New vs. Old Translation Beowulf (Word Clouds)



Hello and welcome to my first project for fall 2021! For this project, I decided I wanted to look closely at the specific words used in Beowulf and see if there were any big differences in the language with an old versus new translation aside from the “Bro” vs “Lo” that we’ve talked about before. The older translation I chose was a Project Gutenberg free version translated all the way back in 1892, which is over a 120-year difference from the one we read in class! The first time I ever read Beowulf was with Headley’s more modern translation so I couldn’t help but wonder about how much the words she used affected my own reading of the story. It was more a curiosity than anything just to see for myself how different the translations are and be able to look at data breaking down the word usage. And the word clouds seemed like a fun way to display my findings!

The first thing I noticed between the two after I imported all the data was the difference between their top three words. For the old translation, they are, in order from higher to lower, “Beowulf” “one” and “Hrothgar”, while the new translations are, “man”, “king”, and “Beowulf”. I expected “Beowulf” to be the top word for both so it caught me off guard when it only placed third in the new translation. It makes sense that “man” and “king” were placed high, though, especially because I feel like when I read Beowulf there was a big emphasis on manhood and kings. Although when looking at the older translation, those words are used far far less. In the new one “man” is written a whopping 115 times followed by “king” 100 times, but in the old one “man” is only used 36 times and “king” 34 times. It makes me wonder if Headley’s usage of those masculine words (with “men” and “son” also following right behind the top three) was intentional or not. I also wonder if that emphasis on manhood is more of a modern, almost exaggerating-to-make-fun-of thing, or if that emphasis was always there but the older versions just utilized different words.

Another thing that immediately caught my attention was the difference between formal versus casual language. When I mean formal in this case though, it is really more like old words that sound fancy to me because of how outdated they are relevant to casual speech now. Some more casual words that appear often in the new translation include, “he’d”, “like”, “who’d”, “I’m”, “I’d”, “I’ve”, etc. We’ve often talked about how Beowulf feels like someone is telling you a story and with these words appearing in this version, it really does make it seem like how somebody would talk when telling a story. However, some words that appear in the old translation but aren’t in the new one at all are “thee”, “shall”, “thou”, “o’er”, “thy”, “hath”, “twas”, etc, with those first three in the top 10 most used. Thinking about if I read this version of the text for my first time with Beowulf, I don’t think that I would get that same feeling of someone telling me a story. But even though these words seem distant and outdated, “o’er” particularly stood out to me because it reminds me so much of shortening or combining of words that feel more familiar. It makes me think and reminds me that when this translation came out, maybe it also seemed modern and relevant at the time.

The last thing I want to talk about is another handful of words that are used a lot in one version and not a lot in the other that I thought was interesting. The first one is how “spirit” is used 64 times in the old version yet only 4 times in the new one. Even though God and Lord are used almost the same between the two, the idea of spirits and spirituality might have been a much more prominent part of the old translation since it is the fourth most common word used. Another one is “heroes” appearing 57 times and “hero” 49 times in the old translation, but only 9 and 14 times respectively in the new one. It makes me wonder if the idea of heroism and the idea of Beowulf being an ideal hero was pushed more with this earlier version, or if Headley made any kind of conscious choice not to paint Beowulf that way. The last one is that “hall” is mentioned 59 times in the newer version but only 16 times in the older one. I’m curious if that is because the old version had different words to describe it, or if the new version wanted to highlight the importance of everyone at the hall more.

The things I mentioned today are only a fraction of some stuff that I noticed and there is certainly more room to dig deeper. I honestly don’t know the answer to any of these questions or how these word differences change the readings of Beowulf because it’s all just speculation, so I would definitely love to know what anybody else is thinking! (I am going to link the Excel spreadsheets of the most-to-least words used lists for both texts down below in case you want to check them out)

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2 thoughts on “New vs. Old Translation Beowulf (Word Clouds)

  1. This was very interesting! Such a cool idea for a project. It’s crazy how different words can impact the way you read and interpret a story. It’s possible that various translators across history have used their translations to push various agendas, whether that’s masculinity, heroism, or even “I” statements. The way you organized the data made it very clear to see the priorities of the different translators. Great job!

  2. This is really awesome, I had originally bought an older version of Beowulf and found it hard to enjoy, I then bought the new translation and was able to enjoy that one 10x better. I find it interesting that “man” was used more than Beowulf because I could have sworn I had seen his name a million times but it does make sense. The use of man made it seem so much more like locker room talk, which was super creative. I really like the images of the words, it drew my eye in right away and made me interested in the data of the words. Great job!!

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