Review: 'Beowulf: A Verse Translation from the Anglo-Saxon' by Andrew B.F. Carnabuci

I was on a translation-reading roll during the weekend and even though it took me a little longer than expected, I did finally get to Andrew B.F. Carnabuci's translation of Beowulf. It is drastically different in tone and approach from the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translation I also read during the same weekend and as such the two contrasted rather nicely for me. Thanks to BooksGoSocial and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 2/15/2021
Publisher: BooksGoSocial

Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel! Beowulf is the classic Old English heroic-elegiac poem, presented here in a new verse translation. The poem follows the rise and fall of its titular hero on adventures in Denmark in his youth, and facing a dragon as the King of Geatland in his old age.

This edition is fully annotated throughout, and includes a translator's preface and introduction, pedigree diagrams for the major royal houses, and a full bibliography.

If you have never experienced the Anglo-Saxon world of savage violence, stark beauty, and deeply-felt sorrow--or if you are looking for a fresh new alliterative verse translation--you will find here one of the finest foundational epic poems of the English-speaking world.

I probably need to include a not-so-small disclaimer at the beginning here. As some of you may know, I am a literary Medievalist by trade. I have been studying medieval literature, and specifically Old English literature, for years and am currently writing my PhD on texts including Beowulf. As such, it shouldn't be surprising that I have a strong love for the poem and am also rather defensive of it. The presumptions that the poem is boring, its writing too difficult, and its existence generally uninteresting hurt me on an almost physical level. Beowulf is singular and the fact that we have it and can study it is stunning. So, some background, to make sure we're all on the same page. The Old English poem Beowulf can be found in a manuscript called Cotton Vitellius A. xv (or the Beowulf-manuscript for ease), commonly dated to between 975 and 1025 CE. Yes, it is a 1000 years old! The story of Beowulf most likely before it was written down, but this manuscript is the only version we have and it was almost lost in a fire in 1731. Beowulf as a poem is also special because it is the only really lengthy poem in Old English that remains and as such scholars have been obsessed with it for a while. Admittedly, the first scholars were only really interested in it so they could unravel the Old English language and thereby expand their understanding of the history of the English language and other Germanic languages. It wasn't really until J.R.R. Tolkien's lecture 'The Monsters and the Critics' in 1936 which encourages academia to look at the poem as a poem, as a literary text that had beauty and a story to tell. Since then, generations of scholars have poured over it and have discussed a whole variety of its elements. Plenty of things still remain to be discussed, however, and each new translation adds something new to our understanding of it. It was with this outlook that I went into Andrew Carnabuci's translation.

The Beowulf poem can technically be summarised rather quickly: a young hero, Beowulf, travels to Denmark to help the Danish king Hrothgar rid his hall from a monster called Grendel. Once he defeats him, Grendel's Mother is out for revenge. once she has been confronted, Beowulf returns home to the Geats and eventually becomes king. In his old age, he faces a dragon. While successful in defeating it, Beowulf also dies a heroic death. This summary technically tells you the main story. It also cuts out all the little asides, the beautiful imagery, the play of language, and the characterisation we get. What can I say, you simply have to read it for yourself. This has been made a lot easier by the various translations which have popped up the last few decades. The most famous, perhaps, is Seamus Heaney's translation, while the latest to make waves is Maria Dahvana Headley's irreverent modernisation. Then there is also Tolkien's own translation, frequently used in university courses. Each of these translators has brought his own flavour to the poem, either by bringing in an Irish orality like Heaney or modern slang like Headley. Carnabuci prefers to follow Tolkien's intentions in his translation. In his Preface, Carnabuci explains his approach, which follows that laid out by Tolkien in his essay 'On Translating Beowulf', published in 1940. Tolkien, as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, strongly emphasised the Germanic origin of the poem and argued that it should be translated along this line. This includes using language that sounds archaic or traditional and avoiding any words that have a Latin etymology. He also emphasised the alliterative rhyme scheme of the Old English, which he believed should be followed in the translation. 

Carnabuci remains loyal to those three rules and as such his translation is indeed one which reads as archaic. It feels like an old text, one with age-old gravitas, something which I do enjoy. He also chooses to keep the dialogue in what he calls the "King James' Bible English", i.e. verbs ending in '-th' and using 'ye' instead of 'you'. He does have linguistic reasons for this as well,  such as the verb endings in Old English for example. He also follows, I believe, Tolkien in disregarding Grendel's Mother as a character. Tolkien, whom I adore, did not know what to do with this female character and therefore glossed over her in all his scholarship. Someone else who didn't like her was Seamus Heaney, who referred to her as a sea hag consistently. Carnabuci similarly uses 'hag' as a translation for most of her descriptions. Scholarship has moved well beyond considering Grendel's Mother this way and so I was a little surprised by Carnabuci's translations of her passages. And,  as I have worked with Beowulf extensively, I did of course encounter a few translation choices I either disagreed with or felt were incorrect. In part this is the above mentioned issue around Grendel's Mother. From these passages, which I know quite intimately, the more literal translation issues also stemmed. For example, there was the instance where Carnabuci translated hond missera (Beowulf, l. 1498b) as "a hundred years". Missera, from missere, means 'a period of half a year' (B&T). A hond (or 'hundred') of those therefore means 50 years instead of a 100 years. The reason this is important is that this is in reference to how long Grendel's Mother has reigned over her own hall. Her 50 years of rulership link her directly to King Hrothgar and Beowulf, both of whom also rule their kingdoms for 50 years. This is technically a small thing, but it is relevant nonetheless. In general I enjoyed Carnabuci's translation of Beowulf, but as I have read Tolkien's rather extensively, I didnt discover many new aspects to Carnabuci's, since he follows Tolkien so closely in style and attitude. 

I give this translation...

3 Universes!

The translation's archaic nature definitely has its advantages, because it makes the poem feel weighty and old. It also has its downsides, however, one of which being that the archaic tone can be off-putting to those readers who aren't used to medieval literature. In the end, each translation is an adaptation, a new take on an age-old story. While I didn't love every choice made here, I do love that we continue to engage with this poem.


  1. I would prefer a translation that is not too archaic or old sounding, but I guess it does add to the heavy atmosphere of the work. I haven't read Beowulf since uni. Good luck with your papers.


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