Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Earlier this month, DRAB chose Maria Dahvana Headley’s new translation of Beowulf as the first book to review and discuss. Now it is the end of the month, so let’s get to it.
We started off with a discussion to get everyone thinking, and we’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading!
Maitreyi Anantharaman: Kelsey, Giri, I’m curious: What was your first encounter with Beowulf? And what was your impression then? Mine was in 11th grade British Literature, and I remember being totally baffled and irritated by it. The kinds of books I did like back then—Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, for two—had given me a very particular idea of how stories should be plotted. Lurching, wandering Beowulf was not what I’d had in mind. (Also, there were too few plucky heroines wooed by brooding, enigmatic hunks for 15-year-old Maitreyi’s liking.) It didn’t help that we approached it in what I’ll call an “archaeological” way, less concerned with Beowulf as literature and more interested in it as an artifact or historical relic, which left me sort of cold.
Giri Nathan: Sophomore year English. Ethan Frome left a deeper impression, which is saying something. But I remember feeling there was a fun story there under the fusty Burton Raffel translation. And I agree—I don’t remember engaging with it in pure literary terms, more as a historical document full of names and places to understand.
Kelsey McKinney: I had a great sophomore year World History teacher who thought we should not only read Beowulf but hear it. She read us the Burton Raffel translation (just like you, Giri) aloud, and we were all thrilled because we didn’t have to do real work. I found myself reading this version aloud at times, too. Is that just me?
GN: I definitely whispered it under my breath, which is the closest I ever get to reading aloud, and what I usually do with verse that I like. It was a good time. I also listened to some excellent Old English videos on YouTube, including one Benjamin Bagby rendition with a harp, which made me think Joanna Newsom would absolutely crush this task.
MA: I had lots of fun reading this aloud. And yes, Giri, listening to the Old English was great. I even taught myself the first couple lines in Old English, and have been loudly reciting them at random times of day for weeks. Probably I should learn the next few at some point.
GN: If parties exist in the future I’m going to bust out into, “Þæt wæs god cyning!” some day.
KM: You read the whole thing aloud, Maitreyi? I came pretty close to that! I read both the Heaney version and our pick (the Headley version), and one thing that I found really funny was her use of the word “Bro.” Every time I got to it, my voice transformed into frat-bro mockery, which surprised me by working pretty well.
MA: Yes, let’s talk about our experiences with this Beowulf, which translates the Old English exclamation “hwæt” as “bro!” I did read nearly all of Headley’s version aloud, and I think that was the best way to absorb what is a great strength of her version; it’s translated with a poet’s ear and a keen awareness of what Beowulf is: a story passed down orally.
GN: It’s extremely readable aloud, and I think the colloquialisms help with that, “bro” included. “Bro” also gives her some ironic detachment from the Toxic Masculinity enshrined in the text.
KM: Yes! It’s a kind of winking awareness of what this text is: an insane story drunk men used to tell at pubs. From reading the reviews before we started, I was a bit worried about the colloquialisms making the story seem trite or childish, but I found they really did the opposite for me, making me more aware of this as a told story.
GN: I can understand why all the reviews dialed in on the colloquialisms, but they are not nearly as intrusive or cringey as I expected them to be. Only a handful of times did they really call attention to themselves.
MA: There’s a book review and publisher marketing ecosystem that must be fueled and fed, but I felt a number of the reviews—even the rave ones!—did this translation a disservice by focusing so closely on the more shocking anachronisms.
KM: I completely agree with that, Maitreyi, and I think in particular cases (like the oft-quoted “hashtag: blessed” usage) those references are actually really interesting commentaries on what language is. I don’t teach or presume to know how to teach, but I can imagine looking at a bunch of 15-year-olds and pointing to that and saying, “Doesn’t this already seem outdated? Isn’t that so fascinating?” They would roll their eyes but they would get it. Language evolves! A good story can deal with that.
GN: I also think Headley kind of anticipated, and leaned into, the transient nature of the slang she was tapping into. In the introduction she describes using slang “thrown up by new cultural contexts … and already fading into, if not obscurity, uncertain status. Language is a living thing, and when it dies, it leaves bones.” I liked the idea of translation—particularly of a document bound to be translated over and over again over the ages—as a way of time-capsuling a way people talked.
MA: “Hashtag: blessed,” in a line about Wealhtheow, queen of the Danes, did not quite land for me, but broadly I agree with you both. Headley’s translator’s note is nothing if not self-aware. She acknowledges that some of the language she uses will instantly date the translation, and she’s OK with that.
KM: It also is, for all the slang and intentionality around that, addictively readable. I read the whole thing in like three sittings.
