J.R.R. Tolkien 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publish the translation along with his father’s series of lectures given at Oxford about the poem in the 1930s and the unpublished ballad Sellic Spell — an imagined story of Beowulf in an early form.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 

Literati – “A look at the world of books, publishing and writers” ( 2 June 2014)

Literati – “A look at the world of books, publishing and writers” ( 2 June 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose My monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 31 May 2014) and in print ( 1 June 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6069748.ece?textsize=small&test=2 . I am also c&p the text below. 

In translation

I am reading a terrific cluster of books — Rakhshanda Jalil’s A Literary History of the Progressive Writer’s Movement in Urdu (OUP); A Rebel and her Cause: The life of Dr Rashid Jahan, (Women Unlimited); and two simultaneous publications of the English translation of Angaarey — nine stories and a play put together in Urdu by Sajjad Zahir in 1932 (Rupa Publications and Penguin Books). Angaarey includes contributions by PWM members such as Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduzzafar. As Nadira Babbar, Sajjad Zahir’s daughter says in her introduction to the Rupa edition: “The young group of writers of Angaarey challenged not just social orthodoxy but also traditional literary narratives and techniques. In an attempt to represent the individual mind and its struggle, they ushered in the narrative technique known as the stream of consciousness which was then new to the contemporary literary scene and continues to be significant in literature even today. …they saw art as a means of social reform.” She says that her father did not consider the writing of Angaarey and the subsequent problems they faced as any kind of hardship or sacrifice; rather “it provided them with the opportunity of expressing truths simply felt and clearly articulated.” It is curious that at a time when publishers worry about the future of the industry, there are two translations of the same book from two different publishers.

Translations are a way to discover a new socio-cultural and literary landscape. Last month, the English translation of Joel Dicker’s debut novel The Harry Quebert Affair (MacLehose Press), which has created one of the biggest stirs in publishing, was released. A gripping thriller, originally in French, it has sold over two million copies in other languages. A look at some other notable translations published recently:

Mikhail Shashkin’s disturbing but very readable Maidenhair (Open Letter), translated from Russian by Marian Schwartz, about asylum-seekers in Switzerland.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Quesadillas (And Other Stories) translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey is about 1980s Mexico.

Roberto Bolano’s The Insufferable Gaucho (Picador), a collection of short stories, translated from Spanish by Chris Andrews.

There is a range of European writers to be discovered in English translation on the Seagull Books list, Indian regional language writers from Sahitya Akademi, NBT, Penguin Books India, OUP, HarperCollins, Zubaan, Hachette, Navayana, Stree Samya, and Yatra Books.

Oxford University Press’s Indian Writing programme and the Oxford Novellas series are broader in their scope including works translated from Dogri and Konkani and looking at scripts from Bhili and Tulu.

Translations allow writers of the original language to be comfortable in their own idiom, socio-political milieu without carrying the baggage of other literary discourses. Translated literature is of interest to scholars for its cultural and literary value and, as Mini Krishnan, Series Editor, Oxford Novellas, writes, “the distinctive way they carry the memories and histories of those who use them”. Making the rich content available is what takes precedence. Within this context, debates about the ethics of publishing a translation such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1926 prose translation of Beowulf (HarperCollins), 88 years later, seem to be largely ignored though Tolkein described it as being “hardly to my liking”.

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Linguistic maps available at http://www.muturzikin.com/ show the vast number of languages that exist apart from English. In the seven states of northeast of India alone there are 42 documented languages. Reports such as http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/content_language/ all indicate that content languages (all though with strong literary traditions) such as Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit, Punjabi and even Irish are used by less than one per cent of websites. Google India estimates that the next 300 million users from India won’t use English. It isn’t surprising then to discover that Google announced the acquisition of Word Lens, an app which can translate a number of different languages in real time. For now users can translate between English and Portuguese, German, Italian, French, Russian, and Spanish. Indian languages may be underrepresented on the Internet but, with digital media support and the rapid acceptance of unicode, an encoding which supports Indic fonts, translations will become easier. Soon apps such as Word Lens may expand to include other languages, probably even circumventing the need of publishers to translate texts.