Victoria S. Poulakis, at her site Translation: What Difference Does It Make?, provides multiple translations, with discussion, of bits of Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, The Iliad, The Metamorphosis, and Tartuffe. For instance, the Beowulf page starts with the first word:

You’ll note that the differences begin with the translated versions of the opening word of the poem, Hwaet. This word, literally translated into modern English, means What, but its Old English meaning is somewhat different. In Old English, when stories were told orally by a storyteller, the word Hwaet was used to get the audience’s attention at the beginning of the story in the way that a phrase like Listen to this! might be used today. Translators know that just using the word What wouldn’t make much sense to modern readers, so the four translators above have chosen words which they hope will convey a similar meaning.

This is a great idea, and I intend to spend some time investigating the site. (Via wood s lot.)
Incidentally, the discussion of hwaet reminds me of the time my friend C. called me over in a bookstore and showed me an old translation (from the ’30s?) that rendered it “What ho!”
(The first “Comparing Translations” entry, about dueling versions of Murakami, is here.)


  1. My favorite translation of hwæt remains that suggested by my highschool English teacher: Yo!

  2. There are a dozen Russian versions of Hamlet, although only two are widely known, Lozinsky’s and Pasternak’s. Byron’s Sun of the Sleepless and Blake’s Tiger have been translated countless times. Pasternak’s version of Macbeth, considered classical, doesn’t have the words ‘sound and fury’, which cuts the title of Faulkner’s novel from its reference point. And so on.
    I’ve just posted two lengthy and unorganized comments to that Murakami translation post without realizing it is one year old. Still, the thread is incredibly interesting.

  3. No problem, thanks to the magic of “recently commented on”!

  4. One issue in the translation of hwæt is it’s lack of metrical stress, which perhaps makes the rendering of Heaney closer than the exclamations of the others.

  5. And now of course I must go and be mortified at my “it’s” in place of “its”. The shame, the shame. :)

  6. I was deeply impressed by Heaney’s use of “So.” as a beginning sentence. Not only does it seeem to evoke the intent of the word “hwaet”, but unlike the stridency of “Hear me!” (or even “Yo!”), it has the air of a great storyteller settling down to business, able to silence the room by the mere declaration of intent to speak. It dismisses what has gone before and carries the expectation of attention in a way that I imagine that “hwaet” must have.

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