From the little I have seen, I have hopes that J. R. R. Tolkien’s soon-to-be published translation of Beowulf may do the same thing for the Old English poem that Fitzgerald did for the Persian. For example, here’s Seamus Heaney’s 1999 translation:
Fyrst forð gewát flota wæs on ýðum bát under beorg beornas gearwe on stefn stigon — stréamas wundon, Time went by, the boat was on water, in close under the cliffs. Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank, sand churned in surf…
Tolkien does something much better with his version:
On went the hours: on ocean afloat under cliff was their craft. Now climb blithely brave man aboard; breakers pounding ground the shingle.
How much of this is Tolkien and how much is the original? At the time of this writing, we don’t have much to go off of(1), and I know very little Old English, so I could be mistaken; but if Tolkien can look at, for example, “stréamas wundon” and derive, in English, the music of “breakers pounding ground the shingle”, it seems reasonable to hope that the rest of the thing will be real English poetry: that is, a living sparrow rather than a stuffed eagle.
- These lines are about half of the excerpt that is currently all we have to go on: a few lines Tolkien included in an introductory chapter to a 1940 edition of John R. Clark Hall’s Beowulf translation. (Notably, Hall, too, took the poetic approach to translation we are advocating here, and was criticized for it.)↩