The Literature of Otherness

Thanks to those of you who reviewed the Beowulf movie on this blog. You saved at least one middle school teacher from taking her 7th graders, which would have been highly embarrassing, to say the least.

One writer, Blake Gopnik, also found the movie falling short of the original, but he gave some different reasons. Mr. Gopnik said that when he read the poem as a young man, it was so compelling to him that he studied Anglo-Saxon in college so that he could read it in the original language. What he loved about it was precisely how different its imaginative world is from our own. The movie makers, though, thought they had to make it up-to-date and thereby eliminated its alienness, which is its biggest appeal.

reading “Beowulf” takes us to a new place, where people think about the world and its stories in terms that don’t make sense to us. That’s why it takes a year and more to come to terms with it (at least in Anglo-Saxon) and why the effort’s worth it.

I don’t buy the tired old cliche that “Beowulf” is great because it touches universal themes. What’s great is that it isn’t universal; that it’s its own thing; that its bards managed to build a world for us that’s so complete a package, in its verse and tale and coloring, that we can still get lost in it all these centuries later. Whereas watching the movie leaves us absolutely in the place and present where we started out. It’s just “Die Hard” in chain mail.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of “Die Hard” and “Spider-Man” and even trashier fare. (Did someone just say “X-Men III”?) It’s just that I’m also a fan of “Beowulf” as something very different from all that — as a work that truly makes you put yourself into the skin of an ancient Germanic marauder. What could be more thrilling than that?

In all their many interviews, it’s clear that the creators of the film could barely stomach the strange “Beowulf” they started out with. They didn’t dare imagine that, even with a little cinematic help, their audience might ever come to terms with its foreignness. Instead, they had to bring the poem fully “up to date” and make it easily digestible.

This is a brilliant point, applicable to much ancient and other-cultural literature and to the way they are translated. Consider, for example, many modern Bible translations. The up-to-date language tries to make Abraham and Isaac into one of our contemporaries. They are not! They are from an ancient world very different from our own. A good Bible translation, to be fully accurate, should faithfully render the strangeness and the obscurities, instead of trying to make everything familiar and clear when the original is not so. A good Bible translation should, like the Beowulf poem, take us into its world. That’s why the King James version–whose translators purposefully used language that was already archaic in their own time–is still so evocative and powerful.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I think Gopnik has a powerful point. But to try to do what he suggests would be an act of heresy for the filmmakers. They believe, as a matter of orthodoxy so deep that they take it for scientific truth, that everybody is all the same and has always been all the same. To recognize anything human as alien would be, to them, the most inexcusable hate crime.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I think Gopnik has a powerful point. But to try to do what he suggests would be an act of heresy for the filmmakers. They believe, as a matter of orthodoxy so deep that they take it for scientific truth, that everybody is all the same and has always been all the same. To recognize anything human as alien would be, to them, the most inexcusable hate crime.

  • http://maplemountain.blogspot.com/ samuel

    What a great post. Egalitarianism is a real disaster for storytelling. In stories we can see the sheer nonsense of Utopian equality. As true heroes model the virtue of fighting for truth and most villains personify modern relativism (“Your truth doesn’t apply to me”), so this push for ancient legs to be sheathed in Levi’s is absurd.

    One of the things I love about Lewis and Tolkien (and others) is the distance, the hierarchy, and (dare I say it) the patriarchy inherent in epic stories. They have the ring of truth, and help me to understand better, or appreciate more fully, many of the very things about the Bible’s historical characters and how different they are from Sex in the City, or whatever.

    I am all for accessibility when it is possible. But not when it is hurtful to the truth, as it is in the case of many modern translations, many sermons which are 95% up-close application and maybe 5% content, worship songs that are “God-as-my-girlfriend” close with no recognition of a transcendent God, and the dumbing down of great stories.

    Thanks for the great post, Doctor Veith.

  • http://maplemountain.blogspot.com/ samuel

    What a great post. Egalitarianism is a real disaster for storytelling. In stories we can see the sheer nonsense of Utopian equality. As true heroes model the virtue of fighting for truth and most villains personify modern relativism (“Your truth doesn’t apply to me”), so this push for ancient legs to be sheathed in Levi’s is absurd.

    One of the things I love about Lewis and Tolkien (and others) is the distance, the hierarchy, and (dare I say it) the patriarchy inherent in epic stories. They have the ring of truth, and help me to understand better, or appreciate more fully, many of the very things about the Bible’s historical characters and how different they are from Sex in the City, or whatever.

    I am all for accessibility when it is possible. But not when it is hurtful to the truth, as it is in the case of many modern translations, many sermons which are 95% up-close application and maybe 5% content, worship songs that are “God-as-my-girlfriend” close with no recognition of a transcendent God, and the dumbing down of great stories.

