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J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘Thoughts on Translation (Beowulf)’

Christopher Tolkien introduces his father’s previously unpublished views on translation.

This unpublished note by J.R.R. Tolkien is introduced by Christopher Tolkien in the context of the publication of Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell.


A prose translation of Beowulf by J.R.R. Tolkien was completed by 1926, when he was thirty-four, and at the time he was elected to the professorship 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.

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 Beowulf, a Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell.

There is no evidence that the author ever contemplated the publication of his translation of Beowulf, but in an unpublished writing of c.1963 he lucidly expounded his view of such publication at large, and of its defence: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.

Hearing, not reading; for reading suggests close and silent study, the pondering of words, the solution of a series of puzzles, but hearing should mean receiving, with the speed of a familiar tongue, the immediate impact of sound and sense together.

In all real language these are wedded; separated, even by the necessity of study, they wither.

A translator may hope (or rashly aspire) to heal the divorce, as far as is possible. And if he is in any degree successful, then he may serve even those whose knowledge is greater than his own. The immediacy of a native language can seldom be matched or even approached.

And when, as with Pearl and Sir Gawain and the modern English reader, the language to be translated is English, but of a kind that the passage of time and the changes in literary English have rendered unintelligible without study, there are few even of those who have endured the study that have in fact ever “heard” either of these poems: that is, who have received them with the same immediacy as a man who belonged to the same time and circumstances of the author. To do that would, of course, require a time-machine, allowing one first to acquire the dialect and literary idiom familiar to the author and then to listen to his work. For such a machine translation is the only practical substitute, however imperfect.

How can a translation be made to operate in this way, however imperfectly?

First of all by absolute allegiance to the thing translated: to its meaning, its style, technique, and form.

The language used in translation is, for this purpose, merely an instrument, that must be handled so as to reproduce, to make audible again, as nearly as possible, the antique work.

Fortunately modern (modern literary, not present-day colloquial) English is an instrument of very great capacity and resources, it has long experience not yet forgotten, and deep roots in the past not yet all pulled up.’