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  • Lynette Mejia

Hear Me Out: Beowulf, trans. Maria Dahvana Headley


I can't even begin to tell you how much I loved this translation of Beowulf, that classic of Old English literature so many high school students are forced to endure as semi-somnolent captives. I totally geek out over this stuff, though, so I was extremely happy to find this translation written by a contemporary speculative writer.


And pun 100% intended, she absolutely slays it.


Headley comes at this translation from both a feminist interpretation of the poem's themes (born from the original research she did for her novel The Mere Wife), but also from a modern approach to language. So not only do we get the world of Beowulf viewed through the lens of dude-bro hyper-masculine contemporary culture, but we do so via language that we can actually read without falling into a coma. As she points out in the Introduction, most prior translations adhered to the principle (echoed by Tolkien) that translated language must be literary and, dare I say it, courtly in nature, but I couldn't disagree more. For Beowulf to live, it must remain accessible, and that means translations will evolve. In the same way that modern English is no longer Old English, Hwæt will have more meaning (and certainly garner more attention) translated as Bro! for younger readers than as Lo! (I mean honestly, who starts a good war story with Lo!)


Headley isn't precious with her adaptation, either. "What a fucking waste," the character of Wiglaf says to Beowulf's retainers who choose to run from the dragon fight at the end. Honest in her approach, she uses the translator's power like a magic spell, refocusing the androcentric martial viewpoint into the heart and soul of the poem. By casting Grendel's mother as a warrior queen bent on vengeance instead of a ravenous, soulless, sinful monster, she shows us that a thousand years hasn't changed much when it comes to a couple of things: 1) don't mess with a Momma and 2) an angry woman will almost always be blamed for the sins of a man.


Interpretations aside, though, Headley's translation is just a joy to read. She's done a fantastic job retaining the feel of the original text, retaining many of the kennings, as well as the familiar rhymes and meter. She did her homework, clearly, and as a reader, I could feel that in every line.


Now, instead of a chore, Beowulf feels like a joy to read.

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