GN: The other thing I want to say about the slang is that, at some point in the last decade, we decided corniness was the cardinal sin of culture. I do not endorse this view. If you can’t let Hamilton into your heart, you are the loser. Many good things are corny. Certain GOATs, even, are corny. Drake and LeBron ran pop-rap and basketball for a decade-plus and are corny to their bones and I love them more for it.
MA: An endearing take.
KM: Yes, some of these lines are corny as hell but also, absolutely slap? I’m thinking of lines like, “He was all bluster, no badass, thinking his position came from privilege, not class. But now? Everyone who’d thought Beowulf was just a wayward boy got taught.” There’s a mocking swagger in the book that is very Lin-Manuel-esque.
GN: There’s no way she could have written this book without the ghost of Lin-Manuel Miranda in the back of her head. But yeah, “hashtag: blessed” was tough, and “unexpectedly stanned for” felt slightly misused, in context.
MA: I admired the risk, but yes, my quibble was about whether someone stans “for” someone else, and whether what Unferth did in that instance, just before Beowulf fights Grendel’s mother, could even be described as stanning. The full line is: “Last, but not least, Unferth, Hrothgar’s left-hand man, unexpectedly stanned for Beowulf, and handed him his heirloom, Hrunting, an ancient hilted sword, written with runes of ruin, iron blade emblazoned with poison shoots, each bud reddened with enemy blood.” It’s an otherwise lovely line.
GN: I think she might’ve gotten her wires crossed with “cape for,” possibly? I think “stan” takes a direct object. And yeah, he was just giving Beowulf a sword.
MA: Now that we bring up Unferth, though, I thought the bro idiom worked astonishingly well in the scene where he and Beowulf first meet at Heorot, about 500 lines in, and each taunts the other.
KM: Personally, I stan for the use of “bro” throughout.
GN: Yes! The idiom was perfect for negging, roasting, things of that nature. Unferth was trying to debunk Beowulf’s boastful Breca story, and the “bro”s really hit different in that passage. That’s a case of it working kind of “in-universe,” as opposed to the way it also works from the narrator’s more detached point of view. There’s also a well-deployed “buddy” in Beowulf’s retort.
MA: “I’ve racked my brain, bro, but, Unferth, I can’t unpack any similar stories of heroics from you” really delighted me.
GN: “Your sword’s soft, son” is very strong. Everyone very explicitly being someone’s son and all.
KM: I guess something I’ve been thinking about a lot is how when these lines are taken out of the context of the poem (not to be a completist but…) they really lose a lot of the energy they have within the text. What Headley is doing on the surface—translating this book into a younger more casual English—seems straightforward, but when she deploys these little references and diction choices, it felt very strategic and intentional to me, which is what made it work.
GN: The one touch that took me out of the story, curiously, was not slang but a metaphor involving drones and bombing. I found it harder to accept that metaphor in this wood-and-iron story than to hear the word “swole” or whatever. It took me a second to get back into it.
MA: That’s in the story of King Heremod: “His heart was not a hawk but a drone. He bombed his own bases, denied his Danes damages, kept entrenched in combat.” I agree with you there. A line about Beowulf nearly being “recategorized as MIA” had the same effect on me. And yeah, “swole,” funny enough, feels phonetically compatible with Old English.
GN: Yeah, they should have been saying “swole” back then. Another modern flourish I liked was “hustled hungover,” because it acknowledged that getting super fucked up on mead every single night could have consequences, especially when you are going to slay a horrible monster in a few hours in a really athletic fashion, in a way that the original text surely did not.
KM: I felt super aware of this being a bar story in Headley’s translation. Something about the use of more casual linguistics with that absolute admission that everyone is just hammered in every part of this story made it feel much more jaunty to me. I love to be told a story in a bar by a very drunk old guy, so to me, this feeling is good.
MA: For me, her choice to prioritize alliteration in this translation—and there is so, so much—is what made this poem feel electric and alive and something I might be regaled with in a mead hall. And for all the critical attention to how “radical” the translation is, that element might be in keeping with the Old English more than any other I’ve read.
KM: I don’t know anything about Old English except for what I read in the introductions to this translation and Heaney’s but I too loved the alliterations!
GN: Doubling down on the alliteration was a great way to show fidelity to the Old English and have a lot of fun with the translation. I felt like I was reading MF Doom lyrics (in a good way) and could just read so much of it in one sitting because of the forward momentum that it creates. You’re constantly ending a line and waiting to see how those sounds get tumbled and reconfigured in the next line.
KM: A line I absolutely loved was, “He’d always known that Fate could fuck a fighter up.” What nice rhythm! The next line (“No matter the hoards he’d held, no matter the luck he’d have.”) even has a rhyme.
MA: The effect is so propulsive.
