A new “Beowulf” confronts misogyny in the text – and its translators

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In my more caustic moments, I find myself thinking that the reason every new translation of Beowulf draws so much attention to its translation of the famous hwæt is because so few readers get much past it. Once translated as an antique “Lo!” or “Hark!”, Seamus Heaney’s famous 1999 translation of the poem chose to render hwæt as “So,” a decision that he claimed came from “Hiberno-English Scullionspeak,” in which “so” “operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discussion and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.”

Heaney’s choice signaled all that would be distinctive about his translation: its understated register, its Irish dialect, its concern with the linguistic legacy of English colonialism.

A mere at sunset [Pixabay]

So it has been with the new Beowulf translation by Maria Dahvana Headley, the conversation around which has mostly concerned its jarring choice for hwæt: “Bro!” In an effusive review for NPR, Jason Sheehan writes,

Yeah, she starts it all with “Bro.”

Bro.

Bro!

I mean, that’s ridiculous. And brilliant. And genius-level washed-up barstool-hero trolling all at the same time. “Bro” to take the place of Behold! and Lo! and What ho! because Behold! and Lo! and (especially) What ho! are all silly and stilted and stupid and do not — not a single one of them — have the social heft and emotional dwarfism and Bud Light swagger of “Bro,” because “Bro” is the braggart’s call, the throat-clearing of someone who wasn’t, you know, there, but heard about it from some dude who totally was.

Well, maybe. I will admit, I am a curmudgeon whose relationship with this poem does not readily accommodate many of the choices in Headley’s translation. I read through it in a Zoom party attended by half a dozen writers and artists, each of us reading passages aloud before passing the baton to other readers in a haphazard marathon, and I quickly understood that my role in the proceeding was to sigh aloud at lines like “gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea / and made sashimi of some sea monsters.”

Headley explains her choices in a way that’s perfectly defensible and even interests me as a writer and an (ex-)academic. In her introduction, she notes,

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… 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.

That said, I mostly find these choices to be an exercise in alienation, whiplash diction that pulls me out of the poem. Long narrative poems – “epics” – are a dreamlike form, one where, for me at least, the magic comes from a steady submerging into the world of the poem, which is strange and governed by poetic rules and inscrutable ethics. It takes effort to submerge oneself in this way, to accept the logic of the poem as my own, and running across “hashtag: blessed” snaps me right out of it.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes we need to be shocked out of these reveries, and while Bertolt Brecht made this technique famous, it goes back farther than him. Still, I generally found these sorts of choices more distracting than meaningful.

Behind those eye-catching stunts, however, there is plenty in Headley’s Beowulf worth reckoning with. She fills the lines of the poem with commentary, especially on the original’s relationship with its women. For example, Headley notes how often the poem, which pores over the names and lineages of male characters, will simply omit the names of women altogether:

He rose in the realm

and became a famous warlord, fighting ferociously

dawn to dusk, fathering his own horde of four,

heirs marching into the world in this order: Heorogar,

Hrothgar, Halga, and I heard he hand-clasped his daughter

(her name’s a blur) to Onela.

There are many theories about the Old English lines in this part of Beowulf, all of which assume that there are some missing words, from as little as half a line to as much as several verses, that would further explain who the daughter is and how she came to be wed to Onela. Headley takes this lacuna and expands it – her name’s a blur. It’s a choice she makes in several places in the text, always a means of commenting on the ways in which women are absent from the record in the world of Beowulf.

Among these nameless female figures is Grendel’s Mother, who compels the reader’s attention no matter the translation. In this adaptation, Grendel’s Mother is the locus around which everything else spins; Headley’s depiction takes aim at many other depictions of her, which she elaborates in her introduction. One of the most contested phrases in Old English is ides aglaec-wif, the term by which Grendel’s Mother is described; ides and wif are both simply terms for “woman,” and aglaeca is used elsewhere to mean “heroic” or “formidable” – when describing male heroes like Beowulf or Sigemund, anyway.

What have the translators called this aglaec-wif, one might ask? Heaney calls her “monstrous hell-bride; Michael Alexander a “monstrous ogress”; Kevin Crossley-Holland “a monster of a woman.” Apply a word to a man, and he’s a hero; apply it to a woman, and she’s a monster.

Illustration of Grendel’s Mother from “Stories of Beowulf,” 1908, J.R. Skelton [public domain]

Grendel’s Mother is still an antagonist in Headley’s version of Beowulf – she could hardly be otherwise, given the structure of the poem itself – but Headley portrays her as another member of the feud-culture that Beowulf himself participates in. For Headley, Grendel’s Mother is not a monster, but a mother avenging the death of her son, someone who is opposed to the tribe of Geats for a sympathetic reason. And for Headley, she is not the “monster” of previous translators, but a “warrior-woman, outlaw.”

Beowulf will always be a difficult text for a Pagan audience, as the only surviving epic poem from Old English, and therefore one of our few durable sources for information about their culture. The questions of what is “pagan” and what is “Christian” in the poem have dominated scholarly conversations for centuries, and remain a key point of tension for modern Pagan readers.

A new translation is a new opportunity to reevaluate what we think we know about a text. While Headley’s Beowulf is not my favorite version of the poem to read, no other translation has driven me to go back and explore the original Old English in a new light like this one has – and that’s a pretty good reason to look it up, bro.