Alison Killilea writes:

A number of weeks ago, I got it into my head to start translating Beowulf after my good friend and colleague, Victoria Koivisto-Kokko, mentioned something about editions. I remembered my eternal desire to produce one in Cork slang, and thought, sure jaysus why not, and alas, Boyo-wulf (name courtesy of Ciarán Kavanagh) was conceived.

While this is first and foremost a translation with a humorous intention, as someone who has studied translation theory and translations of Beowulf for four years, there is an element of seriousness to it. I am translating this from the Old English itself (generally using Klaeber’s edition for line numbers), and looking to R.D. Fulk’s and Kevin Kiernan’s editions for backup. […]

I have decided on a prose translation because, in short, it is quite loose in some places in order that it reflect the purity of the daycent Cork slang.

It begins:

C’mere to me! Well we’ve all heard of those pure daycent kings of the Spear-Danes from donkeys’ years, and how the mad yokes of princes did alright for themselves. Sure half the time Scyld Scefing was off among a rake of enemies, pulling the mead-seats out from under their arses, scaring the shit out of the boss-men, ever since he was found skint as a young fella.

He then found joy, good man himself, did just mighty beneath the heavens, lapped up fierce respect ’til all the bais across the whale-road had to obey him and cough up a bit of moola – That was some class king, like.

There’s another paragraph at the link, and more in later posts (ll. 53-85, ll. 371-389a); you can hear it read in genuine Corkonian “by the pure class feen Panda Terry” here. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. What’s the function of sure in “Sure half the time Scyld Scefing was off…”?

  2. David Marjanović says

    Alliteration? Admittedly, there’s not a lot of it elsewhere in the quote.

  3. January First-of-May says

    If they were translating everything else, why didn’t they translate the name “Scyld Scefing”? It looks completely out of place.

    (It doesn’t sound completely out of place, on the account of the pronunciation being indistinguishable between Sc- and Sk- and half the endings being swallowed anyway, but I’m still not exactly confident that it should have been kept.)

  4. She doesn’t translate any of the names (“And he, that leader of armies, had four babógs; Heorogar, Hrothgar, and Halga…”), and why should she? Are names normally changed in a translation?

  5. I know that sure has some kind of discourse use in Irish English, but I can’t tell how exactly it’s used here.

  6. @Y, for what it’s worth, A Dictionary of Hiberno-English gives it as a “common emphatic opening to sentences”.

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    Actually “sure” is ok for me. It reinforces the line of thought in the previous sentence by giving an example. But for OE “oft” I think “many’s the time” is better than “half the time”. Mollymooly?

  8. Are names normally changed in a translation?

    I once read Secret History of Mongols in French translation.

    French translators apparently thought that difficult Mongol names would just confuse the gentle readers and they translated them all.

    Filling the text with names like Roi Solide (Batu) and Empereur Généreux (Ögedei).

    And Empereur Océanique for Genghis Khan and Subtil for Subedei Bagatur…

    I want to weep.

  9. I recently learned that the Russian translator has been dead for a decade already.

    I met him only once, and I have no idea if it any of his translations are good on paper. The process was peculiar. He did not know the langauge (he also translated Rigveda and from Old Norse and Old Irish), so he went to Moscow University to Smirnitskaya and asked her what is sounded like. They started working, and became freinds. Then he walked in nights on Moscow streets, reciting it in Old Enlgish in many different ways, until he felt that he has found the/a ‘right’ way to recite it.

    He was good at performing his translations. His reading of his translation of Lokasenna is one of my brightest memories – but I can’t enjoy it this much from the screen. (and his Pangur Ban, I mean, his reading, I did not like it at all:)).

  10. This part is missing, obviously. I mean, if a theatrical actor reads Brodsky, he will kill it, the poetry. It only can be read monotonously. Anythign a theatrical actor can add can only distract from the poetry as such. Yesenin is the opposite: his own reading is expressive and Khlopusha’s monologue is meant for theater. Whatever is the case, it was not what the poetry was originally meant for: reading it from paper.

  11. What’s the function of sure in “Sure half the time Scyld Scefing was off…”?

    a “common emphatic opening to sentences”.

