Hwæt?Beowulf? newly translated for your enjoyment

The world is atwitter at the arrival of a new translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley.

Well, a certain segment of the world, anyway.

And you may well wonder why.

The idea of reading this epic poem has never appealed to me, despite some indicators to the contrary: since 11th grade I have had considerable interest in three epic poems—The Aeneid, The Iliad, and especially The Odyssey— also, as a fan of Tolkien, I feel some connection with the old Anglo-Saxon world, especially its language. I’ve even eaten lunch many times at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge. So I should be interested.

How did that turn out? Homer yes, Vergil yes, but Beowulf not so much. A lot of people love it, but I had never read it.

You may also wonder why this poem needs a translation at all, since it was written in English! Yes, sort of. English has changed so much in a millennium that it needs to be translated: it’s simply a different language now Some people have trouble with Early Modern English (e.g. Shakespeare), many have trouble with Middle English (e.g. Chaucer), and everyone has trouble with old English, a.k.a. Anglo-Saxon (e.g. Beowulf). Here are some quick sample sentences:

  • Early Modern English: Being mechanical, you ought not walk/Upon a labouring day without the sign/Of your profession? Speak, what trade art thou?
  • Middle EnglishBifil that in that seson on a day,/In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay,/Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage/To Caunterbury with ful devout corage…
  • Old EnglishHim ða Scyld gewat to gescæphwile/felahror feran on frean wære.

As I say, it was a different language then. So translations are needed, and a great many have been published. It’s always difficult to translate poetry, especially when the basic assumptions of a poetic form are literally foreign to us. Shakespeare, after all, has the familiar iambic pentameter, with occasional rhymed couplets; Homer and Vergil have the less familiar meter of dactylic hexameter, which might or might not be retained in a translation; but Beowulf is based primarily on alliteration and assonance rather than meter and rhyming. Do you preserve the characteristics in a translation? Do you use “old” vocabulary in order to make it seem old to the reader?

Dahvana Headley’s solution is to use (mostly) modern language in appropriate tones, including occasional alliteration to recall the original. Reviewers have used adjectives like “vigorous” and “sassy” to describe it, and I can’t pick better ones! Here is a sample:

Every elder knew I was the man for you, and blessed
my quest, King Hrothgar, because where I’m from?
I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best.
Yes: I mean—I may have bathed in the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
and made sashimi of some sea monsters.

Epic poetry is meant to be read aloud and listened to, so I listed to the excellent audiobook version by JD Jackson. Be sure not to skip the outstanding performance by Dahvana Headley herself as she reads her introduction aloud—in such a convincing way that it would make any doubter want to continue onto her translation as read by Jackson. Give it a try!




Categories: Books, Linguistics