Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Sung-Il Lee: New Translation of Beowulf

(Image from Wikipedia)

I haven't dealt with Beowulf for some time now, but only a few days ago, a reader inquired about what had happened with an unpublished Beowulf translation that I'd praised a few years ago after hearing a brief passage read out at a Medievalist conference here in Seoul. Here's what the reader was referring to:
What! Have we not heard of the glory
Of the Spear-Danes' kings in olden days --
How the princes performed deeds of valor?
Not a few times Scyld Scefing seized
The seats of banquet from many a tribe,
Mighty opponents, and terrified the earls.
Since the time when he was found a deserted infant,
He grew up in tender care, soared to the sky,
And prospered with unparalleled honor, till
All neighboring nations over the sea came
To obey and pay tribute to him: a good king he was!
As noted on that same blog post, these opening lines of Beowulf were the translation work of Professor Sung-Il Lee, of Yonsei University. I had been waiting to hear more about this, specifically, its publication, but so much time had passed that I'd given up, for Professor Lee had retired and was rumored to have become a recluse, as I told the reader who contacted me.

If he did become reclusive, that seclusion must have been for a good cause, for I learned only yesterday that Mellen Press has published Professor Lee's translation:
Beowulf and Four Related Old English Poems:
A Verse Translation with Explanatory Notes

Lee, Sung-Il


These modern verse translations manage to retain the verse rhythm of the originals. This volume includes explanatory notes and new interpretations of the original text.


". . . a very good translation, fluent and generally idiomatic, and accurate in spirit to its original without being awkwardly literal."

-Prof. Derek Pearsall, Harvard University

"This is how the chain of bards who put [Beowulf] together might have chanted the poem had they spoken the way we do now. This is a masterful version and as close to an ideal translation as we can get."

-Gregory Rabassa, (Poet and Translator)

From the Foreword:

"If we still offered seminars on The Art of Translation, this would be a good centerpiece."

­-Prof. Robert D. Stevick, University of Washington
I now see why Professor Lee took his time -- he was translating four other Old English poems! From the evidence of these blurbs, I'd infer that the hundred dollar price is worth shelling out for the volume. Congratulations to Professor Lee.

I hope that the reader who contacted me with the query will check back soon and see the good news . . .

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At 4:06 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

Charles must be informed.


At 4:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The world must be made aware.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:56 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

"I will immediately phone it home"

At 6:52 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, Dario, your world must also know . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:04 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

"The first rude songs of all nations appear to be a sort of brief historical notices, in a strain of tumid hyperbole, of the exploits and possessions of a few pre-eminent individuals. They tell us how many battles such an one has fought, how many helmets he has cleft, how many breastplates he has pierced, how many widows he has made, how much land he has appropriated, how many houses he has demolished for other people, what a large one he has built for himself, how much gold he has stowed away in it, and how liberally and plentifully he pays, feeds, and intoxicates the divine and immortal bards, the sons of Jupiter, but for whose everlasting songs the names of heroes would perish.

"This is the first stage of poetry before the invention of written letters. The numerical modulation is at once useful as a help to memory, and pleasant to the ears of uncultured men, who are easily caught by sound: and from the exceeding flexibility of the yet unformed language, the poet does no violence to his ideas in subjecting them to the fetters of number. The savage indeed lisps in numbers, and all rude and uncivilized people express themselves in the manner which we call poetical.

"The scenery by which he is surrounded, and the superstitions which are the creed of his age, form the poet's mind. Rocks, mountains, seas, unsubdued forests, unnavigable rivers, surround him with forms of power and mystery, which ignorance and fear have peopled with spirits, under multifarious names of gods, goddesses, nymphs, genii, and daemons. Of all these personages marvellous tales are in existence: the nymphs are not indifferent to handsome young men, and the gentlemen-genii are much troubled and very troublesome with a propensity to be rude to pretty maidens: the bard therefore finds no difficulty in tracing the genealogy of his chief to any of the deities in his neighbourhood with whom the said chief may be most desirous of claiming relationship.

"In this pursuit, as in all others, some of course will attain a very marked pre-eminence; and these will be held in high honour, like Demodocus in the Odyssey, and will be consequently inflated with boundless vanity, like Thamyris in the Iliad. Poets are as yet the only historians and chroniclers of their time, and the sole depositories of all the knowledge of their age; and though this knowledge is rather a crude congeries of traditional phantasies than a collection of useful truths, yet, such as it is, they have it to themselves. They are observing and thinking, while others are robbing and fighting: and though their object be nothing more than to secure a share of the spoil, yet they accomplish this end by intellectual, not by physical, power: their success excites emulation to the attainment of intellectual eminence: thus they sharpen their own wits and awaken those of others, at the same time that they gratify vanity and amuse curiosity. A skilful display of the little knowledge they have gains them credit for the possession of much more which they have not. Their familiarity with the secret history of gods and genii obtains for them, without much difficulty, the reputation of inspiration; thus they are not only historians but theologians, moralists, and legislators: delivering their oracles ex cathedra, and being indeed often themselves (as Orpheus and Amphion) regarded as portions and emanations of divinity: building cities with a song, and leading brutes with a symphony; which are only metaphors for the faculty of leading multitudes by the nose."

Thomas Love Peacock, The Four Ages of Poetry

More Truth here:

Literary scholars of the world unite. You have nothing to loose but your chains!

At 6:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Carter. Here's a better link

Jeffery Hodges

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