Wednesday, December 19, 2007

“Tollkühn” in German Beowulf translations

Now this is just for scholarly fun. I don’t mean to imply anything serious by it, but if you’ll indulge me, I think you may find this interesting. (Yes, I have seen a girl naked; and no, I do not play World of Warcraft. Why do you ask? :)

Last month, I posted some new thoughts on the etymology of Tolkien’s surname. In that post, I quoted Tolkien’s explanation for the name, where he gives German tollkühn “foolhardy” as its etymology. Shift gears with me now. We all know that Beowulf was, in some ways, at the center of Tolkien’s professional study of ancient Germanic literature. How do the two come together? The answer is in ... hwæt for it ... German translation! (Okay, I know that was bad, but give me a break; I’m just trying to entertain you people! :)

If you have access to a rather ponderous tome entitled (with an acute lack of flair) The Translations of Beowulf: A Critical Bibliography — put together by one Chauncey Brewster Tinker (as Dickensian a name as you’re likely to find in real life) — you’ll quickly see what I mean. If you have a copy (and doesn’t everyone?), follow along ...

Tinker shows that the German word tollkühn is used in three different translations of Beowulf from Old English into Modern German (all of the same passage). The first of these is Karl Simrock’s 1859 translation, with caesura (which I’ve replaced with // below). Here’s a little taste:

Bist du der Beowulf, // der mit Breka schwamm,
Im Wettkampf einst // durch sie weite See?
Wo ihr tollkühn // Untiefen prüftet,
Mit vermessnem Muth // in den Meeresschlünden
Das Leben wagtet?

Chew on that for a moment ... Okay. Moving on, we have G. Zinsser’s “selection” (just the first 836 lines of the poem done into German iambic pentameter) of 1881. Zinsser doesn’t represent the half-line structure visibly as Simrock does, and the translation is very loose (as you can see, four and a half lines in the original expand to a full six below). A bit of its flavor:

Du bist gewiss der Beowulf, der einst
Im Meer mit Breca um die Wette schwamm?
Ihr masset damals euch in kühnem Wagen!
Das mühevolle Werk euch auszureden
Vermochte niemand, tollkühn setztet ihr
Das Leben ein und schwammt ins Meer hinaus.

Finally — in Tinker, at least; perhaps there are other examples yet to be mined? — there is Therese Dahn’s “paraphrase,” apparently done with Simrock’s translation in hand. From a “selection” to a “paraphrase” — things seem to be going from bad to worse for German admirers of Old English literature in the late 19th century, don’t they? This was meant to be an abridged prose version suitable for General Readers, whatever that meant in 1883. But evidently those General Readers appeared in droves, as the book went through numerous editions, including an eleventh edition in 1891, just a year before Tolkien’s birth. Dahn had an innovative solution to the poem’s most difficult cruces: “obscure words, phrases, and lines are omitted.” Now why didn’t I think of that?! (What? No, I am not rolling my eyes! :) Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s a bit of her version:

Bist du der Beowulf, der einst im Wettkampf mit Breka durch die See schwamm? Wo ihr tollkühn in vermessenem Mut euer Leben in den tiefen Wassern wagtet? [3]

For reference, here’s the original Old English against which these efforts were made (give or take; I haven’t searched out the specific editions each translator used, though Tinker gives ample details if anyone cared to):

Eart þú sé Béowulf, // sé þe wið Brecan wunne,
on sídne sǽ // ymb sund flite,
ðǽr git for wlence // wada cunnedon
ond for dolgilpe // on déop wæter
aldrum néþdon?

The word for which our three Germans turned to tollkühn is the noun dolgilp “foolish pride, vain-glory”, which is a compound (sometimes hyphenated) of dol “foolish” [Anyone thinking of Tom Bombadil? :)] + gilp “pride, haughtiness”. Thus the choice in German, whatever other faults those translations may have, is quite apt. The English translations I’ve seen offer various solutions — “wantonly”, “idle boasting”, “vainest vaunting”, and so forth — in its place. Seamus Heaney takes us in a somewhat different direction (as he does throughout his translation) with “sheer vanity” [4]. But none of these seem quite as good as “foolhardy” to me. Does anyone know of an English translation that uses this word?

So, in a sense, Tolkien’s name was stamped right onto the poem of which he made such close study. Fitting. I would be very interested to know how Tolkien rendered and annotated these lines himself, but unfortunately, Tolkien’s translations have not been published. Even working from the Old English, Tolkien would hardly have missed this, but I also wonder whether he knew of the use of tollkühn in the German translations that appeared only a generation before him? It’s almost as if Simrock, Zinsser, and Dahn were presaging the arrival of a new Shirriff in Beowulf town. And indeed, in 1936, when he challenged the dismissive and critical milieu of the current scholarship with a groundbreaking essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien might have been aptly described by many as tollkühn. But he opened the gates to the modern study of the poem, and Beowulf has never been more popular than it is today (even if it is as a cartoonish blockbuster movie).

