Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Monster of Translation

We all know that the epic poem Beowulf (c. 800-1025?) was originally written in an early ancestor of our own language, but the majority of its readers encounter the story in a modern English voice. The poem itself is particularly suited to translation: an important epic work that is fundamentally obsessed with the problems of looking back, especailly from a Christian ethos preserving and retelling the image of the pagan past. To make a translation of Beowulf is just to add another frame to the several already contained with it, and perform an act of interpretation that seems to need to be renewed every few years or so.

The language of the poem speaks only in small pieces, a snippet of Anglo-Saxon read aloud by the instructor, or a disembodied voice speaking on an audio recording — in either case an uncanny experience mixing familiar sounds with foreign grammar given in an exaggerated tone of solemnity. The class soon shifts back to the lighted realms of Modern English, intrigued by the alterior experience, but glad to get back to the text in front of the class.

It was into this frame of mind that I found myself thrown as I watched the 2007 remake of Beowulf and was stunned to hear Anglo-Saxon speech in two circumstances: the first comes any time Grendel has dialogue, the second is the scop performing at the feast later in the movie. At first, I didn't recognize this language that I've studied, admired, translated from. Gradually I felt the sounds slide into the patterns that I knew from my work, and could hear it, in a distorted version of Crispin Glover's voice, ventriloquized through the film Grendel's image of abjection and disgust.

Given the film's many, many liberties with the story, the presence of the original tongue in these circumstances is striking. I wonder how the film uses Anglo-Saxon strategically to firm up its own authority to tell the story. The uncanny, vaguely familiar sounds of Modern English's lingustic ancestry are placed in the mouths of propagandists (the scop) and the enemy, a move that casts director Robert Zemeckis and screenplay writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary in the role of Beowulf himself, whose exertions bravely offer rescue from the monstrosity of the original.

I have to say it is a clever move, perhaps even the best way to insulate their efforts from the objections of anyone who would have preferred a more faithful adaptation of the poem. It is quite possibly what J.R.R. Tolkein may have envisioned himself doing when he delivered his "The Monster and the Critics" talk in 1936: rescuing a piece of literature that he admired against an old guard that had maintained that the poem's value lay in its chronicling of Danish genealogy. And even Tolkein's form of allegorization of the poem needed to be overthrown by later generations of critics.

I didn't hate the movie, though. The story told in the poem is probably unfilmable, but at least Gaiman and Avary get points for tossing in references to many of the texts' issues and tangents, such as the Christian frame of the tale, and the unreliability of Beowulf's boasting (My favorite one may not actually have been intended, but I thought when Beowulf turns over the mead-cask onto Grendel's witch-fire, there seemed to be a nod towards that great crux of the text, the uncertain referent of the unusual word, ealuscerwen.)

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