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Benjamin Thorpe: The Man Who Translated Almost All Old English Texts

Not much is known about Benjamin Thorpe (1782-1870), yet he was one of the first scholars to publish voluminous editions and translations of Old English texts. This blog provides an overview of Thorpe’s works on Anglo-Saxon texts and also reveals how his reputation was almost ruined because of faulty reprints of his Beowulf edition.

Benjamin Thorpe: A demanding stepfather and a humble translator

Little is known about the background and youth of Benjamin Thorpe; his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that he “is of obscure origins” (Seccombe 2014).  In 1826, at the age of forty-four, Thorpe studied early English antiquities at the University of Copenhagen, under the guidance of one of the most prominent philologists of his day: Rasmus Rask (1787-1832). A good working knowledge of ancient tongues and literature was not the only thing Thorpe picked up in Copenhagen: he also married Mary Anne Otté and adopted her daughter Elise. A eulogy written on the latter’s death in 1904 reveals that Benjamin Thorpe had been a demanding stepfather who eventually drove his stepdaughter to flee to Boston, USA:

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Eulogy for Elise C. Otté by Edmund Grosse in Athenaeum, 02 Jan. 1904 (source)

Apparently aided by his talented stepdaughter,  Thorpe started to earn his living as a translator of, mostly, Anglo-Saxon texts – according to Niles (2015), he may be regarded as “the first professional Anglo-Saxonist”, since his income mainly consisted of the stipends he received for his books.

A glance at Thorpe’s activities as an editor and translator (a full overview is provided below) shows an admirable range: from poems to law texts, psalms, chronicles and homilies. Thorpe also strikes as a humble man. His humility, as well as his intended purpose for most of his books,  are made clear in the preface to his Analecta Anglo-Saxonica (1834), a student anthology of Old English texts:

Like the generality of first attempts, [this work] is, I am too well aware, extremely defective both in plan and execution, and has large demands to make upon the indulgences of its readers; but I shall not regret having sent it forth to the world, if, by its publication, the study of the old vernacular tongue of England, so much neglected at home, and so successfully cultivated by foreign philologists, shall be promoted in the land where it once flourished. (Thorpe 1834, A2)

He was also humble enough to indicate when a text had proven too difficult for him to translate. Of the Old English Riming Poem, for instance, he remarked: “My endeavours to give a version of the “Riming Poem” have failed.” (Thorpe 1842, ix). The Exeter Book Riddles also caused him trouble:

Of the “Riddles”I regret to say that, from the obscurity naturally to be looked for in such compositions, arising partly from inadequate knowledge of the tongue, and partly from the manifest inaccuracies of the text, my translations, or rather attempts at translation, though the best I can offer, are frequently almost, and somtimes I fear, quite as unintelligible as the originals. Though they have baffled me, yet as they will now be in the hands of the Public, a hope may reasonably be entertained, that one more competent will undertake their interpretation, and with a more favourable result. (Thorpe 1842, xi)

These two failed attempts notwithstanding, it would be hard to find a person “more competent” than Thorpe – Niles (2015) rightly notes that “no human being past or present has ever read more lines of Old English manuscript text than Benjamin Thorpe, word by word and letter by letter” (p. 229).

Editions and translations of Old English texts

Thanks to the Internet Archive, it is now possible to not only make a complete list of Thorpe’s editions and translations of Old English texts, they are all freely available. Below follows a chronological overview of his works (I have limited my selection to works touching on Anglo-Saxon England; Thorpe also translated the Elder Edda, a Latin chonicle by Florence of Winchester and historical works by J. M. Lappenberg; he also wrote multiple works about Northern mythology):

While generally overshadowed by his contemporary John Mitchell Kemble (1807-1857), Thorpe has certainly left his mark on the developing profession of Anglo-Saxon studies.In addition to his publications, Thorpe was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and became a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Munich (Germany) and the Society of Netherlandish Literature in Leiden (The Netherlands).  Benjamin Thorpe died in 1870, aged eighty-eight years old.

A reputation nearly ruined by reprints?

While Thorpe’s works generally enjoy a good reputation, some nine years after his death, a Dutch student of Old English found reason to complain about Thorpe’s edition of Beowulf. This student, G. J. P. J. Bolland (1852-1922), wrote the following to the Professor of Germanic Philology in Leiden, P. Cosijn (1841-1899), on October 10, 1879: “I will show you that I have every reason to despise Thorpe’s horrible edition of Beowulf“. Bolland provided a number of errors in the first thirty lines of Thorpe’s edition of Beowulf  and scornfully remarked: “Here’s the work of a member of the Society of Netherlandish Literature at Leiden!”

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Errors in Thorpe’s Beowulf edition in a letter by G.J.P.J. Bolland (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

The errors noted by Bolland are accurate: “eyren-þearfe” for “fyren-þearfe” (Beowulf, l. 14); “eþ” for “þe” (Beowulf, l. 15); “fæt” for “þæt” (Beowulf, l. 22); etc. In Thorpe’s defense, however, these errors are not found in his first edition, published in 1855; they are only found in the second edition of his work, published in 1875 (five years after Thorpe had died). Apart from this scornful letter of a Dutch student to his professor, the errors in the the second edition of Thorpe’s Beowulf appear to have gone unnoticed, since they are retained in the third edition of 1889:

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Three editions of Thorpe’s Beowulf; errors noted by Bolland in red squares.

When it came to his Beowulf edition (for which he is generally praised), it seems Thorpe is lucky that first impressions are indeed more lasting – the errors in the posthumous reprints of his works have not affected his reputation, although at least one Dutch student despised him for it!

This is the first in a series of blogs related to my project “My former Germanicist me”: G. J. P. J. Bolland (1854-1922) as an Amateur Old Germanicist , which explores how a Dutch student at the end of the nineteenth century tried to master Old English.

Texts referred to:

  • John D. Niles, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
  • Thomas Seccombe, ‘Thorpe, Benjamin (1781/2–1870)’, rev. John D. Haigh, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27375, accessed 8 April 2016]

 

 

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4 Comments

  1. Chris Monk says:

    Really enjoyed learning more about Thorpe’s work. I’ve often used his editions in research without ever appreciating how much he actually did to advance AS studies. Thanks for all the links. Will use these, especially the Catholic Homilies.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. katehthomas says:

    I’d looked at his editions of the Catholic Homilies and attached versions of the Lord’s Prayer etc., but didn’t know how much he had translated!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Holder (1882-1884) and Benjamin Thorpe (2nd edn., 1875); of the latter he wrote to Cosijn “I will show you that I have every reason to despise Thorpe’s horrible edition of Beowulf“, pointing out several of misprints in the Old English text. […]

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  4. […] Benjamin Thorpe: The Man Who Translated Almost All Old English Texts […]

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