[1] Tinker, Chauncey B. The Translations of Beowulf: A Critical Bibliography. Yale Studies in English, Volume XVI. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1903, p.62.

[2] Ibid., p.127.

[3] Ibid., pp.133–4.

[4] Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000, p.35.


  1. Heaney's translation, "sheer vanity," I think is meant to set the stage for a point of emphasis throughout the poem -- the question of whether Beowulf is being a heroic glory-seeker in the culturally accepted way (by taking on Breca in the swimming contest), or merely "tollkühn" -- foolhardy.

    This question comes up with much higher stakes later in the poem. When the dragon starts to incinerate the Geats' throne-room, Beowulf decides to take it on himself -- ("Men at arms, remain here on the barrow .... This fight is not yours,/ Nor is it up to any man except me/ to measure his strength against the monster/ or to prove his worth" [2529-2535]) -- perishing in the battle and depriving his people of a leader. Later, Wiglaf chides the now-deceased Beowulf as selfish, "tollkühn" in much the same tenor as Unferth's earlier comment (which you cited). Yet this seems unfair -- if Beowulf hadn't challenged the dragon, the entire countryside would've been trashed. So are these tollkühn-callers really just hero-hatas? Or do they have a point?

    The last word in the original OE is "lofgeornost," which I think can translate as "vainglorious," but which Heaney has as "keenest to win fame." I think to the very end, the poet can't seem to decide -- probably because he's a Christian looking back ruefully but somewhat admiringly at a pagan culture -- whether his hero is a Tollkühn after all.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Gary. You raise a very good point, one that demonstrates how it’s still possible to color Beowulf in different ways, even now. I think you may have a paper in the offing, “Tollkühn-callers or Hero-hatas: A Reconsideration of Beowulf as Jacked-up Playa.” ;)

    On a serious note, though, I think you’re right to focus on the question of the poet’s Christianity, and the tension between that faith and an admiration for Beowulf’s more atavistic paganism (as it would then be seen). Some of these difficulties no doubt reflect on the poet’s own uncertainties, as you suggest.

    Regarding lofgeornost, I think you’ve made an insightful copmparison with dolgilp. But “vainglorious” seems to inject a moral judgment not necessarily present in the original word. Heaney’s rendering is closer. It’s a superlative adjective composed of lof “praise, glory” (perhaps related to lufu “love”?) + georn “desirous, eager” (from which we get the Modern English word yearn).

    In the end, the conflict built right into the word tollkühn “foolhardy” (if not so explicitly in dolgilp) nicely captures the tension between the older pagan traditions and the newer Christian ones.

    Hmm, maybe there really is a paper to be found in this ...?

  3. Hahae, yeah, I'll be happy to let you write it. And I think this should be the attention-grabbing first line to draw the reader's interest:

    Regarding lofgeornost, I think you’ve made an insightful comparison with dolgilp.


  4. Hahae, don’t make me unlock my word-hoard on you! I won’t hesitate to open up a can of *hweop-assa in your general direction. ;)

  5. Well played, old chum. I concede the point. Besides, I'm a lover, not a flyte-er. ;)

  6. Wow, you guys keep this up, you're going to scare me off the blogging scene!

    Jason, what is your proper training? Where did you study?

  7. By the way, do you mind if I link you on my blogroll?

  8. Wow, you guys keep this up, you're going to scare me off the blogging scene!

    Oh dear, don’t let us do that, Alex! Speaking for myself, my bark is much worse than my bite, and for every post of the tollkühn variety, there’s another one on some sort of Harry Potter gossip or something. :)

    Jason, what is your proper training? Where did you study?

    I got my “official” education at Texas A&M University, but my “unofficial” education has been much wider, and has taken a much longer period of time. It mainly consists of a voracious appetite for arcana, and (if I may say) an ability to pick up on connections that sometimes escape others. My friend, Gary, I might point out, has a much better pedigree than I do. He got his undergraduate degree at Harvard and his Ph.D. at Berkeley.

    By the way, do you mind if I link you on my blogroll?

    I don’t mind that at all. In fact, I consider it quite a compliment. Thanks! :)

  9. Jason, what is your proper training? Where did you study?

    I just realized I didn’t answer your whole question. So, as to the what, I studied English — with the occasional ride-along major.

