Monday, December 29, 2008

A “juxtalingual” translation of Beowulf

Juxtalingual BeowulfI don’t think it would be quite accurate to say that I collect editions and translations of Beowulf — certainly not the way this fellow does! — but I do own several. I tend to buy editions / translations that I find useful in some way, especially ones that offer something the other copies I own do not. The first copy I ever bought was a mass market paperback of the Burton Raffel translation, which I read at the tender age of twelve or thirteen (before I could really appreciate it). Almost a decade later, I found myself learning Old English, and so I started picking up copies of the poem in the original tongue — copies with full or partial glossaries, facing-page translations, and so on. Some of these I still own; others I do not (e.g., Raffel).

I’m a big fan of interlinear translations in particular. These are translations where, instead of putting the original on one page and the translation on the facing page, each line in the original language is followed immediately by its translation. I own a few of these — The Aeneid and The Canterbury Tales spring readily to mind — and I’ve used others (e.g., interlinear translations of the Bible can be helpful for settling arguments ;). I don’t have one for Beowulf, though, mainly just because I haven’t come across one during my book-hunting excursions. In fact, I’m not sure there’s even one in print.

But out hunting books on Christmas Eve, I came across something very interesting: a 1960’s collegiate reissue of Benjamin Thorpe’s transcription and translation of Beowulf, together with the short poem, Widsith, and the fragmentary Fight at Finnesburg. Thorpe called his 1855 translation a “literal” one, and the book’s cover calls it a “word-for-word translation”, but what really caught my eye was the publisher’s blurb on the inside of the front cover. Here, it has been described as “a juxtalingual translation with alternating columns of Anglo-Saxon and modern English” (emphasis added).

The meaning of “juxtalingual” is obvious enough — but as much as I like it, I don’t think it’s a real word! I haven’t found it in any dictionary (online of off; I don’t have access to the O.E.D. — anyone?), and a Google search yields absolutely no results * — rare indeed! Searching Google Books returned some hits, but all of them were snippets of this very marketing blurb, from a series of high school and college book catalogs published in the 1960’s and ’70’s. So who exactly coined this interesting word? Was it an editor at Barron’s Educational Series, in Woodbury, New York? Or perhaps Vincent F. Hopper, who wrote the introduction for the reissue?

And with all this fuss, what does a “juxtalingual” translation look like? Basically, the lines of the original are split at the caesurae, producing a narrow column, facing which (on the same page) is a corresponding column in translation. Words inserted for sense (but not literally present in the Old English) are shown in italics. With the exception of the front matter, the copy I hold in my hands is identical to the 1855 edition — so identical, in fact, that I suspect it may have been photographically reproduced, rather than reset.

I’ve given you a taste in the photo above (click to enlarge). What do you think? I like it. The translation is quite serviceable, and it’s handy to have it carved up into such bitesize pieces.

* Er, until now, that is. As soon as the Googlebots finish digesting this post, “juxtalingual” will suddenly appear, like a conjurer’s coin — er, if anybody ever happens to search for it. Don’t you think there ought to be a long, jaw-cracking German word for “the act of producing (perhaps deliberately) the first indexed reference to be returned by an online search which previously yielded no results and/or the glee accompanying it” ...? I certainly do!

Note to self: learn more German. :)


  1. It isn't in O.E.D. Online; it is now on Wordie, if that's any slight consolation.

  2. Hahae, it is indeed! And if that isn’t the perfect illustration of how the Web works (for good or ill, and faster than you can type “juxtalingual”), then I don’t know what is. Thanks, Robert! :)

  3. "I don’t have one for Beowulf, though, mainly just because I haven’t come across one during my book-hunting excursions. In fact, I’m not sure there’s even one in print."

    You can find one here.

    I always appreciate your posts. Keep up the good work!

  4. Thanks, Idher. I do know about that one, along with a number of other online versions. I meant I didn’t own the kind of interlinear translation I could put on a bookshelf or take on a plane with me. (“I’ve had it with these m——f——’g wyrmas on this m——f——’g plane!!” :)

    One or two, at least, have been published (e.g., Thomas McLeod’s 1970 interlinear translation), but I don’t think any of them are still in print, and I haven’t come across any used copies. I’m probably not expert enough to produce one myself, though it is tempting. :)

    I also appreciate the kind words about Lingwë. Thanks for reading and please continue to comment whenever the mood takes you. It’s nice to know people are out there.

  5. Hahae, if Benjamin Thorpe were a rapper, he'd be called Juxta Rhymes. Woo-ha! :)

  6. For what it's worth, juxtalingual has now wandered its way into Urban Dictionary:

  7. That’s interesting! Thanks for calling this to my attention, Nelson. I wonder if it was possibly stimulated by this blog post ...?