The Delicate Art of Translation and Modern Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley

It’s not very often that a thousand-year-old poem has a new translation that gets people buzzing, at least in the English-speaking world, but Hugo Award-winning Maria Dahvana Headley’s recent translation of Beowulf has generated a lot of interest – there is even a video series of writers and artists reading it aloud. (Alan Cumming’s section is excellent – he knows alliterative verse really well.)

Translation is a fascinating subject. I talked about some of my own dead language translation experiences in a previous column on Turn darkness into light and how Marie Brennan puts dead languages ​​to good use in this book. Today I’m going to talk a bit about translation theories and then I’m going to go into detail about Headley’s new translation.

Translation is a surprisingly controversial area. You might think “oh, you just take these words and turn them into these other words, how is that so hard?” But the reality of translation is not that simple or straightforward. The translator must decide How? ‘Or’ What they will translate certain things, like cultural references. You probably know the Pokemon animated series. There’s a scene where Brock eats rice balls (onigiri), and the American dub calls them “jelly donuts.” This is widely seen as an absurd choice, as onigiri look nothing like donuts and don’t even really fill the same taste niche. However, the show’s target demographic is elementary school children, regardless of other demographics who also watch it. The average (probably white) freshman isn’t going to pay that much attention, or even really care, by logic, so why not use something American instead? This in turn raises the question of whether this is cultural homogenization or some other type of racism, and now the whole question of translation doesn’t seem so simple, does it?

For an example of localization that works spectacularly for our purposes, take the Ace Attorney video games. They feature a man named Phoenix Wright and his rival Miles Edgeworth, and the witnesses in their cases have names like Larry Butz. Edgeworth has a crippling fear of earthquakes. They are given a vaguely Californian setting in the American version. The rival lawyers’ original Japanese names are Naruhodo Ryuichi and Mitsurugi Reiji, and the game is FULL of puns and puns. When Capcom introduced the game to the English market, they had to make sense of these puns otherwise gamers would not enjoy the games. Naruhodo means “I understand” or “I understand”, so the localization team went with Wright (right?), And the characters used to write Mitsurugi include “sword”, so: Edge-worth.

So when something is translated into another language, the translator has to make many decisions about the overall strategy they are going to use, and sometimes those decisions don’t sit well with everyone. Sometimes these decisions don’t please anybody: This Twitter thread offers a good summary of the controversies in anime subtitling.

Beowulf, as you may remember from high school, is the oldest epic poem in English that we know of and tells the story of the hero Beowulf, who comes to Heorot Hall to save people from the Grendel, a monster that attacks people while they sleep. Then Grendel’s mother attacks and Beowulf kills her as well. The original text is in Old English in the heroic epic style, which in the Germanic languages ​​means alliterative verse.

There are many specific types of alliteration used in Germanic verse, which I won’t go into, but there is a nice Wikipedia article above if you are interested. But here are the highlights: the first stressed syllable will alliterate with another stressed syllable in the same half-line and with one or two in the next half-line. There may be more alliterations in a line than this, and it may also cross lines, but there will always be at least one alliterated syllable on each half-line. Modern English speakers still find alliteration enjoyable and poetic, and we still use it, but not in the same way as Germanic alliterative verse. [Side note: all of Tolkien’s songs of the Rohirrim are in alliterative verse. Dude knew what he was about.]

This is relevant to the question posed, because when a modern English speaker decides to translate poetry into Old English, they must decide what to do with the underlying alliterative structure. They must also decide whether or not to try to keep the original meter, and whether to use the or verse. Because Old English had extensive case marks on nouns and adjectives, it did not rely on word order as much as Modern English to convey information, meaning poets could swap things for make alliteration or meter work in a way that would sound wrong today.

So what Headley decided to do with his translation was to make it modern by using modern slang, primarily bro language, to recontextualize it for the modern reader. Probably the translation choice she talked about the most was to use “Bro!” for Old English “Hwæt”. The word, pronounced roughly as it sounds – rhymes with “to” – means “what”, but in this context, i.e. the opening of an epic poem, it has the function to attract the listener’s attention: “Listen! I’m about to sing a song. So when Headley went for “Bro!” here, she relied on a modern reader’s knowledge of the different ways people begin to tell stories. She could have gone with “Hey!” or “So” (Seamus Heaney’s choice) or “Yo” or even “Listen!” and each of these choices would reflect a particular style. (Imagine “So back then we spear Danes knew the tales of princes and kings.”) she added modernisms like “blessed hashtag.” A kenning is a short phrase that’s a metaphor for something else, like “the whale road” for the sea. Poets could use them to make alliteration or meter work, and they sound pretty good. You might even say that phrases like trash panda (raccoon) or danger noodle (snake) are modern kennings.

Headley says in her introduction that she’s as much into the archaic as the modern, so she wanted to preserve the original vibe. This means that she sometimes invented new kennings and sometimes used the originals. Sometimes it just didn’t work for me, either because it was forced or just because the whiplash of anachronism was too much. Here are some examples of things that didn’t work for me.

(19-20) We all know that a boy can’t be a daddy until his daddy is dead.

I don’t have “daddy” as a verb in my mental lexicon, and all I can think of is how tumblr uses daddy, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s intended here.

(236 sq.) How dare you come to Denmark in costume for the war? Chain mail and swords? ! There is a dress code! You are denied.

Here, the border guard approaches Beowulf and company, and he is treated like a bouncer at a club. It seems forced to me.

(802-803) His spells protected him, annealed his skin.

Anachronism whiplash on this one.

However, here are a few that I found excellent:

(101-102) Grendel was the name of this unfortunate, unlucky, fate-kissed walker.

Woe-walker is an excellent use of kennings (which, as noted, allow the poet to provide alliteration where otherwise would be difficult), and, yes, “kissed” is one of those modern words, but it’s not really not the case, so the vulgarity works here.

(29-30) when spirit and meter could merge in his mouth

This is a really cool image AND a good example of alliteration.

(845 sqq) He had left a bloody river, and the warriors had no regrets, imagining him falling, a doomed carcass, into those evil waters, which were even now scarlet, blood-coagulated drifts. O, the gift of this! This demon-diver, deep in the darkness, darker and darker still, dying, dying, dead!

This. I’m coming. Wow. It’s a beautiful mix of archaic and modern, and it’s so well done. In the reading linked above, it’s in Alan Cumming’s section, and you all need to hear him reading this.

So! Have you read this translation? What did you think? What’s your favorite part? How does it compare to other versions of Beowulf you may have read, and what do you think of the differences?

CD Covington has a master’s degree in German and linguistics, loves science fiction and roller derby, and misses having a cat. She graduated from Viable Paradise 17 and has published short stories in anthologies, most recently the story “Debridement” in Survivor, edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and JJ Pionke. You can find his current project, a book on Practical Linguistics for Writers, on Patreon.