    Initially, I intended to be Physics/English. Then, when it became clear that I’d be a mediocre physicist (at best), I dropped that and went through a series of replacements: Psychology, Philosophy, Zoology. I actually came pretty close to three bachelor’s degrees (English, Psychology, Philosophy) but realized I was more or less killing myself for no good reason, so I didn’t complete the Psy./Phil., though I do have minors (quite a bit more than that, to be accurate).

    In graudate school, which I did not complete (that is a whole blog post all to itself), I studied Old English. Later, on my own, I studied Old Norse and other Germanic languages. I’d studied French for six years prior to college (where I simply tested out of it). I also studied a few years of Latin in high school. Other languages — Italian, Spanish, German, Czech, Japanese, and so forth — to varying degrees and with varying success (and retention).

  10. Jason, I have posted a bit of speculations about Tolkien and violence, and was wondering what you thought, if you get a chance. You really know a lot about Tolkien, and I could use a critical eye as I am learning up about this stuff. Eventually I would like to do my grad work on Tolkien.

  11. Alex, I will be very happy to read it. And I’ll comment on your blog with my response. Did you notice that I recently posted links to some interesting ephemera from Tolkien’s own military career in WWI?

  12. Yes, I had read that blog, and went to the site. It was very interesting, especially the documents.

    Thank you for your comments, they were very insightful. I responded to a few of them, if you are interested.

    I'm thinking of doing some side study in OE (when I can find the time, I'm studying three languages right now, two collegiately). Since you have done graduate work in the field, I was wondering what grammars and lexicons (especially lexicons) you would suggest.

  13. Thank you for your comments, they were very insightful. I responded to a few of them, if you are interested.

    My pleasure. And I will definitely stop by your blog and read your response!

    I'm thinking of doing some side study in OE (when I can find the time, I'm studying three languages right now, two collegiately).

    Which three are you studying now, by the way?

    Since you have done graduate work in the field, I was wondering what grammars and lexicons (especially lexicons) you would suggest.

    The grammar I used in school was Bright’s Old English Grammar and Reader (ed. Cassidy and Ringler), which I think may be out of print now. Nowadays, I also rely on Robert Diamond’s Old English Grammar and Reader as well as Henry Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer (later revised by Norman Davis, who was a student of Tolkien’s). Besides the Primer, Henry Sweet wrote a number of excellent books on Old English and related subjects. An earlier edition of Sweet’s Primer is available online here, where you can also download it in PDF format.

    As for lexicons, there are two that are especially useful. The usual “OED of OE”, as it were, is Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, which is available in its entirety online (and here for download — warning: large!). And in another coincidence, Tolkien later occupied the same professorship at Oxford as Joseph Bosworth, who added his own name to the chair. The other lexicon I use regularly is John R. Clark Hall’s Consise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary for the Use of Students, which is also available online.

    Getting one or more of these in physical form (from any used bookseller, online or off) can be useful as well. Most of them aren't too expensive. My own copies are later editions than those online, which can be helpful too, as they usually incorporate corrections and other updates.

    Good luck with Old English! I’m not a master (or láréow — look it up! :) by any stretch, but I enjoy the study of it very much indeed. :)

  14. Thanks once again for the help, Jason. I will be checking out those books, I can promise you that. I love books - maybe a bit too much :).

    I am currently studying Latin on my own with a tutor, but I haven't gotten very far yet. I am also studying ancient Hebrew and am in my third year of Koine Greek. Eventually I would like to study German and Spanish, as well as the early Germanic languages (hence the wish to study OE). I am also doing some side-study on philosophy of language, but that is in the preliminaries. My study in Tolkien (which began about a year ago) has led me to a wish to get into philology, but I haven't found a good intro book as of yet. I probably got to many fires going anyway, what with school and all, but I tell ya, it seems like there's just so much to learn!

  15. I will be checking out those books, I can promise you that. I love books - maybe a bit too much :).

    Bibliophilia bordering on bibliomania. Ah yes, I can relate. ;)

    I am currently studying Latin on my own [...,] ancient Hebrew and am in my third year of Koine Greek.

    Good choices. I know next to nothing about Hebrew beyond the alphabet and a few individual words. I know a bit more Greek, but still not that much, and more of the Ancient than the Koine variety — though they are, of course, very similar. Latin, on the other hand, I studied — how to explain? — three years’ worth during a single academic year of high school. Beginning with the regular Latin I class, I quickly turned to accelerated independent study with the teacher and did the curricula for Latin I–III all during my freshman year. I also studied French for six years in school, and I’ve studied various other languages on my own, including Old Norse, Gothic, Italian, Spanish, Old French, and smatterings of others as need or interest have dictated.

    I love languages — maybe a bit too much. ;)