A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell
by J.R.R. Tolkien
edited by Christopher Tolkien
contains the author's prose translation of Beowulf, together with notes and commentaries; as well as the tale entitled Sellic Spell, the version of the same in Old English, and two versions of a poem, The Lay of Beowulf.
“Hraþe æfter þon ongann seo sunne niþer gewítan, wurdon sceadwa lange ofer eorðan. Þá arás se cyning; menn ónetton of þǽre healle.”
A prose translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien was completed by 1926, when he was 34, and at the time he was elected to the professsorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. The text was 'completed', in the sense that it ran from the beginning to the end of the poem, but cannot be called 'finished', for he returned to it in later years for hasty corrections where his view of the interpretation of Old English words or passages, or the suitability of his modern words, had changed. But much light is shed on the translation in his university lectures of the 1930s that were expressly devoted to the text of the poem, and from them a commentary has been devised for this book.
There is no evidence that the author ever contemplated the publication of his translation of Beowulf, but in an unpublished writing circa 1963 he lucidly expounded his view of such publication at large, and of its defence:
“The most obvious defence is that the work translated is worth reading, intrinsically or for some other reason of history or scholarship, and worth reading by those who do not know and cannot be expected to learn the language of the original author.
This, I suppose, is the defence usually put forward, but there are many degrees between total ignorance and complete mastery of an alien idiom. The latter is seldom acquired by any one, not even by translators, certainly not by me. And even if a certain mastery is assumed, it is I think a fact that in the case of texts that have become the objects of study, that have been trampled by lecturers, editors, and students, the actual hearing of the original work is less and less often attended to. (cont'd)