Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley
A 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.