GN: Big Gerard Manley Hopkins energy. I am glad that Headley was able to have fun with a device that is difficult to pull off, at this frequency, in a serious literary work. It’s hard to think of many other instances where that could work. Grendel’s mom is a “dame made of damage,” and “formatted for fury.” We’re just splashing around in the sounds at this point. When the dragon dies, it’s “stiff as a shovel-split snake.” And while we are giving her credit for language-play, we gotta talk kennings.
KM: Kennings are when two words are connected by a lil’ dash right? A Compound word to make a metaphor?
MA: Correct, and I thought hers were gorgeous.
GN: I agree. One basic challenge of translating a work like this is you have to find a way to make the sea, gold, blood, wood, and iron sound fresh, like, 1,000 times each. So you have to have a strong kenning game.
MA: Right. My favorite Headley kenning came in a line about the mythic king Sigemund, who after he died was “shaped into story-glory for his crowning kill.”
KM: Yes, I loved the use of “war-shirt” instead of saying “breast plate” or “chain mail” again.
GN: “War-weeds” was also cool. A lot of good kennings about spears and swords.
MA: I remember being quite tickled by one in the Seamus Heaney version we read in high school: “bone-house,” to mean body, which sounds like it could be a Tumblr joke or something.
MA: So, there were two parts to the “radical” proposition of this Beowulf. The first was the contemporary language, but the second was, to quote the jacket copy, a “fresh eye toward gender.”
KM: In the year of our Lord 2020, what does that even mean? I guess one thing that is interesting to me about the marketing of this translation (and also Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey) is that both have been presented as inherently “feminist” because they are being translated and looked at by women who identify as such.
GN: Headley has also written a novel from the perspective of Grendel’s mom, and while that wasn’t the focus of this translation, it did humanize her more than usual, in the space allotted. We even get some vague, sympathetic origin stories for those lizardy wretches. Also, the dragon that kills (and is killed by) Beowulf is female in this translation.
MA: Very empowering. But in all seriousness, it was fascinating to read the scenes with Grendel’s mother side by side with my Heaney copy (which, as an aside, I appear to have stolen from my high school? It has my school library barcode on it. Sorry to them.) and also with the Tolkien prose translation, which I read for the first time. In Heaney’s translation, Grendel’s mother is a “monstrous hell-bride,” in Tolkien’s an “ogress,” but in Headley’s telling she’s a “warrior-woman.” In her translator’s note, Headley says hers is not some departure from the original, but perhaps a more accurate translation of the Old English aglaec-wif.
GN: I really like that Headley was able to locate her obsession with this story in a specific illustration of Grendel’s mother that she saw as a child and hasn’t ever been able to find since. I doubt that was the case for anyone else who has taken on the challenge of translating Beowulf. And reading that anecdote primed me to engage with these characters in a more open way than just assuming they were replacement-level monsters.
KM: That to me is what makes this translation successful: not the word choice or even the gender flipping, but how clearly grounded in the original text Headley wanted her translation to be. The argument she’s making isn’t that we need to rewrite history or change the past, but that the lens through which we view stories (in this case the eye of the translator) changes what we see in them.
MA: And that taking for granted that translations by men are normal and therefore Headley’s is radical is inherently wrong, right? Kelsey, you mentioned Emily Wilson’s wonderful translation of The Odyssey, which I love for its translator’s note that dwells on the idea of “fidelity” in translation, and how wrapped up it is with gender. The French have a scummy literary term, “les belles infidèles,” to describe translations so artful they must be unfaithful, playing on the trope of the beautiful cheating mistress. I suspect people will eye this translation with that same suspicion or assumption of deviance, and that’s a bummer, because you’re right: there’s plenty of room to play with feminist elements in the bounds of the text, and Headley does it well. Beowulf’s going to the mere to kill Grendel’s mother, for example, felt kind of violating and shocking in a way that was new to me.
GN: There’s also the mourning dirge at the very end, when a woman is acknowledging just how badly the Geats are about to suffer now that Beowulf is dead, thanks to the appetites and whims of all the revenge-seeking, mead-drunk dudes across the sea. I wonder if Headley chose to put special emphasis on that part, which undercuts all the braggadocio and violence that made Beowulf’s name (and fueled the plot).
MA: It is the most affecting part of the poem, I think. I’d forgotten how sad Beowulf is—Tolkien writes of its “peculiar solemnity”—and that old woman’s scream of grief is so evocative of the costs of war and who bears them. That’s really what Beowulf is about, isn’t it? Peace is frighteningly tenuous, built on these rickety marriages and alliances, all at the mercy of the bros.
KM: Bro, I think you’re right.
DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! Tomorrow is a new month and we’ll announce our next pick.