Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Recommendation: Beowulf, Ringler trans.

I've been meaning to do book recommendations of interest to medieval folkloristics a little more frequently than the, um, once that has happened so far. So here's one: you should read Beowulf. I mean, of course you should read Beowulf. But there's one thing far better, and that's hearing Beowulf read or recited well.

The poetics of Modern English differ from those of Anglo-Saxon, but in Beowulf: a New Translation for Oral Delivery, Dick Ringler mimics the alliterative style of the original, and does so masterfully.

Beowulf is an epic poem that originates in the oral tradition but was given fixed manuscript form by a few anonymous monks, who are believed to also be responsible for lightly Christianizing the content. Thus, what remains to us is some mix of the work of folk tradition and the work of these talented revisers; in both cases, however, the many authors whose handiwork the surviving form of the poem reflects took great care to ensure that the poem would sound good when recited out loud.

Ringler's complete translation of the epic, with audio, is available online. While the translation is a little bit less precise than Heaney's more famous version, for my money it captures the feel of an oral poem far better, and does so without resorting to the conventions of rhythm and rhyme used by modern poets, mostly adhering to an Old English sense of meter, and making use of alliteration in ways broadly similar to the forms used in the original.

As a sometime translator of foreign poetic forms myself, my hat is off to all who attempt to tackle Beowulf and other lengthy works of Old English verse, but Ringler remains my personal favorite.

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