Lost in Translation?


It is firmly drilled into us that the classics, such as The Iliad, The Aeneid or Beowulf, are superior works of art. Much of what we now read contains techniques and ideas that began in those ancient times. So it was quite alarming when academics started claiming that Seamus Heaney, in fact academics over the past 200 years, had translated the first line of Beowulf incorrectly.

The opening line “hwaet” had previously been interpreted as a modern day, attention grabbing “so!” by Seamus Heaney. This would entice the audience to sit down and listen to the epic story of the heroic Beowulf.
If you don’t know, an epic was a long poem narrating the tale of a heroic person. There were a lot of battle scenes and the sense of earning one’s honour was paramount. They were read aloud, so the words were important in keeping the audience entertained.

Yet, according to the academic, Dr George Walkden, of the University of Manchester, the opening is more of an introduction to the rest of the narrative rather than a means of gaining the audience’s attention,. Anglo-saxon audiences were apparently more attentive. Therefore the opening sentence: “Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga,  þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas  ellen fremedon”, translates as: “How we have heard of the might of the kings”.

Academics argue that an accurate interpretation is pertinent in understanding more of the past.  So it would seem that such a simple word misinterpreted for two centuries could hugely alter the way we read a text. It causes one to question whether we can trust other translated classics. But has it really been a falsehood, and does it really matter that much?

One thing you must remember is that languages cannot be translated word for word and appear exactly the same. So the effects would have been different in the old and new languages.

How many people do you know that can read and interpret ancient Greek, Latin or Old English? So considering Heaney translated most of the text “successfully”, it seems that people are overreacting. A variety of academics, like Fagels formerly known for translating both Homer’s The Iliad and Virgil’s The Aeneid, have attempted to unravel the mysteries of the dead languages. Realistically, there is no definitive right or wrong answer for no one is able to resolve it with any native, living person; we can only discern what has been passed down through time. And, we all know this can become a little fuzzy; it becomes a theory.

This is why the texts always have ‘translated by’ smack bang in the middle of the covers; they are an individual’s interpretation. Without these intellectuals we would not have any comprehension of the classic literature that shapes much of what we now have. But part of the appeal is being aware that we will never be able to fully recognise the answer.

Emma Spencer


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