Harper Collins Publishers Posts

“Beowulf” A translation and commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Beowulf” is the longest Anglo-Saxon epic poem in Old English, and is dated to the early 11th century. It is about Geatish prince Beowulf who comes to the aid of Danish king Hroðgar, slaying the monster Grendel and his mother and fifty years later a dragon guarding treasure. Tolkien’s date for the poem is the 8th century. In 1920 Tolkien began teaching Old English at the University of Leeds. He finished translating the poem in 1926 but never published it. He was thirty-four.  He was in a dilemma which he expressed in a letter to Rayner Unwin of November 1965 concerning his inability to compose the ‘editorial’ matter to accompany his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

 I am finding the selection of notes, and compressing them, and the introduction, difficult. Too much to say, and not sure of my target. The main target is, of course, the general reader of literary bent but with no knowledge of Middle English; but it cannot be doubted that the book will be read by students, and by academic folk of ‘English Departments’. Some of the latter have their pistols loose in their holsters. 

Forty years after his death Tolkien’s third son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, decided to publish the translation along with his father’s series of lectures given at Oxford about the poem in the 1930s and the unpublished ballad Sellic Spell — an imagined story of Beowulf in an early form. Also included in the book are two versions of Lay of Beowulf. As Christopher recalls in the Preface: “His singing of the Lay remains for me a clear memory after more than eighty years, my first acquaintance with Beowulf and the golden hall of Heorot.”

For years now there has been speculation about the translation. In fact in 1999 Seamus Heaney published a brilliant translation of the poem which won the Whitbread prize too. In 2014 Tolkien’s estate announced the publication of Beowulf. Tolkien has in his translation retained the spirit of the poem, its descriptions and rawness but changed the alliteration in the original to run-on lines — a prose translation. There is considerable debate about this dramatic restructuring of the form in the “modern-day” translation by Tolkien. The majority view is that the clunkiness of Old English forced an alliterative structure to the poem for it to be narrated but this was no longer a necessity with modern English. It was possible to create a story in a nuanced fashion and hence Tolkien’s preference ( or presumably ease) with a prose version. Yet the shift in structure does little to spoil the beauty of the poem. There is a wonderful review-article of the book in the New Yorker by Joan Acocella. It was published within weeks of the book’s release in 2014. She gives a brilliant background to the possible compulsions ( read monetary) that drove Tolkien to consider a translation of this long poem before embarking upon an exquisite textual analysis of the poem. She compares the new translation with the original while comparing it to the Seamus Heaney translation. At the same time Joan Acocella brings in Tolkien’s fascination with languages — already told to fabricating new ones as he did famously for the Hobbit series with Elvish or the private language, Nevbosh, that he shared only with his cousin Mary. All these talents of Tolkien go into making the wonderful new translation of Beowulf.

It is a delicious translation enriched further by the endnotes and lectures. This volume is a keeper.

Beowulf ( Translated by J. R. R. Tolkien) Edited by Christopher Tolkien. HarperCollinsPublishers , London, 2014. Hb. pp. 430 Rs. 799 

Noelle Stevenson, “Nimona”

nimoina-coverNoelle Stevenson’s debut graphic novel Nimona is about a young shape shifter who is a badass sidekick to super villain, Lord Blackheart. It is utterly delightful for its romp through the world of evil. Nimona for all her evilness comes across as a super-confident young girl who is not deterred by any challenge. Sometimes even Lord nimona2Blackheart is taken aback by her boldness.

According to Wikipedia, Nimona is a fantasy comic by the American comics writer and artist Noelle Stevenson. Stevenson started Nimona as a webcomic while a student at Maryland Institute College of Art. The comic was first published in June 2012 and doubled as Stevenson’s senior thesis. HarperCollins published the webcomic as a young adult graphic novel Noelle Stevenson in May 2015.  In June 2015, 20th Century Fox Animation acquired the rights for an animated feature film adaptation. It has won a few awards and was shortlisted for the National Book Award 2015. ypl_nba2015pg

It is a book about a mighty girl. Meant to be owned. Savoured. Read over and over again.

Noelle Stevenson Nimona HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 2015. Pb. pp. 270 $12.99

18 April 2016 

Vivek Shanbhag’s “Ghachar Ghochar”, translated by Srinath Perur

Ghachar GhocharIt’s true what they say — it’s notwe who control money, it’s the money that controls us. 

And let’s face it: there’s a vast difference in the moral underpinnings of a business family and the household of a salaried teacher. 

Vivek Shanbhag’s new novella, Ghachar Ghochar, (HarperCollins India) translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur is about a middle class family that decides to start a spice business. The family prospers financially primarily due to the hard work of the young uncle. The narrator is sitting in a coffee shop reflecting, commenting and analysing his life. It is not exactly an interior monologue but it leaves you feeling as if it is. It is a vignette of a middle class life with some very perceptive comments embedded in the text such as “The woman had not abused. She had not come here to pick a fight. We were thrown off balance by her love for one of us, and so we tore into her with such vengeance that she collapsed to the ground, sobbing. Amma and Malati called her a beggar, a whore, and it was clear from the disbelief on her face that she had never been spoken to in this manner. … On that day I became convinced that it  is the words of women that deeply wound other women.” (p.15-16)

It is the only translation from an Indian regional language that was included in the Granta edition on India edited by Ian Jack published in 2015. With the publication of this book debates about translation have opened up once more. Purists claim that they are not happy with the it. Those who are familiar with the complexity of Vivek Shanbhag’s writing in Kannada say that the ending of the English version is too tame. I cannot comment since I am unable to read the text in Kannada but I do know that I am very glad that this story was made available in English by Srinath Perur. If it helps reactivate a debate on whether the English translation is true to the original text or is it catering to a new audience by capitulating to their tastes for world literature or is the ending in the English text a weakened version of the original then so be it. These conversations are necessary and a requirement for a healthy debate about the quality of literature. All said and done, this is finely etched novella should be essential reading.

Update ( 24 March 2016):

Recently the author read this blog post and sent me this email. I am posting an extract here with permission:

Dear Jaya,

I read your blog post. I edited and added a few pars to the Kannada version before it was translated into English. And this revised version is yet to be published in Kannada.
Not a sentence from the original was edited by the (Harper) editors, except one for providing more clarity. There were some small edits to make the reading better in English but not to alter the meaning of a sentence. So the English version is not really “tame” as compared to the original on which it was based. But I must admit that no Kannada reader has access to the new version it as it is yet to be published.

Warmly, 

Vivek

Vivek Shanbhag Ghachar Ghochar ( translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur) Harper Perennial, HarperCollins Publishers, NOIDA, India, 2015. Hb. pp. 115. Rs 399. 

January 2016