I very recently finished reading John Lesslie Hall’s translation of Beowulf. Several months ago I shared my reflections on Seamus Heaney’s and J.R.R. Tolkien’s translations of Beowulf in Beowulf: Seamus Heaney vs. J.R.R. Tolkien. It feels appropriate to share my thoughts on Hall’s translation as well.
Hall’s translation is a verse translation which, to the ears of an amateur such as myself, sounds very similar to the original Anglo-Saxon metre. Simply, a typical Anglo-Saxon line of verse is composed of two halves which are connected by alliteration. For example, here is a stanza of Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon:
Đa wæs on morgen, mine gefræge,
ymb þa gif-healle guð-rinc monig;
ferdon folc-togan feorran ond nean
geond wid-wegas wundor sceawian,
Compare this with Hall’s translation of the same lines below.
In the midst of the morning many a warrior
Stood round the gift-hall as the story is told me:
Folk-princes fared then from far and from near
Through long-stretching journeys to look at the wonder,
The footprints of the foeman.2
In both versions the half-lines are distinct and Hall’s English translation possesses a steady, rolling beat. Read the stanza aloud and this will be more obvious.
Alliteration is an important element of Anglo-Saxon verse and Hall uses it constantly in his translation. For example,
Then the day was done as the dragon would have it,
He no longer would wait on the wall, but departed
Fire-impelled, flaming. Fearful the start was
To earls in the land, as it early thereafter
To their giver-of-gold was grievously ended.3
Hall’s alliteration makes his translation a pleasure to read aloud as the poem rolls along of its own accord and virtually reads itself.
Despite my decent experience with Hall’s Beowulf, I must say I still prefer Seamus Heaney’s translation. Hall’s text is a work of art and I am impressed with his ability to carry alliteration so consistently throughout the poem. However, I find Hall’s translation so versy that the story loses some of its gravity. Heaney’s alliteration is more sporadic and his half-line rhythm is not as obvious, but the personality of the story shines forth. Heaney’s use of the “big voiced Scullions”4 for his inspiration in creating the tone for his text is what gives his translation the unique personality that neither Tolkien nor Hall can match. The “weighty distinctness,”5 readability, and figurative language of his text are what draw me to his Beowulf above the other translations I have read.
1Seamus Heaney, Beowulf, ll. 837-841
3Ibid., Chapter XXXII, ll. 85-89
4Seamus Heaney, Beowulf, Introduction. The “big voiced Scullions” were relatives of Heaney’s father. Heaney writes,
I called them “big voiced” because when the men of that family spoke, the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinctness, phonetic units as separate and defined as delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf. A simple sentence such as “We cut the corn to-day” took on immense dignity when one of the Scullions spoke it. They had a kind of Native American solemnity of utterance, as if they were announcing verdicts rather than making small talk. And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realised I wanted it to be speakable by one of those relatives. (Ibid.)