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This new translation of Beowulf brings the poem to profane, funny, hot-blooded life

“Bro! Tell me we still know how to talk about kings!”

Maria Dahvana Headley’s Beowulf.
Beowulf Sheehan; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

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Any time you open up a new translation of Beowulf — bloody, baffling Beowulf, which begins with a cannibal assassin and ends with a dragon; Beowulf, which set off the whole of English literature — your edition will begin with a tell. How does this version of the poem handle the opening Old English word hwæt?

Hwæt is an Anglo-Saxon intensifier/maybe interjection, and since it begins Beowulf, it sets the tone for the whole poem to follow. So if the edition you’re reading translates it as “Lo!” (Tolkien) or “Hail!” (John McNamara) or “Hark!” (too many to count), then you are probably going to read a version of the poem written forsoothly, in a self-consciously archaic voice. But if your translator goes all Seamus Heaney on you and translates hwæt as something like “So.”, then you’re going to be reading a version of Beowulf that wants you to think of it as fresh and modern.

In her lively and vigorous new translation of Beowulf, the novelist Maria Dahvana Headley translates hwæt as “Bro!”

“Bro! Tell me we still know how to talk about kings!” she begins. “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.”

Look, if this translation isn’t going to work for you, you’ll know right away from that one word. But personally, I am delighted. I’ve never read a Beowulf that felt so immediate and so alive.

There are pluses and minuses to any translation strategy. Tolkien famously argued in the introduction to his edition that any truly faithful translation of Beowulf would have to be written in “literary and traditional” language — by which he meant, essentially, language that evoked the Middle Ages — “because the diction of Beowulf was poetical, archaic, artificial (if you will), in the day the poem was made.” Heaney, meanwhile, writes in the introduction to his edition that what he finds most distinctive about the poem is that its voice is “attractively direct,” and so he wrote his own translation with an eye toward achieving the same sense of directness.

All translators have to pick and choose which ideas embedded in the original language to prioritize and which to set aside. Beowulf forces its translators to show their cards from the first word, and Headley’s priority is storytelling and a sense of linguistic play.

“The original reads, at least in some places, like Old English freestyle,” she writes in her introduction, “and in others like the wedding toast of a drunk uncle who’s suddenly remembered a poem he memorized at boarding school.” And so Headley’s Beowulf is a rambling, boastful, word-drunk poem, one where a worshipful young soldier “stanned for Beowulf,” while Beowulf himself “began, sick-hearted, to hear his death knell, his sure feet fumbling, his fight-spirit fugitive.” It’s profane and funny and modern and archaic all at once, and its loose and unstructured verses are full of twisting, surprising kennings.

Headley has published a take on Beowulf before: 2018’s The Mere Wife, a modernization of the poem told from the point of view of Grendel’s mother, who is one of Beowulf’s three central opponents, fighting to avenge the death of her son. In that novel, Headley made much of the idea that while the traditional epithet for Grendel’s mother, aglæca-wif, is often translated as “fiend” or “monster,” in Old English it’s only the feminine form of the epithet often used for Beowulf himself: aglæca, “warrior,” “soldier,” “hero.”

So in her new translation of Beowulf, Headley once again works to bring humanity back to Grendel’s mother. In this translation, the mother is a “warrior-woman” driven into a blood frenzy by grief; she is a warlord and a ruler, “she who’d ruled these floodlands proudly for / a hundred seasons, ferocious, tenacious, rapacious.” She is an old woman, and fully mortal, but even so, her strength is a match for Beowulf’s. He only succeeds in defeating her because he’s specially favored by God.

And when Grendel’s mother is off the page, Headley works to illuminate femininity in this poem about men and their wars and their machismo. Her version of the poetic speaker playfully flags every time he fails to mention a woman by name in his long lists of men and their conquests and marriages: “I heard he hand-clasped his daughter / (her name’s a blur) to Onela,” she notes. Images of captive women and miscarrying women work their way into the poem’s metaphorical vocabulary, and the queens of the courts Beowulf visits become subjects in their own rights, waging diplomatic war with their words. Even the dragon, the monster that finally defeats Beowulf, becomes feminine in this telling.

But most striking of all is the final woman of Beowulf, the Geatish Woman who appears at Beowulf’s funeral as the poem closes. In many translations, she is only one among many mourners, and easy to skim over, but Headley sets her apart from the others, noting that she is “louder than the rest”:

Then another dirge rose, woven uninvited
by a Geatish woman, louder than the rest.
She tore her hair and screamed her horror
at the hell that was to come: more of the same.
Reaping, raping, feasts of blood, iron fortunes
marching across her country, claiming her body.
The sky sipped the smoke and smiled.

It’s the Geatish Woman who makes it clear what is at stake for the powerless in this poem about the exploits of the powerful, all the horror and violence waiting to be unleashed on anyone unable to protect themselves. Her grief and terror come through with an unexpected ferocity, and it doesn’t take Headley’s gloss that “we are, some of us anyway, living the Geatish woman’s lament, writ large” to get there from the text.

Beowulf is a poem about power and battle and gold and kingship and monsters, about words and metaphors and alliteration and storytelling. It’s English’s oldest poem, and in some ways our oddest poem. And Headley brings it to vivid, visceral life.

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