Confession: this is my first time reading Beowulf, in any translation. So of course I picked a new, modern, controversial one: what else? Maria Dahvana Headley had previously written The Mere Wife, Beowulf with Grendel’s mother as protagonist, and she has some very intriguing criticism of longstanding translation traditions.
Writing this, it occurs to me that I found her foreword and commentary more interesting than the actual translation, which … is true? She discusses her interpretation of Beowulf, as less of a hero story, and more of a manual for how to live as a man, if you are more like the monsters, having to tame your wildness and find your place in society. Not always successfully, either: Beowulf’s last stand is not exactly wise, and is called out as having disastrous consequences for the survivors in-text.
Most interesting are her comments on Grendel’s mother, of course. The traditional translations give her claws (despite the word “fingrum” also meaning “fingers”), and calls her a monster as translation of “aglæc-wif” – but that’s the feminine form of “aglæca”, which is commonly translated as “hero” when applied to Beowulf, and “monster/fiend” when referencing Grendel/his mother/the dragon. Comparing to other early English sources, the best translation would be “formidable fighter” without moral judgement.
In terms of form, she chose to go with a modern poem instead of retaining the early meter. I’m usually all for meter (hideously underutilised in a lot of modern poetry!), but I’m also into modern reinterpretations of ancient poetry (looking at Christopher Logue here), so no protest from me. She decided to try for the then-popular alliterations, and … well, I don’t know. Sometimes they were good, but often they felt just as forced as bad meter and bad rhymes would have been.
Her language is explicitly modern, and the much-quoted Hwæt! as Bro! is something I can absolutely get behind, but it also foreshadows the weaknesses of her translations. Which I liked, in general, but unfortunately, I had read Christopher Logue’s Iliad beforehand, and the contrast in quality doesn’t do Beowulf any favours. The biggest issue was the lack of authenticity: The translation uses slang just to be modern, but it’s clearly not the author’s slang – usage is often slightly off, or has a “how do you do, fellow kids” vibe. Which is too bad, because the visceral authenticity (with modernity as a medium, not the goal) was what I liked most about Logue’s Iliad.
I’ll give you some quotes of both good and bad passages, so you can judge yourself:
- Grendel was the name of this woe-walker, / Unlucky, fucked by Fate
- You know how it is: every castle wants invading, and every family / has enemies born within
- Horrors happen, I’m grown, I know it. / Bro, Fate can fuck you up.”
- I’ve racked my brain, bro, but, Unferth, / I can’t unpack any similar stories of / heroics from you.
- Any season / is a season for blood, if you look at it in the right light.
- Meanwhile, Beowulf gave zero shits. […] / He’d meet this murdering mother / under mere, and amend her existence.
- Listen to me, boy. Keep your shit straight. / I’ve been fostered by frost-seasons, fathered by time, / and I’m dropping knowledge now.
- Beowulf blasted his last boast: / “I laid my life down on the daily when I was your age. / Now, gray guardian though I am, I’ll show you / how it’s done. I’ll kill this creature if it’s the last thing / I do.”
On a completely unrelated note, shout-outs to the part of Beowulf that is about the buglar who “became the thirteenth man” to steal a golden cup, from a dragon, who retaliates … Hmmmmmmmm!