Goodreads: Beowulf: A New Translation
Published: August 25, 2020
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.
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.