Illustration by Ben Beechener
Few people in their right mind would willingly choose to read Beowulf. The original was written in Old English, hwilc eaforþgecnawan is (which is difficult to understand). Modern translations tend to be dull, academic affairs, losing the alliteration that is so key to the poem and skimping on the actual storytelling. Not to mention that epic poetry itself is a difficult (and imposing) genre to pick up and enjoy, unless you’re a masochist or a classicist.
With all this in mind, I felt some trepidation about picking up Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of the Beowulf. Sure, it received a glowing review in The New Yorker, but the fact that she is a fantasy author by trade (not a linguist or other form of academic) made me a bit suspicious. It turns out my worry was misplaced—her translation of the Anglo-Saxon saga has quickly become one of my favourite books, full stop.
Beowulf is a rather simple story on the surface: a young hero fights three monsters (someone called Grendel, Grendel’s mother – who remains nameless – and a dragon). That’s it. But take a closer look at the language and a more complicated picture begins to appear.
The original poem reads a bit like an old man in a bar telling a (rambling, potentially drunken) story of the “good old days”, and Headley manages to keep this spirit while updating the language. Her translation starts off with “Bro!” (which gives me stoner vibes – I’d prefer “Mate!” or “Yo!”); you will also find Beowulf described as having “brass balls”, or someone being “hashtag: blessed”.
The casualness could easily be overdone, but Headley mixes in more traditional Anglo-Saxon poetic techniques and alliterations to keep things balanced pleasantly. In her hands, the poem acquires a timeless quality, using language and style that span (literally) a millennium.
The poem is ultimately concerned with what it means to be a good king (the line “that was a good king” recurs throughout), and Headley makes sure to emphasise that analysis in her translation. Keeping track of the names of various kings can get confusing, but we get a sense of what kinds of rulers are valued, and the many pitfalls they may face, through no fault of their own.
Headley has previously written a novel, called The Mere Wife, based on Beowulf, which makes Grendel’s mother the central character and transposes the story to the modern day. Her translation of Beowulf can be seen as an extension of that work: she takes great care to humanise the woman characters and foreground their experiences (something which many male translators skip over). Somehow, she manages this without adding or leaving out any details that were in the original. Thus, we see how a good queen would be considered a “peace-weaver”, and how poorer women constantly suffer as a result of kings’ carelessness and pursuit of personal glory.
In translations, especially of older work, storytelling can frequently fall to the wayside. With all of the aforementioned complexity and nuance in mind, Headley’s greatest triumph is that her translation still manages to tell an exciting, engaging story. It would be easy to get bogged down trying to tell each character’s individual story, resulting in a hodgepodge with no direction. I think Headley’s background as a fantasy author helped her weave the storylines together, adding and preserving moments of humour or sadness, so that ultimately her book is fun to read.
What results from the poem (and what Headley’s translation preserves and emphasises) is a picture of a world that, for all its fantastical monsters and cocky kings, is not too different from our own world. The rich play with swords while women and working class people suffer. Armies march to confront ‘enemies’ that were only grieving for their children. And no matter how brilliant an individual appears as a potential saviour, in the end, nothing changes.