Beowulf: a multi-lingual translation-as-performance?

Image from Re- Interdisciplinary Network Symposium “Translation as Performance”. February 23rd, 2019. CRASSH, University of Cambridge.


What insights about the idea of ‘translation’ might be gleaned from thinking about it not only in performance, but itself as a kind of performance? Nicholas Arnold, following last week’s ‘Re-’ Interdisciplinary Network symposium on ‘Translation as Performance’[1], was prompted to reflect on the multicultural and multilingual shows and audiences that have characterized international theatre festivals since the 1960s – including his own productions.


By Nicholas Arnold

“When Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was first released in the UK, the Mandarin dialogue was not overdubbed with English –  subtitles were used.  This made the UK’s substantial Chinese communities, who sometimes formed the majority of the audience, feel unexpectedly at home, while white UK audience members found themselves suddenly ‘outsiders’. And not only were they excluded from the poetics of the language, but also from the significance of setting and costume, which elicited continuous and appreciative murmurs from the Chinese audience-members. Lee was not smoothing over the differences between this multi-lingual, multi-cultural audience, but underlining them.  The film also owes much of its enormous box-office success to its ability to capture different cultural constituencies.  White Western audiences were prompted to notice their complex group voyeurism of the exotic; but for the ethnic and culturally Chinese Mandarin-speakers, as well as the film being in the familiar genre of wuxia, or “martial hero” stories, there was a further cultural refraction. The film is adapted from stories written in the mid-20th century, but set in the 18th century.  There is thus multiplicity on many levels.  This is a complexity that is routine for other places and peoples: in Malta, for example, where trilingualism is common, English is seen as pragmatic, Italian as descriptive and romantic, Maltese as private, personal and poetic. Such a milieu offers the possibility of escape into nominally “minority”, “subservient” or even “secret” languages as a poetic resource.

But perhaps the strongest example of dramatically exploiting the (latent or actual) presence of multiple languages is the work of Denmark’s Odin Teatret. Almost as soon as they were founded in 1964, they ditched any idea that a performing script in a single appropriate language is a base-line narrative and dramatic necessity.  Since they were a multi-lingual company – a common situation in Continental Europe – their private interchanges were also multilingual (although their rehearsal language is Danish as a matter of consistency).  There are performances in which each performer uses their own native language; and performances in “dead” languages – The Gospel According to Oxyrhincus (1985) is delivered in Yiddish, Ancient Greek and Coptic. The apotheosis of this process can be found in the production Talabot (1990-91), in which each performer spoke some of their lines in their native language (five different languages in the company), while other lines were delivered in the language of whichever country they were in, as it toured both Europe and Latin-America. So the experience of entire audiences, and of each audience-member, was inflected by and dependent upon the languages at their command.

Through such mixing, multilingual audiences can be made aware of their differences, and simultaneously their overarching community.

Odin Teatret was always wedded to the idea of performers as outsiders, whose strangeness – including perhaps a strange language – exposes the idiosyncrasies of their hosts. They also look for the elusive ‘fundamentals of performance’, and language has sometimes been seen as a diversion to giving the audience ‘the Odin experience’. When the company travels to new places and makes contact with strange cultures they put themselves into the position of the anthropologist, plunged into an utter strangeness that is epitomised by an incomprehensible language. The audience at an Odin Theatre performance experience a kind of “Field-work lite”. Odin Teatret performers, in order to shed any acculturated restrictions, have sometimes put themselves in extreme situations:  Iben Nagel Rasmussen wandering as a mute clown in Southern Italy, communicating by playing a drum, for example, or Roberta Carreri walking through parts of West Africa with a kazoo, a pair of baggy trousers, and a top hat. Through such mixing, multilingual audiences can be made aware of their differences, and simultaneously their overarching community.

Taken together, what Odin Teatret and my experience producing Beowulf remind us is that the idea of a single language (a single ‘source’ text or ‘target’ text, in the terms of Translation Studies) is itself a myth.

When I came to dramatise Beowulf for the stage – a poem written sometime in the 8th-10th centuries, in Old English, about 6th century Denmark, in late 20th century England – it brought together a bewildering variety of linguistic and cultural experiences. We wanted both the translated and the untranslated, the intelligible and the mysterious, to be present in our Beowulf. We began the show with the opening lines of the poem, in Old English. But we mixed in bog-burials, the Øseberg ship, the “blood-eagle”, and interwove the Old English with our own translation, as well as extracts – both original and translated – from other Anglo-Saxon works. We ended the production, as we began, in Old English, with what many assume is the final couplet of the poem:


Lif is laene, eal scaeceth,

Leoht ond lif somod.


But these lines are in fact a mélange from different Old English sources – including Beowulf itself – spliced together in 1936, by an Oxford English literature don, whose hobby was inventing languages, brought up in Birmingham, and raised in both non-Conformism and high Catholicism, whose German family came originally from a village which is now in Poland. The text is as polyglot and multicultural as an Odin Teatret multilingual play, or a martial arts movie that mixes periods, cultures, and languages.

Taken together, what Odin Teatret and my experience producing Beowulf remind us is that the idea of a single language (a single ‘source’ text or ‘target’ text, in the terms of Translation Studies) is itself a myth. Even if one restricts ‘translation’ just to the sphere of language, or ‘translation and performance’ just to the sphere of performed translated play texts, there is still no escaping the fact that we are always dealing with multiplicities. No language stays the same, or has a single register. So the question to ask is who wants to singularize – when, and why?



[1] URL – a joint event with the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Performance Network:

Nicholas Arnold has worked in professional performance as well as in academia. He is currently National Professor Emeritus of Cultural Studies at the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland.





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