Beowulf: He was the man!

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana HeadleyBeowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana HeadleyA couple of years ago I read Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife (2018) which was a finalist for the Locus Award in 2019. Set in a wealthy suburb, the story was a promoted as a “modern retelling of Beowulf” and told from the perspectives of the mothers. I admired this novel and was therefore eager to read Headley’s new translation of Beowulf which also happens to be a Locus Award finalist in the Horror category this year.

While The Mere Wife was billed as a “retelling,” Beowulf: A New Translation is, as promised, a new modern translation of the epic poem. In the introduction to the piece, Headley explains her love of the poem (she’s been obsessed with it since seeing an illustration of Grendel’s mother when she was eight years old), her extensive research, the difficulties in translating such an ancient text, and her particular approach (she says Beowulf is “a living text in a dead language”).

Headley made the decision to modernize, urbanize, and sometimes slangify, the language. She imagines the tale being told in a bar by a man trying to entertain and perhaps impress his peers.

Thus, we end up with words like “blinged-out” and sentences such as “Bro, lemme say how fucked they were” and “Meanwhile, Beowulf gave zero shits” and “He was the man!” There are many phrases meant to make the reader smile such as “alone again, naturally,” “hashtag: blessed,” “no big whoop,” and “return of the king.” Headley sometimes keeps and sometimes drops the rhymes and alliteration. Some of the results are a little strange but most, I think, are good choices.

Based on the examples I provided, you may get the notion that this is not a serious translation. That would be incorrect. This is definitely a serious translation of Beowulf. It’s extensively researched, carefully constructed, and it deserves its place in the canon. I’m sure that high school students everywhere would prefer it over any Old English version.

Published in 2020. Nearly twenty years after Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf — and fifty years after the translation that continues to torment high-school students around the world — there is a radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley, which brings to light elements that have never before been translated into English, recontextualizing the binary narrative of monsters and heroes into a tale in which the two categories often entwine, justice is rarely served, and dragons live among us. A man seeks to prove himself as a hero. A monster seeks silence in his territory. A warrior seeks to avenge her murdered son. A dragon ends it all. The familiar elements of the epic poem are seen with a novelist’s eye toward gender, genre, and history — Beowulf has always been a tale of entitlement and encroachment, powerful men seeking to become more powerful, and one woman seeking justice for her child, but this version brings new context to an old story. While crafting her contemporary adaptation of Beowulf, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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