Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

Information

Goodreads: Beowulf: A New Translation
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 25, 2020

Official Summary

A new, feminist translation of Beowulf by the author of The Mere Wife.

Nearly twenty years after Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf — and fifty years after the translation that continues to torment high-school students around the world — there is a radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley, which brings to light elements never before translated into English.

A man seeks to prove himself as a hero. A monster seeks silence in his territory. A warrior seeks to avenge her murdered son. A dragon ends it all. These familiar components of the epic poem are seen with a novelist’s eye toward gender, genre, and history. Beowulf has always been a tale of entitlement and encroachment — of powerful men seeking to become more powerful and one woman seeking justice for her child — but this version brings new context to an old story. While crafting her contemporary adaptation, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation; her Beowulf is one for the twenty-first century.

Star Divider

Review

This is a difficult review for me to write because, on one hand, I understand what Maria Dahvana Headley is doing with this translation. She’s making Beowulf more modern and accessible, and she’s using her translation to draw out a new interpretation of the story, one where Grendel’s mother is a grief-stricken mom before than a monster and where Beowulf and company are still impressive warriors but also kind of bragging dude bros who don’t know everything. I see her vision, and I get where she’s coming from. On the other hand: it just isn’t my thing.

I’ve read a number of translations of Beowulf (such as Heaney’s and Tolkien’s), and I’ve written a post for the blog about whether the story is one of adventure or one of loss. I LIKE the old feel of the story and I like the translator interpretation that Beowulf used antiquated language when it was written; it sounded old to its first Anglo-Saxon listeners. I like feeling that I’m in a far-off time and place where the things that mattered to people are sometimes strikingly familiar and sometimes completely foreign. I’m not really into a version of Beowulf where Beowulf calls everyone, including kings, “bro” and the narrator calls Beowulf Hrothgar’s “new best boy.”

I also didn’t think the combo old/new language meshed. Maria Dahvana Headley talks in the introduction about how she wants the story to be approachable and how she wants it to sound like someone telling a story, like something someone would say. Except, well, none of it sounds like something anyone would say. I cannot imagine someone standing somewhere and saying these lines:

I’ve racked my brain, bro, but, Unferth,
I can’t unpack any similar stories of
heroics from you. Let me say it straight:
You don’t rate and neither did Breca
when it came to battle. The gulf? You’re cattle,
and I’m a wolf . . . (581-586)

There’s something about the way that the translation sometimes uses the Anglo-Saxon language (ex. kennings like “whale-road”) and sometimes uses modern language (ex. “daddy” or “bullshit”) and fits into some poetic meter that isn’t quite Anglo-Saxon but clearly based around it that all comes across as awkward to me. And who would really brag to someone by saying, “The gulf?” and then calling the other person cattle? I get that all this is actually the appeal of this translation to many people, but I didn’t like it.

The one part I did like is that Grendel’s mother truly gets a better light here. She’s still metaphorically a monster and she still has to die, but Headley translates her as just a woman who is (reasonably) upset her son has been killed. Headley makes the point that the Old English wording doesn’t mean she actually has to be labelled a hag or monster or swamp thing or whatever else translators have come up with. She can just be a woman who lives in the mere, who has an impressive hoard of weapons and a lot of strength.

So, if you like Beowulf, this is definitely worth looking into just as a new perspective on the story. If you don’t like Beowulf or you’ve always been intimidated by old-timey language translations, this could also be of interest to you. Again, it’s just not for me. I’m glad I read it once, but I don’t think I’ll be rereading it for any reason.

Briana

9 thoughts on “Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

  1. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I recently read this translation, too, and I quite enjoyed it. I listened to the audiobook version, and the narrator was great. That likely colored my opinion of it, as he made the antiquated parts mesh with the new, more slang-based language. My main takeaway is that Headley’s translation probably won’t last as long as Seamus Heaney’s or Tolkien’s translations precisely because of the slang. How long is it going to feel new and fresh? Or will it very quickly feel dated?

    Like

  2. theweddingb says:

    Thank you for your review. I have really been on the fence about reviewing this edition myself due to my perplexity in dealing with Headley’s approach. As a Medieval and Modern scholar, I find her language odd and off-putting even especially as a feminist translation for she denies the female characters the spotlight that they deserve and even held in original manuscript form. I can appreciate what Headley tried to do but part of the magic of the poem is it’s entrenchment in ceremony and grappling with change. I know she was time limited but wish she had returned to the language instead of just relying on translation, because she would have found that the voices that emanate from the text are much richer and meaningful than what seems to me like a poorly constructed script of a frat party. Dude…not cool.
    Thank you for your candor, it puts my mind at ease that there are others that can see the benefit in its history. There are modern and approachable versions that do it justice, but do not take away from the magic of the traditional of oral performance and voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, those are a lot of good points! I agree that the solemnity and ritual and ceremony are a big part of it, so it seems weird to me to have characters being extremely casual and walking up to a king like, “No worries. I got this, bro.” Even if the translation is using modern terms, I don’t see why anyone would call a KING “bro”. So then there was also this odd feeling that some of the translation was forced because she was trying to stick in the modern language where it didn’t quite fit, in my opinion. (Though of course one could take some jabs at awkwardly translated lines in more traditional translations, as well.)

      I also like your point about change. When so much of the story is about the past and how things are affected to that, and then the end has a hesitant look towards what the characters feel is a bleak future, it’s certainly an odd effect for the language of the poem itself to be from a far-off future the characters couldn’t even imagine.

      I see why a lot of people like this version, but it really is not my thing at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mary Drover says:

    I am so glad that you included a quote here because I’ve seriously been considering picking this up, but those lines have convinced me not to. I have zero interest in reading a Beowulf like that. The old feeling of it, like it’s been a legend passed down through the generations, huddled around a campfire and gasping like it’s Bilbo telling a tale–that’s exactly what I love about Beowulf, and this doesn’t even come off as something that might be spun today, but something that an alien looking down upon the human race is like, “Ah yes, this is what the kids are saying these days.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I have very mixed feelings about it! I know that I personally love the old feeling that the text has, and I tried to push that away and see if I could appreciate it as something modern and potentially more “approachable,” but I found the mix of old and new awkward and some of it forced. Sometimes I wondered if the translator really thought a line should read a certain way or if she was just trying to cram some slang in.

      I wish I had bookmarked some of the weirdest lines to quote, but I neglected to do so while reading!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Katie | Doing Dewey ❤️ (@DoingDewey) says:

    Sorry to hear this one didn’t work for you! I am someone for whom this approach really worked. I thought it flowed well and I liked that the author chose freely among older and newer language to get the rhythm she wanted. I also liked that it felt fresh instead of old and I did find it more approachable in this form. I also get why it wouldn’t work for everyone!

    The only audio version I saw when I read this seemed terrible to me. The guy who read it made it so dry. I would love to listen to this performed by a slam poet or someone who could really bring it to life. We might feel differently about that too though 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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