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Beowulf and Other Old English Poems (review)
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Beowulf and Other Old English Poems, trans. Craig Williamson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2011) xxxii + 255 pp.

Beowulf is not only the most translated work of the Anglo-Saxon period, it might be the most translated composition of the first millennium, as no fewer than forty translations have been published in the last century. To these may now be added that of Craig Williamson, who collects in his new book the “greatest hits” of Old English poetic literature and presents them in translation. Williamson has offered extremely able translations, and the proems before each translation accurately and adequately summarize the interpretive scholarship on them. In addition to a translation of Beowulf, this book contains translations of forty-six other works, of which thirty are riddles and three are charms. Among the other poems Williamson translates are The Seafarer, The Wife’s Lament, Wulf and Eadwacer, and The Dream of the Rood. Tom Shippey, a noted Tolkienist and a scholar of Old English verse in his own right, provides a foreword that seeks to contextualize the poems—in terms of their compositional milieux, their historical environments, and the long shadows they have subsequently cast. Williamson’s general introduction is a concise and cogent treatise on Old English poetics and translation. The seven-page bibliography is thorough, if not complete (no attempt is made, for instance, to locate Williamson’s translation in the tradition of Beowulf translation.) The index contains entries only for the apparatus criticus—not for the translated texts themselves. To the end matter are added a Glossary of Proper Names (237–243), and four appendices, the most useful of which (Appendix D) proposes solutions to the riddles translated from the Exeter Book.

The translation of Beowulf is a notoriously difficult task, and Williamson is to be commended for producing a fluent and lively text that recalls the language of the original to the beginning student of Old English literature. To give a sense of how difficult and contentious a translation of Beowulf actually is, the opening word “Hwæt”—ostensibly meaning “what” and employed in Old English as something akin to a vocative particle meant to elicit attention and command an audience to hear—has been variously translated as “So,” “Lo,” “Yes,” “Look,” “Behold,” “Well,” and “Attend,” in addition to being left untranslated or omitted entirely; Williamson translates it as “Listen.” That scholarly consensus cannot be established on the opening word does not bode well for the subsequent 3,182 lines of the poem. The root of the issue is the deep-seated affinity that Beowulf seems uniquely able to inspire in scholars of multiple disciplines (e.g., History, English, Linguistics, etc.). The intoxicating allure of the poem has occasioned a multitude of strategies for translation. So, which strategy is the right one? How ought the translator to deal with kennings? How ought the translator attend to his or her duties to the language of the original while still capturing the conceptual essence of the poem well enough to communicate it to a modern audience? What of meter? What of formal conventions? With these concerns doubtlessly in mind, Williamson has produced a satisfactory translation that preserves aspects of the original, but does not depart radically from other tacks taken in earlier translational attempts.

Williamson lays out his translational strategy in his introduction (1–28), and endeavors to offer an alliterative verse-translation in an attempt to capture the spirit of the original language. It is clear that he is very capable of doing so; [End Page 161] indeed, Williamson’s alliterative verse is impressively consistent. But the attempt to preserve this convention leads him away from a more literal translation that might have been more appropriate to the enterprise. The heavy-lifting of translation is done behind the valence of the verse itself, and no gloss is offered or attempted. So, instead of preserving the language, Williamson ultimately preserves his own conception of the sense of the language, and twists his translation to fit that sense accordingly. This critique is compounded by the editorial choice not to provide a facing-page edition along with the translated text, in contrast to other recent translators...