Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Review: Beowulf, translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

The rhythm of the translation was almost distractingly delightful to read over audiobook. The alliteration and assonance and word play were often very fun. However, I found many of the very-modern translations a little jarring: "hashtag blessed", "dude" (although I like "bro" and "swole"--they bridge modernity and antiquity better), and "no shit". I appreciate the author's avoidance of anachronistic archaic words like "betwixt" but it was too much for me. This passage perhaps best encapsulates the highs and lows of the translation:

They cornered it, clubbed it, tugged it onto the rocks,
stillbirthed it from its mere-mother, deemed it
damned, and made of it a miscarriage. They
examined its entrails, awed and aggrieved.
Meanwhile, Beowulf gave zero shits.

The translator set out to bring to life the women in the story, and I think she succeeded well at this. The most memorable passages were the battle with Grendel's mother and with the (female) dragon. Who, really, were the victims versus the monsters in the tale? These women wielded power in their own right, they had motivations of their own and justifications for their actions.

Old stories prompt reflection of changes in storytelling and morality. The pacing of the poem feels off for modern senses: the first battles happen very quickly, and don't follow the typical incite/failure/reflection/success pattern expected of a hero's journey. The battles are unexpectedly brief relative to the lavish scenes of gift giving or funeral rites that follow them. This difference in emphasis is a good peek into how important kin bonds and rewarding loyal armsmen was to the social structure of the time. The Odyssey is similar in this way, but Emily Wilson's modern, feminist translation is much better.

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