Review: Alex Jones’ Beowulf

Beowulf: A Translation, by Alex Jones

Lion Works, Sydney, April 2014. ISBN 9780646918938

This book is difficult to find online. Enquiries to info@lionworks.com.au.

Reviewed by: Amy, who declines to give a star rating because, one, she likes the author too much to be unbiased, and two, the ‘goodness’ of this book will very much depend on what you want to do with it.

Short book summary: Aptly timed to co-incidence with the release of Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, Alex Jones’ translation is about as unlike that long-awaited translation as you could get while still accurately rendering the text. Paperback, prose translation, minimal but useful commentary.

Hwæt status: “Listen!”

The book in question, and the parcel in which it was mailed to me by the author himself

I admit, when I got over the excitement of a parcel! For me!, I was disappointed by this book. I had rather hoped the delightful picture-book illustrations would be found throughout, but alas: only the cover is that cute.

Then I was puzzled: I could not figure out who this book’s target audience was. It’s clearly not the academic market, but who? The casual reader? If so, the cover design missed the mark – the casual reader will probably go for either the Penguin or one of the deluxe illustrated editions of Heaney’s poetic translation, with shiny pictures from Sutton Hoo throughout. But the casual reader who ended up with this would not be disappointed: there are several pages of useful historical background information, and Alex’s prose translation is clear and simple. I think I would recommend this book to my father: someone with no academic training, who can be put off by dense academic-ese but has an immense, self-taught interest in history and almost any sort of systematic information. Alex’s comments on translation and interpretation, I think, offer Dad something that the polished literariness of Heaney’s translation doesn’t.

Is it for children? The cover design and layout might lead to it being shelved in childrens’ sections by inattentive librarians. The layout is quite text-book like, with break-out boxes instead of footnotes, giving commentary on the context and translation choices. If I had a child between, say, 8 and 15 who was interested in Beowulf I’d definitely buy them this. But, although the full Old English text is not reproduced, some sections are, and Alex’s translation commentary gets quite technical at times, although his explanations are always in clear and simple terms. I think even I would have skimmed over that in childhood.

Is it for undergraduates? Well, it could certainly be used in an undergraduate teaching context. I think it provides better textual commentary and translation notes than the modern-English-only Liuzza edition, but if I were setting books for a senior course I’d really want to at least pretend they will glance at the Old English throughout: Liuzza’s now got a parallel text edition out, which would be my first choice. If I were quickly covering Beowulf in a survey course this could have benefits: easy-to-follow historical info and simple commentary alongside the text, with more detail than provided in the big anthologies. But I’d hesitate to set it to senior students or English specialists: while it meets the minimum requirements I don’t think it gives them enough to go further.

That line of thought brought me to the perfect target audience: this would be a brilliant textbook for high school students. They’d probably be extension students, especially if under 16. But in NSW, at least, schools do get discretion over what books to set to stage 4 and 5. I was in a break-out extension English class in year 9: we read more or less the same standard of books as the other classes, just quicker. I would have been tickled pink if we had a unit on medieval literature.* Alex Jones’ Beowulf would have provided exactly the resources to suit students of our capacity: good, clear historical context; a taste of the original language; consistent commentary on translation choices so that the student is aware of the translator’s presence; a simple, accessible prose text; useful guidance on interpretation.

Or perhaps the target audience is, well, me. And Jones’ colleagues and ex-students and friends: people who have read Heaney and Liuzza and perhaps even have a collection of Beowulf translations and a soft spot for each of them. Such people will probably find they have a soft spot for this translation, too.

~

  • I recently learned this curriculum fact in the context of the disappointing lack of books by women read in NSW schools. I therefore suggest that a hypothetical medieval lit unit also include some Marie de France (Bisclavret goes over well – all the kids love werewolves!) and perhaps follow up with some modern medievalism – Susan Cooper would be excellent; older students might handle Marion Zimmer-Bradley (although Kiera points out few schools would countenance MZB’s sex scenes… which is true, but I’m pretty sure I’d object to their reasoning).

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