It’s strange that Tolkien is credited with kickstarting modern scholarship on ‘Beowulf,’ yet, until now, his translation was unpublished.
I’ve read other translations before, but I don’t recall which ones specifically. I followed this reading up directly with the Heaney translation, which is apparently the standard in today’s college classes. (It wasn’t yet published either, last time I read ‘Beowulf.’) The Tolkien direct translation is more ‘difficult,’ but both (I cannot verify, but I got the feeling) more accurate and more lovely to the ear, with evocative and musical language. Tolkien’s language and imagery is both vivid and elevated; and gives the reader the feeling of a glimpse into the past.
Reading the accompanying commentary (together with notes from Christopher Tolkien) is great because there’s a lot of discussion of what the figures of speech mean and what words not only mean but what their implications are, considering the society using them. (Which kind of rubs it in that, “no, you really don’t understand the original like Tolkien does, and very likely no one alive does.”)
In addition to the translation, notes and commentary, this volume also includes two versions of Tolkien telling the story of Beowulf in the style of a folk tale; and two versions of it written as a ballad – which, IMHO, HAS to be recorded by some excellent bands very shortly! Seriously, one of the best pieces of poetry I’ve ever read. Gorgeous language; you can literally hear the music as you read.