    More caricaturedly a Hibernian English opening might be “To be sure, …”. A sort of throat-clearing/attention-drawing. Brit English might use “Well, …” Same function as “Hwaet, …”

    Not that I’m Hibernian (my parents-in-law are, and myriads of cousins), but I’m finding “Sure, …” entirely unremarkable.

  12. (Gotta add that reading is fekkin’ the dogs bollix. It should be performed around the pubs in Cork, in the same tradition as Bloomsday.)

  13. PlasticPaddy says


    Истинно! исстари слово мы слышим
    о доблести данов, о конунгах датских,
    чья слава в битвах была добыта!
    Первый – Скильд Скевинг, войсководитель,
    не раз отрывавший вражьи дружины
    от скамей бражных. За все, что он выстрадал
    в детстве, найденыш, ему воздалось:
    стал разрастаться властный под небом
    и, возвеличенный, силой принудил
    народы заморья дорогой китов

    Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
    þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
    hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
    Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
    monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
    egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
    feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
    weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
    oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
    ofer hronrade hyran scolde,

    The Russian has more syllables and is for me less cohesive, e.g., compare
    weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
    стал разрастаться властный под небом

    but I would really have to read the whole thing…

  14. Breffni O'Rourke says

    “Sure” is at least as slippery as any discourse marker, but “a common emphatic opening for sentences” definitely misses the point. I’d call it a “downplayer”: it suggests that some assertion should be obvious, unsurprising or uncontroversial (sometimes with the suggestion that you shouldn’t have to be told: “She’s much better than Rachel” – “Ah sure Jesus Rachel is a brainless twit”; “Is that according to the census figures?” – “Aye, but sure half the people in the Bogside don’t fill in the census”), or to minimise the weight of a suggestion or decision or situation (“And what age is the baby?” – “He’s six” – “Ah sure he’s no bother so”, “Sure take down some bread there”) (examples from the ICE-Ireland corpus).

    It’s never accented and the vowel is schwa. Any connection with the adjective (always with /u/) is purely historical, and in fact I’d favour spelling it “sher”, but sher no-one will listen.

    “To be sure” is only used in the same way as it is in other varieties of English, nowadays at least.

  15. David Marjanović says


    I still think it should be taken literally, as part of a rhetorical question: “What haven’t we heard about the Spear-Danes of yore!” (There’s no negation in this kind of thing in German.)

    стал разрастаться властный под небом

    …That’s actually amazing. It alliterates the vowels.

  16. PlasticPaddy says

    G. Walkden
    cited in Wiktionary has

    Hwæt we Gardena in geardagum þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon
    hw. we Spear-Danes.GEN in year-days nation-kings.GEN power heard
    (Beowulf, lines 1–2)
    Here the verb, fr¯ınan ‘to learn by enquiry’, can straightforwardly be read as gradable.
    The exclamative hypothesis suggests that this clause should be interpreted as ‘How much we have heard of the might of the nation-kings in the ancient times of the

    As far as I can see, his exclamative hypothesis says the hwaet is not standalone and interprets the hwaet … sentence as how [something] …!, where [something] = a grade or modifier depending on context.
    Can the phrase
    Was für ein Mann bist du! mean
    Was für ein [herrlicher/scheusslicher/wunderlicher/usw] Mann bist du!, depending on context? If so then maybe this is a similar usage.

  17. In standard English, “to be sure” has two meanings:

    1. compositional ‘in order to be sure’, equivalent to ‘just in case’

    2. idiomatic ‘certainly’, ‘we can all agree that’

    In Irish English it has the same two meanings; #2 is no more common than in standard English and the range of registers or contexts where it is found is no greater.

    What is perhaps specifically Irish is “to be sure to be sure”, which is derived from #1 and means “to make doubly sure”. It is not simply a variant of #1; it specifically indicates a belt-and-braces/suspenders level of caution. I guess the form is inspired by the Irish “ar eagla na heagla” ‘for fear of the fear [that]’. Stage Irish use of “to be sure to be sure” in sense #2 is unknown in real Ireland.

    I think “many’s the time” is better than “half the time”. Mollymooly?

