Reviewing Beowulf: A New Translation (pardon my ramblings)

Hello, yes, I’m back on my Beowulf nonsense.

Maria Dahvana Headley released her translation of Beowulf in 2020 and, I’ll admit, it has taken me this long to get around to reading it*.

I wasn’t expecting there to be a strong relationship between the events of Beowulf and the time of writing the translation, but I think something in the language used and the stylistic choices Headley leaned on really brought the story into the present.

In fact, Headley mentions the state of the world in 2020 as she writes the introduction:

“The news cycle is filled with men Hrothgar’s age failing utterly at self-awareness, and even going full Heremod. Politics twist paradoxically into ever more isolationist and interventionist corners, increasingly based in hoarding and horde-panic… In the United States of 2020, everyone, including small children, has the capacity to be as deadly as the spectacular warriors of this poem. The teeth, swords, and claws of the Old English epic have been converted into automatic possibilities, the power to slay thirty men in a minute no longer the genius of a select few but a purchasable perk of weapon ownership… Rulers stand shaking their fists and shouting, and though the shouting is done these days on Twitter, the content is the same as it ever was. We will come for you. You don’t know who God is. You can’t have the riches of the world. Everything is ours.

A rather striking comparison, and one that I hadn’t really noticed in my previous readings around Beowulf translations.


Initial thoughts:

My initial thoughts about the translation are that it’s remarkably accessible. Headley uses a lot of 2010s slang in this translation and the framing device embedded in the text is that it is narrated by “an old-timer at the end of the bar, periodically pounding his glass and demanding another. I saw it with my own eyes.” That immediately makes the language and approach recognisable to a modern reader.

The poem’s style does still remain recognisably ‘Beowulf’, with its kennings and its alliteration. The translation doesn’t attempt to replicate verse form, but it does use rhyming in a way that feels more lose and freestyle. Not as deliberate but still convincing. It’s a translation with a lot of enthusiasm.

There’s also a lot more general modernity in the stylistic approach – smoother sentences, contractions, etc – in the spoken dialogue than in the narration. This seems to be particularly the case with younger characters – Hrothgar has gravitas in his speech, but Beowulf and the other warriors sound like men in their early twenties at a bar.


A little bit more:

A lot has been made of the feminist lean that Headley has taken. In particular, she’s made three strong choices with regards to the female characters: she made Grendel’s mother less ‘monstrous’ and more human (a mother, powerful and strong, grieving her son), she made Wealhtheow’s speech more openly threatening after Beowulf made her husband go all googly-eyed (“Take this golden collar, dear Beowulf. May it keep your head on straight.”), and she made the dragon female, likening her hoard’s plundering to a violation.

Headley’s approach has been called ‘revisionist’ but I think she justifies her choices well enough in the introduction. She certainly didn’t make huge changes to the tone or structure of the narrative; she acknowledged the potential for different translations in the descriptions of Grendel’s mother, emphasised threats that were already subtext, and made a pronoun change. Maybe ‘revisionist’ is not the right word? Maybe ‘coming it at from a different angle’ would be a better explanation of what Headley did here.

*

The vast majority of reviews I read of this translation are positive. The handful I found that were not had little to say about the themes of the work, and more about the language. Headley does use a lot of strong modern slang. Not just swearwords (there’s more fucks than I’d usually see in a Beowulf translation, and I think the Old English audience would have heartily approved!), nor just general comments drawn directly from modern English expressions (“this is on you”, for example), but words and phrases straight out of the social media lexicon. Things like “you don’t rate”, “hashtag: blessed”, “flexing”, “she posted up”, etc.  

In one line, we see these three modes at the same time: “Their leader unlocked his word-hoard. He was the senior soldier, so he spat certainty” – the ‘word-hoard’ is a common kenning translation, ‘He was the senior soldier’ is a normal, modern way to express Beowulf’s position, and ‘spat certainty’ sounds like it was pulled from a freestyle rapper’s lips.

