Beowulf Translated with a 2020-Style Makeover

Following her 2018 novelized retelling of the epic poem, Maria Dahvana Headley has written a new translation of Beowulf that adopts a contemporary vernacular and political lens.

A new feminist translation of Beowulf by acclaimed author Maria Dahvana Headly has just been published to rave reviews. Mixing many of the classic poetic and narrative strategies with a 2020 lens, Maria Dahvana Headley has exploded into the age-old task of translating the English language’s oldest work of literature.

Joining in conversations with such notable translations as those by JRR Tolkien, Seamus Heaney, and Peter Liuzza, Headley follows in the tradition of determining a unique formal proposition for the behemoth undertaking. Where the others might rely on a classic formalism, Headley takes advantage of contemporary tools to depict a new take.

One of the most apparent differences that stand out is Headley’s angle on the Anglo-Saxon word “Hwæt,” which has received a great deal of interpretation over the centuries about how best to capture a modern equivalent. The term shows up often in the epic poem as a kind of linguistic interjection or call-to-attention, signaling a speaker has an important statement to make.

Heaney translated the word to “so,” as in, “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. / We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.” Headley, on the other hand, opted for the modern slang word “Bro,” for its wealth of connotations and frequent usage in today’s vernacular.

“Bro! Tell me we still know how to talk about kings!” Headley writes. “In the old days, / everyone knew what men were: brave, bold, glory-bound. Only / stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times.”

The distinctive translation decisions did not stop there. Another notable revision had to do with the character known as Grendel’s Mother. Depicted in most earlier translations as a monster, Headley describes her version of Beowulf’s chief antagonist as “a formidable noblewoman, a warrior, as is accurate to the Old English words used to describe her.”

More of a transcreation than a straight translation — one might even say the work is localized for a modern audience — Headley’s version still uses alliteration and cadence, which were present in the Anglo-Saxon original.

The recent translation follows Headley’s 2018 work The Mere Wife, which is itself a retelling of Beowulf set in 21st century suburbia and place much more emphasis on Grendel’s mother’s story. With all the disputes over the years about which words and stories receive the greatest emphasis, Headley suspected something could have been missed in earlier translations.

“This translation actually came utterly out of the work I did to write The Mere Wife,” she said in a 2018 interview. “Initially, when I started working on Mere, I was certain that I’d find a popular translation in which Grendel’s mother isn’t a monster, but a warrior. Um, no. The scholarship on this point dates to the 70s, but it hasn’t made its way into most translations.”

Besides Heaney’s version, Headley cites a number of other translations that she relied on in this project, including Meghan Purvis’s translation and Beowulf By All’s translation. However, like any translation, Headley admits, even with these texts to rely on, she still had a vision for a deep project that was all her own.

“Language is a living thing,” she writes in her introduction. “And when it dies, it leaves bones. I dropped some fossils here, next to some newborns. I’m as interested in contemporary idiom and slang as I am in the archaic. There are other translations if you’re looking for the courtly romance and knights.”

Jonathan Pyner
Jonathan Pyner is a poet, freelance writer, and translator. He has worked as an educator for nearly a decade in the US and Taiwan, and he recently completed a master’s of fine arts in creative writing.


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