Feb 06 2012
I’d like to tell you a story. It’s about two huge fans of a certain Old English Epic poem you may have heard of. Beowulf.
Back in 1998, after self-publishing my first graphic novel Bearskin, I had decided to adapt Beowulf. It was one of my favorite works of literature, and a great action story which I hoped would resonate with both literature and superhero fans. The original text of Beowulf is in the public domain, but it’s not really readable in Old English (though it’s kind of fun to try), so I started researching different translations to use as the basis for my book (note that this was before Seamus Heaney’s translation came out, and in any case I strongly preferred to use one that was in the public domain). I soon came across a resource that proved absolutely invaluable in this search.
It seems a fellow named Syd Allan loved Beowulf so much that he had put together a website, beowulftranslations.net, comparing every available translation of the poem. You could choose from several key sections of the story, and read them in over 20 different translations, ranging from the 1800s to the 1980s (in subsequent years I think he more than quadrupled the number, adding many new translations as they came out and finding more obscure ones as well). He also summarized the available Beowulf films, comics, and novelizations. Using this site I was able to quickly settle on the Gummere translation for my book, and when I later went back to choose an easier translation for the Candlewick edition, I again found it by way of Syd’s site. I should also mention that when my book came out, Syd happily added info and samples to his page on Beowulf comics, and said nice things about it. Syd and I haven’t really correponded that much, and we’ve only met once (we arranged to have lunch at one point just so we could each put a face to the name behind the emails, and of course geek out a bit about Beowulf) — but it’s always been nice to know that his site was out there, a functional monument to the greatness of this poem and a resource for folks like me.
But apparently there aren’t a huge number of people looking to compare ~100 translations of an ancient viking poem, and Syd eventually got tired of putting energy into the site and let it lapse. However, he kindly made the whole thing available in a zip file via Google docs, here. Also, the Internet Archive, aka Wayback Machine, has it archived here.
So, I post this as a tribute to Syd’s hard work, and as a place where those links can live for my own reference and that of anyone searching for Beowulf translations. Enjoy.
(PS, the title of this post, “Hwaet” is the opening word of Beowulf. In Old English it means “Listen”, so it should more properly be followed by an exclamation point, comma, period, almost anything but a question mark. But since it scans like modern English “what”, I tried to make a little joke there about my reaction to finding that the site had gone down.)