I have a day job, which I occasionally reference here — I work for MultiLingual magazine, managing the content for the translation industry’s most global magazine — we ship to 80-plus countries and cover translation and localization topics from around the world. As such, I occasionally get asked to write for other industry publications, appear at industry events and so on. A couple of days ago, I did an interview which theoretically will appear on the website of the European Parliament’s Directorate-General for Translation. It sounds important, but it’s for a side project.
All of this to say, I’m somewhat versed in the practices of the translation industry.
So I can say with pretty clear certainty that Doug Wilson’s “translation” of Beowulf looks to most translation experts like a kid rearranging Shakespeare quotes on refrigerator magnets and claiming he’s written a new piece of poetry. Because that’s essentially what the translation is. Doug even admits it. He rearranged “about five different translations” into his “new” translation, and occasionally, he said, consulted the original and changed some words here and there. On Amazon, he calls this a “new verse rendering.” Elsewhere around the web, the book is heralded as a “new translation from Doug Wilson,” which is exactly what it is not.
This would be like me taking two translations of Les Miserables and copy-and-pasting them into one document, then claiming that me glancing at the original and switching out some poetic words from a thesaurus somehow made this an academic achievement.
If you think this comparison is too hard on Doug, let me just say, I actually speak French, and am capable of translating it from scratch. Whereas Doug’s grasp of Anglo-Saxon is about as good as mine — which is to say, not very. We took the same Anglo-Saxon class together, and I was highly amused to see him, with an introduction written from what could have been regurgitated notes from the first few days of class, put himself forward as some kind of Anglo-Saxon expert.
His goal, he claims, is to give people the feel of the original by using alliteration. Only he fails. To my ear, after reading the original aloud, his version is more clunky and less like the original than, it seems, any of the actual translations he borrowed from. So, essentially, he steals a thing and makes it worse.
Now, somehow, and I have no idea how, Doug appears to have gotten signs-offs from a few academics (although, please note, no Old English experts) and plastered them everywhere. After comparing their enthusiastic descriptions with the actual product, I was flabbergasted. And now I’m wondering if Doug paid them for their time, indisposing them to glowing reviews.
Let’s take a look. One of the translations Doug pulled from is a side-by-side edition from Howell D. Chickering, Jr. Chickering’s translation runs close to the original in content, and has the five opening lines thus:
Listen! We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes
in the old days, the kings of tribes —
how noble princes showed great courage!
Often Scyld Scefing seized mead-benches
from enemy troops, from many a clan
Seamus Heaney, whom Doug also admits to borrowing from, has it thus:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes
So, if I take these two translations to guide me, consult the original to see the rhythm of the piece, add in some linguistic twists to make it flow better for a modern audience, here’s my stab, just for the sake of amusement:
Hark and hear, how in days gone by,
the kingly spear-danes came to glory
and noble chieftains charged with courage.
Oft Shield Sheafson, scourge of tribes,
would mangle mead-benches, seized from foes
Then I look at Doug’s version, where he claims he’s done something similar:
Hear the song of spear-danes from sunken years
Kings had courage then, the kings of all tribes
We have heard their heroics, we hold them in memory.
Shield Sheafson was one, scourge of all tribes
took a maul to the mead-benches, mangled his enemies
… is it just me, or does Doug not know how to write with the Anglo-Saxon ethos in mind? Take “we hold them in memory.” Not only is this nowhere in the original, it’s a Romance-based (and therefore anti-Anglo-Saxon) phrase. Doug appears to have interpreted a translation akin to “We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns” (a far more rhythmic and potent line) into a limp-sounding phrase about “memory.” He adds that Sheafson “mangled his enemies,” although the passage does not say this. Again, Doug seems to be interpreting a translation he doesn’t understand. Also, Doug’s verses do not flow grammatically.
So, there you have it. One more example of Doug’s scholastic work in action. As a linguist, I would never dream of publishing “my version” of Beowulf unless I could be pretty sure it was adding something that other translations hadn’t. Doug’s version adds muddiness, and completely misses the point. Instead of piercing, throaty, blood-burning verse, we get floppy, gratuitous violence masquerading as the real thing.
Which is not at all surprising, given Doug’s track record with accuracy, and his apparently limited knowledge of the original text.