Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Beowulf: A New Translation, by Maria Dahvana Headley (translator), (author unknown)

MCD X Fsg Originals, ISBN 9780374110031, August 2020

Beowulf is a classic that comes down to us from Anglo-Saxon times, written in what we now call Old English, and so, except for scholars of Old English, today we read it only in translation.

This is a wonderful translation that's fun, exciting, thoroughly enjoyable.

I'm going to assume that, as Beowulf is more than a thousand years old, and is a popular choice for teachers to assign to high school students who will never even thing of studying Old English, spoilers are not really an issue.

The basic story, of course, is that a Danish king has built a great mead hall, Heorot, where he and his thanes feast, drink, and generally party every night--until Grendel, a never really described "monster," being greatly annoyed by the noise, starts visiting nightly to kill, carry off, and eat men from the court. The Danes are unable to kill him, and this, obviously, puts quite a damper on the partying. 

Word spreads, and Beowulf, a young warrior of the Geats, comes to Heorot with the plan of fighting and killing Grendel. He succeeds in this, and everyone is delighted, until, the following night, Grendel's grieving, angry, warrior mother shows up, seeking vengeance for the death of her son. Grendel's mother, never named, is an even tougher opponent, and Beowulf has to fight her in her undersea lair.

Tolkien said that the use of archaic language in translations of Beowulf is essential because the language used in the original would have been archaic to the listeners of the time. This isn't a universal opinion, but it certainly expresses something about how most translations of it are written. This is one of the things that makes it a challenging read for high school students, and not necessarily a beloved or even interesting one. Yet some of those translations have also been popular and beloved, also.

It's important to understand than no translation is simply a matter of correctly translating the words on the page. Direct, exact translation can lose much of the meaning, even much of the basic sense, because different languages and cultures don't just have different things to say. They also tend to say "the same thing" in different, often very different ways. Then add in the effects of differing grammars and sentence structure, and it becomes clear that translation is always an act of artistic interpretation as well as translation of the words.

What Maria Dahvana Headley has done is translate and interpret Beowulf not as a Great Work of Literature, but as a work that is meant to be performed in a loud mead hall, or bar, or drunken party, a work that needs to grab the attention of people who weren't waiting quietly for the performer to begin.

The first word, in Old English "Hwaet," customarily used in Old English to demand the attention of the audience, becomes "Bro." This epic poem is about young men who have to prove themselves as warriors to be able to establish themselves as adult men. That's not the story; it's the cultural background that poet and audience took completely for granted. Headley doesn't turn the entire poem in to modern dudebro slang, not by any means, not even really very much of it--but that dudebro slang and attitude is lightly salted throughout, to give it for modern ears the tone and attitude the original audiences would have been hearing. This is a loud, engaging poem with a lot of male swagger, because that's what the original was for its original audience. It was not serious, sober, Serious Literature. It was popular entertainment.

What makes it great literature is that, more than a thousand years later, it still has an audience that cares about it and enjoys it--even if that audience tends not to be high school students reading it only because it's been assigned and they'll be tested on it.

Another thing Headley has done is salt in a few references to some of our more modern myths, stories, and bits of culture--not explicitly naming them, but references modern readers or listeners will likely enjoy even if they don't consciously register them. I'm personally sure that similar references were present in the original, and we don't recognize them, because Beowulf is the only significant piece of Old English literature we have. We don't have access to the literary culture it would have been embedded in in its day.

The result is an epic poem that conveys the story and the culture of the day, while making it recognizable and accessible to the modern reader or listener--and, I think, in the process captures the fun and excitement, and something of the atmosphere in which it was intended to be heard.

Highly recommended.

I bought this book.

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