Beowulf: A New Translation

Seamus Heaney

Faber & Faber 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
For those unfamiliar with Beowulf, it is a late first millennium Anglo-Saxon epic about the hero Beowulf's fights with three monsters: Grendel, Grendel's mother, and, fifty years later at the end of his life, a dragon. Since its rediscovery in the early nineteenth century, it has become a recognised classic, translated scores if not hundreds of times. Not being able to read Old English, all I can say here is that Heaney's translation gave me a better understanding of why people rave about the poem than any of the others I have read.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Heaney's Beowulf is that it can be read almost as if it were prose — and then mined more deeply for the poetry. Heaney writes in his introduction:

"I came to the task of translating Beowulf with a prejudice in favour of forthright delivery. I remembered the voice of the poem as being attractively direct, even though the diction was ornate and the narrative method at times oblique."
So he captures something of the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse form, but not at the expense of "the sound of sense"; he doesn't inflict awkward archaisms on the reader and is never difficult to read. Here is a brief sample, from the wait after Beowulf dives to attack Grendel's mother.
"Immediately the counsellors keeping a lookout
with Hrothgar, watching the lake water,
saw a heave-up and surge of waves
and blood in the backwash. They bowed grey heads,
spoke in their sage, experienced way
about the good warrior, how they never again
expected to see that prince returning
in triumph to their king. It was clear to many
that the wolf of the deep had destroyed him forever."
An immense body of critical work on Beowulf exists. In his introduction Heaney very briefly touches on this, offering a few hints to understanding and interpreting the work. He also discusses some translation issues, feeling obliged to justify his use of one or two obscure Irish words.

Scholars may cavil at Heaney's liberties ("an interpretation and not a translation") and there are certainly better translations for scholarly purposes. Translation is always a balance between competing concerns, however, and a verse translation that attempts to convey something of the power of the original as a poem must inevitably deviate from the literal. Tolkien's seminal essay "The Monsters and the Critics" urged scholars to approach Beowulf not just as a philological curiosity or a source document for Anglo-Saxon language and history but as a poem and a story — and Heaney offers lay readers a chance to appreciate something of that too.

December 2001

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%T Beowulf
%S A New Translation
%A Heaney, Seamus
%I Faber & Faber
%D 1999
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0571203760
%P xxx,106pp