To be honest, I wish there’d been more heavy leaning on modern slang.

As it stands, the work is, in the majority, more conservative in its language-use. Which is fine. Most translations of Beowful lean that direction, either out of respect for the source material or because the ~vibes~ demand it. The fact that Headley’s translation does lean more into the old-school vibes makes the sudden appearances of 2010s slang much more obvious and – if you’re not expecting it, or if you have one of those personalities that takes offence to teenagers making language their own – possibly jarring.

If there’d been a stronger balance between the old and the new, maybe it would have read as more seamless instead of appearing like random insertions of words to spice up an otherwise formal tone. In fact, it would have been really cool to see some kennings rendered in modern slang. I could only find a handful, but if that element of Beowulf’s translation also bore a more modern twist then it really would have hammered the idea home.  

*

There’s some unfortunate ‘real man’ rhetoric in the beginning of the poem. For example, when Beowulf is talking himself up before one of the fights: “I’m gonna do as real men do, and render myself a reaper, bleed him dry, or let Death attend me and cup-bear in your place, here in this mead-hall.”

This language is of course at the height of Beowulf’s youth and strength, and it comes off more as a bunch of frat boys patting themselves on the backs than it does as any meaningful indication of the poet’s values.

This toxic masculine approach tapers off as Beowulf matures, and later during the fight with the dragon the language leans more toward doing the right thing for people and honouring your oaths, as opposed to the earlier ‘real men do x’ nonsense. Beowulf is even referred to as ‘the people’s provider’ before he is called ‘the best of men’. It’s only after his death that others – younger, less worldly, more inclined to frat boy nonsense – go back to calling him ‘the man’. He also calls himself ‘the man’ on his deathbed, an unfortunate regression after he’s done trying, and failing, to recapture his youth by soloing a dragon.

Headley mentions in the introduction: “Beowulf is a manual for how to live as a man, if you are, in fact, more like the monsters than the men. It’s about taming wild, solitary appetites, and about the failure to tame them. It is not, in the poet’s opinion, entirely to Beowulf’s credit that he continues wild and solitary into old age.”

We see that at the end of the poem, when Beowulf is suddenly humbled by the dragon (she/her) and brought low, with nothing but a hoard of gold to justify his coming death – a hoard of gold which, if you read the translation a certain way, seems to be Beowulf’s legacy to his people. The way Headley writes the scene, the inference I took is that Beowulf meant for his subjects to use the money and not to bury it with him.

But I digress. Headley writes: “The poem is, after all, a poem about willfully blinkered privilege, about the shock and horror of experiencing discomfort when one feels entitled to luxury.” We certainly see that when Beowulf is finally killed and the whole population of his country – men, women, and children – have to reckon with the fact that a continent constantly at war only benefits those with a protector. A continent constantly at war only benefits the privileged few who are on the winning side.


Conclusion

I really liked this translation! I think that the 2010s slang will firmly date the work – to the point where, in less than a decade, there will be some passages that sound very strange to the ear – but the fact that a translation is a product of its time is not, in my opinion, a bad thing. I also think it’s a wonderful foray into how old-school narratives can be tweaked towards inclusivity without draining them of their essential flavour. The translation isn’t a perfect feminist text** but it never claimed to be trying to be. Headley just had an interest in Grendel’s mother and wanted to explore it. To remove the hyper-masculine performances of the characters in the story would be truly revisionist, and likely render the poem – a product of its time, similar to the translation – unrecognisable.

If you come to this text in good faith then you’ll be rewarded with a thoroughly engaging translation of Beowulf that ignites thought-provoking questions about the nature of gender, monstrosity, and language; if you come to this translation hoping to get angry, as some readers do, then I’m sure you won’t be disappointed either.


PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee?  

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*ah, the joys of a broken brain

** I don’t think that will ever happen because people are never satisfied – they’ll always find something to nitpick, to the point where even attempting to placate those kinds of readers is seen as an act of aggression from the readers themselves

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