    Thanks for the great post, Doctor Veith.

  • Pinon Coffee

    AMEN!

  • Pinon Coffee

    AMEN!

  • Carl Vehse

    “You saved at least one middle school teacher from taking her 7th graders, which would have been highly embarrassing, to say the least.”

    Is (or was) there really any Hollywood movie that warrants having a middle school teacher take her students to see during school time?!?

  • Carl Vehse

    “You saved at least one middle school teacher from taking her 7th graders, which would have been highly embarrassing, to say the least.”

    Is (or was) there really any Hollywood movie that warrants having a middle school teacher take her students to see during school time?!?

  • fwsonnek

    “…ancient and other-cultural literature and to the way they are translated. .. …good Bible translation, to be fully accurate, should faithfully render the strangeness instead of trying to make everything familiar and clear when the original is not so. ”

    We christians do this with the “story line of Jesus”. We ignore the Jesus who says sell all you have and hate your father and mother, and lets a prostitute massage his feet with her hair, $500 an oz perfume and her hair at a religious gathering, makes a few hundred liters of the best wine at a party where everyone is already tipsy and tells parables where God orders people violently killed at the end. It´s not just the translation that causes this! Where Jesus doesn´t fit neatly into our Jesus-as-rebel-personal-responsibility-family-values-roll-your-own image, or calls into question our own vision of Him and ourselves, we simply ignore Him.

    We, of course, often do this in the Liturgy as well, but it is not so easy, so that is why it often just gets dumped altogeather. Liturgy is worhip-as-Revelation, like the book where all fall down prostrate singing alleluia! How strange a world that seems even to all of us who just DO liturgy because to do it is to do Jesus into his Death and aren´t “liturgical” in a romantic or aesthetic way as to our motives.

    “That’s why the King James version–whose translators purposefully used language that was already archaic in their own time–is still so evocative and powerful.”

    No. Older language forms are ALWAYS the ones (eg use of the subjunctive that is slowly disappearing from our vernacular) used for politeness and reverence. So KJV english feels more like proper religion and reverence. In the greek world there was no reverential “thee and thou” to refer to God. Not even in KJV times. I remember feeling blasphemous referring to God as a “you.” I was so wrong. The english bowderlized the translation. Not only the pervasive “blue language” of the OT, but this extends to obscuring the language of the scandal of eating the literal body and blood of our Lord. It is a dishonest translation in many ways. In other ways it DOES follow the original text much better than say, the NIV, but not necessarily the NKJV or others!

    Worse, no translation radically leans into looking for Jesus everywhere in the text except for the the Lutheran Beck´s generally excellent translation, and great parts of the OT NIV where they were done largely by WELS scholars.

  • fwsonnek

    “…ancient and other-cultural literature and to the way they are translated. .. …good Bible translation, to be fully accurate, should faithfully render the strangeness instead of trying to make everything familiar and clear when the original is not so. ”

    We christians do this with the “story line of Jesus”. We ignore the Jesus who says sell all you have and hate your father and mother, and lets a prostitute massage his feet with her hair, $500 an oz perfume and her hair at a religious gathering, makes a few hundred liters of the best wine at a party where everyone is already tipsy and tells parables where God orders people violently killed at the end. It´s not just the translation that causes this! Where Jesus doesn´t fit neatly into our Jesus-as-rebel-personal-responsibility-family-values-roll-your-own image, or calls into question our own vision of Him and ourselves, we simply ignore Him.

    We, of course, often do this in the Liturgy as well, but it is not so easy, so that is why it often just gets dumped altogeather. Liturgy is worhip-as-Revelation, like the book where all fall down prostrate singing alleluia! How strange a world that seems even to all of us who just DO liturgy because to do it is to do Jesus into his Death and aren´t “liturgical” in a romantic or aesthetic way as to our motives.

    “That’s why the King James version–whose translators purposefully used language that was already archaic in their own time–is still so evocative and powerful.”

    No. Older language forms are ALWAYS the ones (eg use of the subjunctive that is slowly disappearing from our vernacular) used for politeness and reverence. So KJV english feels more like proper religion and reverence. In the greek world there was no reverential “thee and thou” to refer to God. Not even in KJV times. I remember feeling blasphemous referring to God as a “you.” I was so wrong. The english bowderlized the translation. Not only the pervasive “blue language” of the OT, but this extends to obscuring the language of the scandal of eating the literal body and blood of our Lord. It is a dishonest translation in many ways. In other ways it DOES follow the original text much better than say, the NIV, but not necessarily the NKJV or others!

    Worse, no translation radically leans into looking for Jesus everywhere in the text except for the the Lutheran Beck´s generally excellent translation, and great parts of the OT NIV where they were done largely by WELS scholars.


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