I have to look at a few different translations of my chosen passages, because, for example, I cannot analyze something like word choice if I am not actually reading the original words. Zohre Owji describes some problems that translators encounter when translating a text, and strategies that they employ to deal with these issues when they inevitably arise. She cites Mona Baker’s In other words: A Course Book on Translation for support in her arguments. She puts forth a list of constraints, or rules, for translation strategies. They must: apply to a process, involve text-manipulation, be goal-oriented and problem-centered, be applied consciously, and be inter-subjective. There is a careful relationship between the source-language text and the target-language readers. The original text must, in a way, be “decoded” from the original, only to be “recoded” for the reader, in a way that is obviously different, but also the same. Different, because the actual words themselves might be different languages, different iterations of the evolution of the same language, etc., and the same because the translator has the responsibility of not altering the meaning of the words. In order to close read Beowulf, I will be attempting to read some of the Old English version, with help from Peter Baker’s Intro to Old English, published by Wiley-Blackwell, and recommended to me by Professor Skalak, who specializes in medieval studies.  Unfortunately, I do not think it would be reasonable for me to try to decipher the Icelandic.

One of the main differences to keep in mind when dealing with Old vs. contemporary English is that Old English is an inflected language, like contemporary German. But present-day English has only a very few inflections, such as the plural and the possessive of nouns. There was much more variety in Old English. Using Baker’s book and Owji’s article, I will try to “decode” the Old English of Beowulf and “recode” it into contemporary English so that I can understand it, and see what how this added layer to my close reading and study of Beowulf changes my understanding of the text. Maybe I am being overly optimistic about my ability to translate Old English, but it might reveal a change in things like tone, or reveal something hidden in the syntax and form of the epic poem.

One thought on “Translation Theory for Beowulf”

  1. I could definitely track the entirety of your thought process throughout this post, and I appreciated the fact that you expressed your qualms about your thesis topic moving forward because I am having some of the same difficulties with my own thesis in terms of trying to narrow down the ambiguity/complexity of my topic. I think that your movement towards engaging in translation theory is worthwhile and will give you the ability to engage with the historical and oratory components of your primary works. I would definitely suggest reaching out to one of the Dickinson librarians because it might be interesting to find varying translations or to analyze the evolution of translations of your texts over time in order to gain insight into the works’ meaning (and perhaps how this meaning has changed over time). Overall, great blog post, and I think that you are doing everything that you need to in order to overcome the challenges posed by your thesis topic!

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