The Grinnell Beowulf: Ye olde text, refreshed

“Beowulf,” the Old English saga following the titular hero through his native Anglo-Saxon culture of monsters and mead, now has a thoroughly local translation, thanks to the work of several students under the guidance of Tim Arner, English.

Speaking at the release party for “The Grinnell Beowulf,” Arner acknowledged that the project, which started as a Mentored Advanced Project, or MAP, eventually took on a life of its own.

“It started really with one of those moments where you’re teaching rather than thinking,” Arner said of the project’s beginning.

According to Arner and Kate Whitman ’14, the project began with Whitman asking Arner about the possibility of doing a Beowulf MAP. The original translation, which involved students Whitman, Eva Dawson, Jeanette Miller, Logan Shearer, Aniela Wendt and Emily Johnson, all ’14, grew out of this MAP in the summer of 2012.

“When I found out who else was applying for [the MAP], they were people who I either had ‘friend crushes’ on or who I was already friends with. I knew that I wanted to work with all these people,” Dawson said.

The original project involved an exhaustive translation of the work, with students using spreadsheets to annotate Old English words from the text with their parts of speech and possible translations. In addition, missing or ambiguous parts of the text forced the group to decide upon a best translation, even where no obvious choice existed.

“Sometimes I would just have to do a bunch of reading about what other people thought, and then as a group we had to discuss what the best argument was [and] what we felt fit with[the]  tone of our poem best,” said Johnson, who focused her research on the linguistic aspects of the translation. “I did a lot of research into [the] different meanings of words in the context of their culture. I did a lot of etymology. Most of the annotations that I wrote were about the names of characters.”

“There were some moments of ambiguity, where we would look into different words and sometimes they would take on a meaning that had more of a cultural connotation than a very literal connotation,” Wendt said.

After finishing the translation, the project outgrew the confines of a MAP, and the group began thinking about producing a book-length manuscript, complete with annotations and illustrations.

“We got through with the summer and we had a complete translation, but we knew that we wanted to do something with that translation. We knew that we liked the idea of having a book. In order to do that, we had to keep refining the text, we had to keep working out the footnotes and doing introduction stuff,” Whitman said.

The second phase of the process was a combination of re-translating and editing, according to Whitman, who noted the long meetings the group spent going through the original translation in order to refine it.

“For instance, we’d spend sometimes two hours arguing about a few lines because it’s everyone’s voices and trying to get [everyone] to agree [and] making sure we had a unified poetic voice,” she said.

Other than the translation and editing, the project also involved the illustrative talents of Caleb Neubauer ’13. Neubauer began his illustrations during a residency at Grin City, a local artist collective, and finished them at his studio in the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts. The cover and subsequent illustrations utilize smoothly contrasting elements to produce a darkly fitting aesthetic.

“I was going for something that would push mediums, for one. For me it was about these layers of ink, conté and charcoal,” noted Neubauer, who became involved after being contacted by Dawson in the fall of 2012. “It sort of went between flaring illustrations, as well as this more photorealistic [style].”

After two years involving grueling work, sometimes going from eight in the morning to 11 at night, the students were, understandably, very happy with the final product.

“I’m so proud of it and I’m so proud of us as a group of people. I think that we have worked together so well and that we appreciate each other’s strengths so much,” Dawson said.

The translation team at the release party. Photo by Shadman Asif.
The translation team at the release party. Photo by Shadman Asif.