Beowulf translated by Maria Dahvana Headley

Bro! As has been said before, Beowulf is a poem that forces translators to show their style from the very first word. That word in the original is “Hwæt,” an Old English attention grabber, and how translators render it tells a lot about what’s coming in the rest of the poem. Will the version lean heavily on medievalisms? Look for a “Lo!” or “Hark!” or, heaven forfend, “Forsooth!” right at the beginning. Seamus Heaney, translator of the only other Beowulf I have read, opted for “So,” and Headley describes that choice in her introduction to her version as “taken from the memory of his Irish uncle telling tales at the table.” (xx) She continues:

Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley

I come equipped with my own memories of sitting at the bar’s end listening to men navigate darts, trivia, and women, and so, in this book, I translate [hwæt] as ‘Bro.’ The entire poem, and especially the monologues of the men in it, feels to me like the sort of competitive conversations I’ve often heard between men, one insisting on his right to the floor while simultaneously insisting that he’s friendly. ‘Bro’ is, to my ear, a means of commanding attention while shuffling focus calculatedly away from the hierarchy. (xx-xxi)

Headley adds:

Depending on the tone, ‘bro’ can render you family or foe. The poem is about that notion, too. … When I use ‘bro’ elsewhere in the poem, whether in the voice of Beowulf, Hrothgar, or the narrator, it’s to keep us thinking of the ways that family can be sealed by formulation, the ways that men can afford (or deny) one another power and safety by using coded language, and erase women from power structures by speaking collegially only to other men.
There’s another way of using ‘bro,’ of course, and that is as a means of satirizing a certain form of inflated, overconfident, aggressive male behavior. I think the poet’s own language sometimes does that, periodically weighing in with commentary about how the men in the poem think all is well, but have discerned nothing about blood relatives’ treachery and their own heathen helplessness. (xvi)

Right off the bat, Headley is letting readers know that she’ll be using plenty of contemporary language, looking at the roles of masculinity in the stories Beowulf contains, and emphasizing the layers of commentary and story within the overall work. And there are plenty of layers. For anyone who hasn’t read Beowulf in a many years, or is coming to it for the first time, there are not just the three main stories — Beowulf’s fight against Grendel that starts the whole thing off, the reprise against Grendel’s mother, and many years later Beowulf’s final battle against a dragon — there are all kinds of side notes and backstory. As Headley puts it, “The poem employs time passing and regressing, future predictions, quick History 101s, neglected bits of necessary information flung, as needed, into the tale. The original reads, at least in some places, like Old English freestyle, and in others like the wedding toast of a drunk uncle who’s suddenly remembered a poem he memorized at boarding school.” (xiv)


Headley brings that mix of styles to her translation. Older English verse is built around “both alliteration and stress patterns over a caesura (in oral traditions, the caesura is a pause—on the page, a gap between the two halves of a line).” (xvii) Going for both in contemporary English adds to the difficulty of translation, probably unnecessarily, and Headley chooses to emphasize alliteration. As she writes, “After reading a variety of translations mimicking early English meter, and attempting a version myself, I decided that corpse-littered hill wasn’t one I wanted to die on.” (xvii) Thus, “I gave myself leave to play with all the traditional aspects, preserving many kennings [compound words to poetically describe both the commonplace and the astounding, such as ‘whale-road’ for sea or ‘battle-sweat’ for blood], and inventing some of my own, while also employing the sensibilities of a modern poet rather than an ancient one.

That mix of periods isn’t as odd as a reader might at first think. Beowulf itself uses words that were “archaic and poetic at the time of the poem’s competition.” (xix) Headley lays it out:

“Given that both poetic voice and communicative clarity are my interests here, my diction reflects access to the entirety of the English word-hoard—some of these words legitimately archaic or underknown (‘corse,’ ‘sere,’ ‘sclerite’), others recently written into lexicons of slang or thrown up by new cultural contexts (‘swole,’ ‘stan,’ ‘hashtag: blessed’), and already fading into, if not obscurity, uncertain status. Language is a living thing, 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 language of courtly romance and knights. This one has ‘life-tilt’ and ‘rode hard … stayed thirsty’ in it.” (xx)

Headley’s is a living and lively Beowulf on each and every page, and I thought it was terrific all the way through. Here is a short bit from early on, when Beowulf and his men have arrived in Hrothgar’s hall but Beowulf hasn’t yet gone gunning for Grendel:

The hostess was impressed by Beowulf’s boasts.
Brass balls, if nothing else. She posted up
beside Hrothgar, queenly, her gold glinting.

There was more celebration, the kind of party
that hadn’t been heard of in a while,
rowdy and riotous, loud with laughter
and proud poetry, until the Halfdane’s heir
arrested rhyme for rest. The fiend, he knew,
had been silent, subterranean while the sun shone,
but now it was night. Darkness draped the Earth.
The happy hall would soon be a demon’s domain,
the men his dreadful diet. Shadows slunk from the swamp,
and mists mossed the cliffs and hillsides. The men stood
witness as their leaders took leave. (639–652)

The queen’s appearance and self-possession highlight another aspect of Headley’s approach to Beowulf: how she handles the poem’s women. “Beowulf is usually seen as a masculine text, but I think that’s somewhat unfair. The poem, while (with one exception) not structured around the actions of women, does contain extensive portrayals of motherhood and peace-weaving marital compromise, female warriors, and speculation on what it means to lose a son. In this translation, I worked to shine a light on the motivations, actions, and desires of the poem’s female characters, as well as to clarify their identities.” (xxiii) Headley makes an extended and interesting argument for Grendel’s mother as a warrior-queen rather than a monster, and questions the duality itself. “My own experiences as a woman tell me it’s very possible to be mistaken for monstrous when one is only doing as men do: providing for and defending oneself.” (xxvii) Headley pays close attention to the fates of several brides mentioned in the course of the poem; she also leans toward “moments in which the feminine might already be poetically suggested,” (xviii) most notably in portraying the dragon of the poem’s final part as female.

Looking back through Headley’s version, indeed opening it at pretty much any page, what strikes me most is its presence, its vividness. Headley pulls Beowulf and crew across a thousand years and brings them up close and personal.

I’m not sure this is should be the only Beowulf someone ever reads. But bro, it’s a hell of a good way to start.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/12/06/beowulf-translated-by-maria-dahvana-headley/

1 comment

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  1. I didn’t care at all for the Seamus Heaney translation, but this one sounds like something I could really get into!

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