The first time I read Beowulf was in college, in a history class rather than a literature class. It was a prose translation, probably the ubiquitous one by E. Talbot Donaldson. I came away not very impressed. That mass market paperback hasn’t survived my occasional library culls, even though the notes from the class have (due more to the art on the back of the notebook). The class, History of the Middle Ages, emphasized what the social value might have been for its original audience: an ideal leader is one who is brave, generous, and, most importantly, tied to his community.
I gave Beowulf a second chance when Seamus Heaney’s translation was published. I was already familiar with Heaney as a poet, and it seemed to me that there was probably some literary value to the poem that I hadn’t seen previously. I love Heaney’s translation and it’s become a work I reread every-so-often. When I sat down to Beowulf a couple weeks ago, I got curious about Marie Dahvana Headley’s 2020 translation and queued it up in audio book form.
In Headley’s introduction, she states that she wished to provide a more female forward translation of Beowulf. It’s true, the original author fails to give any details to the women and gives only negative attributes to Grendel’s mother. Headley also wanted to liven up and modernized the language of the poem. What would Beowulf sound like if it were being told today by the dude at the end of the bar, three drinks in?
I’m not sure Headley is entirely successful in either of these two goals. I’m going address the language first, because I realized that is why I reread Beowulf. It’s not for the story (even though I like competent heroes) or the literary value* or even to chew on the interplay of Judaism/Christianity within the narrative. I reread Beowulf, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, for the language. For me, his translation does feel like an old seaman telling a (tall) tale to a bar full of serious fisherman who want a story of honor and daring-do because their profession is full of mundane danger. That said, I think Headley’s hip-hoppy “Bro” tone could have worked if it were consistent and avoided references that are already past date (yes, like “hashtag blessed” (Also, I looked at excerpts from the printed version, why isn’t it written as “#blessed”? I call the publishers cowards here.)). As it is, I feel like Vin Diesel is the only person who could read this aloud and even out the grandeur and the gutter.
On the second point, I’m going to recuse myself: I only listened to Headley’s translation to just after Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother. (The language was that jarring to.) While Headley does make efforts to point out that many of the women in Beowulf, queens even, aren’t given the names and lineages similar to male characters, there doesn’t seem to be much done to make Grendel’s mother less of a monster. And that’s fine with me. I’m assuming that translations, including Headley’s, have been generally faithful and there just isn’t much to work with. Grendel and his mother are spawns of Cain. Though they anger and hunger and grieve, they are still the monsters of this piece and Beowulf, the hero.
*Co-current to my delve into Beowulf, I’ve been reading Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing lectures, which cover the nature of English literature. He touches on Beowulf:
The pretence that our glorious literature derives its lineage from “Beowulf” is in vulgar phrase ‘a put up job’; a falsehood grafted upon our text-books by Teutonic and Teutonising professors who can bring less evidence for it than will cover a threepenny-piece.