    Well, “many’s the time” indicates numerous instances, each perhaps of short duration; “half the time” indicates a long aggregate duration split into an unspecified number of instances. I don’t know which better describes Scyld Scefing’s activities. However, I can’t see “Sure” being used with “many’s the time”: as Breffni suggests, “sure” is a downplayer, whereas “many’s the time” is an intensifier.

  18. Alison Killilea says

    Thanks for sharing my blog!!

    I see there are loads of questions and thoughts on some of my language!

    To address – “sure” – this is a really common phrase in the south of Ireland (I can’t count how many times I say it in a day!). I would agree it is a common opening for a sentence and a downplayer for introducing information that everybody knows. It’s also a common response as “sure look”, again as a bit of a downplayer or when you don’t have a solution or thought on an idea.

    “Half the time” – again, another common phrase here. i would never say “many’s the time”, I think this is a bit more of an “old-timey” idea of the Irish language, and maybe used more among older generations. “Half the time” isn’t necessarily literal.

    On names – I think translating the names would be confusing – I know it may sound slightly jarring when reading, but their names are their names.

    i hope this helps.

  19. Sure is hibernian English and not UK English. It is a mix of Gaelic and English. Sure from the phrase. ar is eol duit , meaning as you know, slandered to Sure. Great use of the word and very very CORK!

  20. Neither Tikhomirov nor January seems to know how sc was normally pronounced by the historical period.

  21. I’ve run into this exactly question before. The consensus is that it originally was pronounced as sk which then turned into sh pronunciation in Scandinavia.

    The change happened sometime within the time period where Beowulf is usually dated, so both pronunciations could be historically accurate.

  22. The pronunciation in Scandinavia is irrelevant; Beowulf is an Old English poem, and by the time we have it attested the pronunciation was certainly /ʃ/.

  23. David Marjanović says

    Can the phrase
    Was für ein Mann bist du! mean
    Was für ein [herrlicher/scheusslicher/wunderlicher/usw] Mann bist du!, depending on context?


    *pretending to clear throat*

    Was wir nicht/schon alles über die Macht der Volkskönige der Speer-Dänen in alten Zeiten gehört haben!

    (Bit awkward. Needs a relative clause: die Macht, die die … in alten Zeiten gehabt haben, gehört haben.)

    I guess the form is inspired by the Irish “ar eagla na heagla” ‘for fear of the fear [that]’.

    We have nothing to fear but fear itself!

    I’ve run into this exactly question before.

    I think it had the same range of pronunciations as the Russian щ for quite a while.

    (Even today, the English /ʃ/ is a bit more fronted and noticeably less rounded than the German one.)

  24. Russian palatalization in *šč is too brutal:)

  25. January First-of-May says

    Истинно! исстари слово мы слышим

    …that has to be a nod to Igor’s Campaign. Though admittedly I’m not sure if it was a deliberate nod or just a general idea of “this is what myths sound like”. [Or, in retrospect, whether it’s not just me in the first place.]

    Neither Tikhomirov nor January seems to know how sc was normally pronounced by the historical period.

    I probably didn’t, but that’s not what I was referring to; I was talking about Panda Terry’s pronunciation, which is a clear /sk/.

    As far as I can tell [i.e. “the examples that I could think of offhand”], English words starting with /sk/ tend to go in two groups: words starting with sca (scan, scam, scatter, scandal) and words starting with ski (skin, skip, skim, skill). I suspect that this distribution (if real) probably represents something about the sound changes in Late Old Norse and/or Early Middle French.
    In any case I don’t think there are any English words starting scy, with whatever pronunciation (suggestions welcome), so it doesn’t really help much with Scefing’s first name.

    and by the time we have it attested the pronunciation was certainly /ʃ/.

    …in other words, the historically accurate pronunciation is (almost) the same as the translation – which is to say, Shield Sheafing (or perhaps Sheaving; not sure).
    Of course these days “Shield” doesn’t really sound like a name that anyone could possibly unironically have, which I suppose is a point in favor of not translating.

    I think it had the same range of pronunciations as the Russian щ for quite a while.

    Real (told to me by my mother) but mostly-forgotten [i.e. details very uncertain] story from the early 2010s. Someone is trying to set up an action game for a mixed group of English and Russian speakers (the latter mostly also knowing some English).

