A thousand-year-old epic might seem odd reading for a summery train ride, yet Maria Dahvana Headley’s new translation of Beowulf, was just the perfect balance of narrative action, humour and emotion to occupy me for a few hours. Headley weaves a strong feminist reevaluation of the story, and previous translations, with a raconteur’s skill in holding the audience’s attention.
I must admit my main reason for picking it up was the rendering of “hwæt” (the opening word of the poem) as “bro!”. This sounds far more like something you might hear in a pub or bar, as someone starts an overly long anecdote or the like, than more formal renderings, even if they are closer in direct meaning to the Old English. And so, this “bro!” turns what can feel rather old-fashioned into a poem that is clearly just as much of the modern world as its historical setting.
For a poem of such age, the very style will feel alien and confusing, as it links into a system of poetic conventions and allusions that the modern reader will not be familiar with. In part these are stylistic conventions, which pose an issue to a translator. Do you stick with the conventions of the original, which are then divorced from their context, or do you find a similar stylistic convention to give a hint of the same ideas and feel?
Headley balances these concerns well, keeping the heavily alliterative style of the Old English, but without tying the poem into incomprehensible stylistic knots. This approach provides a similar feel to the original poem, with those tell-tale kennings, but without feeling unnatural. Of course, the first few dozen lines will feel rather different to any modern English poetry, but once you slip into the flow it becomes second nature to feel the alliterative beat that canters on as the narrative gallops on from event to event.
Many other versions of Beowulf can seem off putting with their rather Victorian tone, resplendent with archaisms. This is not just because translators are trying to give a sense of the age of the poem, for when it was written its style would already have felt archaic. Ms Headley, does lean into this at points, to great effect, but balances it with a wide range of linguistic style from those archaic registers to very modern idiom. The skill comes in blending them to feel natural, with some terms that were only created recently, yet are already slipping into obscurity as they fade from fashion.
Even if you are not such a fan of the complexities of translation, this translation of Beowulf will spark your interest in how it treats the original. Recently there has been a considerable re-evaluation of how older texts are approached, mainly in relation of Greek texts and myths. This has ranged from direct translations like Emily Wilson’s 2017 version of The Odyssey, to retellings of myths such as Natalie Haynes’s Pandora’s Jar, and novels playing with characters from those myths such as Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne.
The connecting thread of all these retellings, is that they consider how the misogynistic (and homophobic and racist) ideas and preconceptions of most previous retellings have been grounded not in the source material. From this point they consider why certain choices are made and frequently show how ridiculous they are.
A good example is how in the Old English text of Beowulf the dragon does not have its gender made explicit. Most translations and retellings decide that it must be a male dragon, for no real reason, other than the idea that fierce dragons must be male. Headley, makes the dragon explicitly female and so highlights how arbitrary any such decision is.
This treatment of a dragon might seem a little unimportant, and if it were an isolated detail, it might be. The issue is not the automatic assumption of a dragon’s gender, but how this plays into gender roles. This is most clear in Headley’s treatment of Grendel’s mother, who is seen as monstrous, mainly for her rejection of normal female roles and temerity to fight as an equal to men. Even just writing this makes me think how she is reduced to her role as a mother, for she has no name other than in relation to her son.
Rather than go into the detail of how most previous translators have made her monstrous and animalistic, when the Old English text presents her as no more inhuman than Beowulf himself, let me direct you to read the translation, as it is prefaced by a detailed introduction. This introduction does that very hard thing, in covering the issues of translation in detail, without descending into being overly dry and scholarly.
In many ways, I would say that this translation is a perfect starting point for anyone who has not read Beowulf, as it blends a narrative that is just as engaging as any contemporary novel, with enough contextual detail to give you a grounding in the topic. It is also first and foremost, a piece of great poetry, which is able to range from the violence of battle, to the pathos of a mother’s murdered son, without losing the reader’s attentive gaze from the sequence of cinematic scenes that make this translation very hard to put down until the end.
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