Beowulf: a new translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

As Maria Dahvana Headley states in the introduction to this book, there have been a lot of translations of Beowulf, the Old English epic poem about a warrior fighting monsters. This is a new translation, focusing on updating the verse rather than preserving its antiquity and giving some of the female figures—particularly Grendel’s mother—a somewhat better treatment. Perhaps most notably, this version of Beowulf focuses a lot on the modern parallel of oral storytelling and frames the poem like some guy is telling you it in a bar (the poem’s opening word, ‘hwæt’, becomes ‘bro!’).

I’ve studied Beowulf both in translation at secondary school and in the original during my undergrad English degree, so the story and general feel of the poem are very familiar, but this translation brings something else to the poem. Possibly it’s the clash of old and new—modern slang like ‘Hashtag: blessed’ and archaisms like ‘wyrm’—and the use of swearing and colloquial phrases to get across the meaning of certain lines and phrases which feels quite different to the Beowulf people might be used to. Occasionally the use of ‘bro’ throughout gets a bit grating, but it’s interesting to see which parts could be translated into something much more modern and which stay sounding older.

There’s probably some clever things to be said about some of the translation choices and the way this translation is framed, though it’s too long since I’ve actually read another version of it for me to think of anything. I liked the fact that the repetitive nature of the storytelling in Beowulf is foregrounded by giving it the feel of some guy telling you a boring story, only the story is about fighting Grendel and his mother and a dragon.

As someone who loved Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, it was enjoyable to get another modern translation that focuses on updating the language and making the concepts reverberate through time, rather than something that is a reimagining or retelling. This is a readable Beowulf in verse and one that really makes you think about why these warrior men spend so much time sitting around telling heroic stories to one another. I’m not sure what it would be like as an introduction to Beowulf but it’s fun if you already know it and can imagine rolling your eyes as some guy tries to tell you the story.