    English speakers: So we’re going to call this position “shield”.
    Russian speakers: Щит!
    English speakers: No, no, shield.
    Russian speakers: Щит!
    (explanations ensue)
    English speakers: …OK, so we’re going to call this position “wall”.

  26. Sh in “shield” in Wiktionary indeed sounds like shortened щ.

  27. My rule of thumb is that English sh sounds like Russian щ when followed by long i (/i:/ or /i/) and as ш otherwise including before /ɪ/. This helps me to say the word sheet without causing widespread sniggering. OTOH, Americans (at least in person) are exceedingly polite and might not tell me if I don’t pull the trick off sucessfully enough.

  28. Wonderful! Apparently ‘skint’ is a go-to word for tongue-in-cheek translations. Here’s one I did last year:

    As a scholar of Old English, I take translation very seriously. Each and every word needs to be carefully considered, both for its poetic effects on the modern ear, and for the connotations it will convey as a prime, perhaps sole, representative of Old English for the typical contemporary lay-reader. After much deliberation, I have produced a short Probe, consisting of the first eleven lines of the elegiac epic Beowulf, which I hope will prove felicitous as verse while conveying the dignity and power of the original.

    What ho! We know all about the bad-assery of the heads of state of the pointy Danishes back then, how those blue-bloods boldly went forth. Shield from Sheffield broke up the booze benches of squads of fighters and a whole lotta people, and really terrorized one single dude. Afterwards first he’d been found totally skint. But things got better. He grew up in a heavily overcast area, and got lots of kudos, until everyone lounging around the dolphin race had to hear him and give him goodies. He was a cool king.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Sh in “shield” in Wiktionary indeed sounds like shortened щ.

    Interesting – that file sounds fronter than I’m used to!

    OTOH, Americans (at least in person) are exceedingly polite and might not tell me if I don’t pull the trick off sucessfully enough.

    Oh, don’t worry. If you actually said shit, they couldn’t help themselves.

    Here’s one I did last year:

    Actually wonderful. I had to look up skint, though.

  30. If you actually said shit, they couldn’t help themselves.

    Embarrassing English Errors Ep04 – Bitch & Beach

  31. Trond Engen says

    @Nelson Goering: Awe. And with kennings!

  32. Bitch & Beach

    Well,they teach in Russian school that one is a “short i” and the other is “long i: “. A student tries “bииch” and can hear that -ии- and -ee- have nothing in common.

    Then a student believes that “long sounds” are a mystery and says b-и-ch for both. Better than bииch anyway.

  33. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Are names normally changed in a translation?

    For epic poetry that’s been in circulation for enough centuries in Italian, they’re at least transliterated: Achille, Ulisse, Giasone, Enea, Orlando, Sigfrido, Artù, Lancillotto, Tristano …

    I presume you cannot pull off something like this intentionally without falling into ridicule: Beowulf is Beowulf because it’s too recent a discovery.

    Perhaps precisely because of this, subjectively I perceive the translation or transliteration as a mark of ancient tradition, in the same way as Londra is obviously an old city, unlike Washington (or London, OH).

    How come English never did it for heroes? It did for cities.

  34. …that has to be a nod to Igor’s Campaign.

    I thought about it when reading Alison’s translation (and the original).

    Слово, Nabokov:

    Might it not become us, brothers, to begin in the diction of yore the stern tale of the campaign of Igor, Igor son of Svyatoslav?

    Let us, however, begin this song in keeping with the happenings of these times and not with the contriving of Boyan.


  35. this has me wondering (not for the first time) when the shift in the general anglophone fashion from using parallel local names to using the originals happened, and how it moved through different semantic and social fields. in early 20thC writing, it’s common (if not universal) to see “peter” as kropotkin’s first name, for example, where now most english writing i see uses “pyotr”. the shift does some interesting things to other languages’ usage along the way: Phèdre vs. Phaedra for english translations of racine, for example.

  36. January First-of-May says

    How come English never did it for heroes? It did for cities.

    To an extent it did: Eric the Red is usually Eric, occasionally Erik [thus at Wikipedia], but not Eirik and definitely not Eirikr.
    (I’ve seen both Эрик and Эйрик used for his name in Russian.)

  37. Trond Engen says

    I know that I’m highly inconsistent. I’ve taken myself in anglifying in at least three different ways in the same comment.

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