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Translating Beowulf

To thoroughly understand the content and structure of "Beowulf" it was necessary to read it in its original language: Anglo-Saxon, or "Old English" as it is commonly known. Not only is it a "foreign" language, incomprehensible to speakers of Modern English, but it is written using archaic ligature forms, including many that no longer exist in the English alphabet. Thus, one must either read "Beowulf" in translation, or translate it yourself.

"The Complete Study Guide to Beowulf" was intended to provide a unique visual translation matrix, taking the student of the Old English poem from an exacting transcription of the 10th century manuscript through a complete translation into modern English, with extensive annotations and running commentary at each stage. Introductory essays would provide detailed historical and textual background, offering the reader an insightful overview and analysis of the manuscript history, evolution of critical study, themes and technique used in the poem, as well as an introduction to Old English alliterative verse, along with maps and genealogies.

Much of this material is now found in these Archives, but the "Complete Study Guide" itself was never finished. However, several pages of the working draft can be seen below.

* * *

  • Manuscript
  • Transcription
  • Translation
  • Cover Art

Here can be seen high resolution images of the first folio leaf of the Beowulf manuscript. Damage to the parchment from fire, water, and time has left the outer edges cracked and crumbling, resulting in the loss of many letters at the end of lines, as well as further obfuscation from smoke and wear. Further deterioration has been minimized by affixing each leaf to a paper frame with tape and glue, although this has further obscured parts of the text on the reverse where they are now covered by the frame.

Translation begins with careful examination of the source document. Here the original manuscript is given on the left using a font created from the actual scribal hand used in the Beowulf manuscript. In the right column the text is then transcribed using a standard font for easier readability, along with verse line reference numbers. Notes in the center column resolve textual cruces caused by manuscript deterioration or scribal error throughout its 70 leaves.

Once the source text is resolved, the next stage is to parse the Old English into its modern equivalent. Here the center column employs a three-line structure, giving the original Old English, a word-for-word gloss directly below, followed by the modern English translation using contemporary syntax. A complete glossary on the right provides definitions and alternate readings, while the left column offers a running commentary on the content, discussing all relevant issues.

This was the proposed cover art created for the 8x10 edition of the "Study Guide." Sadly, it was never released, as the project was abandoned in favor of focusing all my efforts on the prose novelization. I have always intended to get back to finish this one day, as it is a resource I wish I had had when undertaking the "Saga of Beowulf" project.


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