Bro! Tell me we still know how to talk about kings!
August 24, 2020 10:57 AM   Subscribe

 
I'm excited for this! Just pre-ordered. I've read a lot of Beowulfs and while it does kind of feel like I'm being pandered to here, dang sometimes it's actually nice to be pandered to effectively!
posted by potrzebie at 11:52 AM on August 24 [3 favorites]


I admit I'm skeptical of some of the 'hashtag' type language because I don't think anyone actually talks like that out loud, but her solution for the opening line sells the whole project for me.
posted by Think_Long at 12:03 PM on August 24


Also excited about this! I remember translating Beowulf as an assignment in school... obviously with zero creative liberties, it was still awesome though, to grapple with that language. This sounds like an amazing translation or rather transcreation of the original for modern readers. I see the ebook is out tomorrow. Nice. Thanks for posting!
posted by bitteschoen at 12:05 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


Great article, but the excerpts from the "translation"? ugh, just ugh. It's like those "updated" versions of the Gospels from the early '70s in which Jesus says things like, "Be cool, man. My Father is on the eternal trip."

The quality of the work aside, reading her introduction, she writes about translation and what's involved in translation and other people's translations... Did she, in fact, translate from the original OE text? "Like everyone who’s ever translated this text, I had some fun. " That statement is debatable to start, but it reads as a clear assertion, among a number she makes there and on her website, that she, in the dictionary sense of the word, translated Beowulf from OE into modern English. Surprisingly, she doesn't indicate the time or effort involved in learning OE, something that I, as a person who's tried to take on OE as a solo learner, am curious about. It's also easier to be cavalier about a text if you haven't the skills and background to really plumb it in its original form.

Frankly, I'd prefer that, if they're going to make up a book that doesn't hew to the style, spirit or language of an original text, people use Jean-Jacques Annaud's device from his film adaptation of The Name of the Rose and call it a "palimpsest" of the original. That's truth in advertising, at least.
posted by the sobsister at 12:09 PM on August 24 [8 favorites]


I like these translations in theory--like the poem's run aground on a sandbar in some river-delta of time, where dialects from all ages co-exist, merging into an uneasy diachronic creole (a fair description of English, actually). But in practice--I'm thinking here of Mary Jo Bang's similar work on the Inferno--I often find them a little cringey, a little tryhard. Still: sounds interesting, and will read. The Mere Wife is definitely on the list as well.
posted by what does it eat, light? at 12:10 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


This looks fantastic to me. Thanks for the post.
posted by spacewaitress at 12:28 PM on August 24


Her discussion of Grendel's mother in the introduction, and the extent to which her usual depiction as a monster is actually supported by the original text, was very interesting. And I liked this bit:
Grendel’s mother is referred to in the poem as “ides, aglaec-wif,” which means, given this logic, “formidable noblewoman.” She isn’t physically described, beyond that she looks like a woman, and is tall. The Old English word for fingers, fingrum, has frequently been translated as “claws,” but Grendel’s mother fights effectively with a knife, and wielding a knife while also possessing long nails is—as anyone who’s ever had a manicure knows—a near impossibility.
it reads as a clear assertion, among a number she makes there and on her website, that she, in the dictionary sense of the word, translated Beowulf from OE into modern English

I have no idea how good or thorough her knowledge of OE is, but she goes into detail in the introduction about a few translation choices. For example, from the paragraph before the one quoted above:
The tradition of monstrous depiction assisted by monstrous physical descriptors persevered in translation (though not necessarily in scholarship) into the later years of the twentieth century and beyond, particularly after Frederick Klaeber’s 1922 glossary defined the word used to reference Grendel’s mother, aglaec-wif, as “wretch, or monster, of a woman.” Never mind that aglaec-wif is merely the feminine form of aglaeca, which Klaeber defines as “hero” when applied to Beowulf, and “monster, demon, fiend” when referencing Grendel, his mother, and the dragon. Aglaeca is used elsewhere in early English to refer both to Sigemund and to the Venerable Bede, and in those contexts, it’s likelier to mean something akin to “formidable.” Fair enough. Multiple meanings to Old English words, after all.
I was a little surprised that in discussing the ways hwæt has been translated she didn't mention the argument that it wasn't actually an interjection at all. (But I'm not anything in the remote neighborhood of being a Beowulf scholar and have no idea how well-regarded that argument is - I only know of it because it got a lot of popular press at the time.)
posted by trig at 12:30 PM on August 24 [7 favorites]


the sobsister, do you have any indication at all that she did not do the translation herself? Or do you just find the translation not sufficiently deferential to the original text?
This translation, for example, was completed during the first months of my son’s life. Parenting a baby is listening to someone use a language in which certain sounds mean a slew of things, and one must rely heavily on context to gain clarity; a language in which there is no way to translate accurately the ancient sound that means “hungry,” because, to the preverbal speaker, the sound means and is used to signal a compendium of things, something more like “belly hurt—longing—breast—empty mouth—bottle—swallow—milk—help.”

While this gloss is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it’s not far from the actuality of Old English translation. It’s possible to make a case for more than one definition of many words, and the challenge is to land on an interpretation that braids rationally into the narrative, without translating a male warrior into a bear, or a woman warrior into a literal sea wolf rather than a metaphoric one.3 You must choose wisely, and then, somehow, structure those wise (or frustrated) choices into poetry.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:30 PM on August 24 [6 favorites]


. . . it reads as a clear assertion, among a number she makes there and on her website, that she, in the dictionary sense of the word, translated Beowulf from OE into modern English. Surprisingly, she doesn't indicate the time or effort involved in learning OE, something that I, as a person who's tried to take on OE as a solo learner, am curious about. It's also easier to be cavalier about a text if you haven't the skills and background to really plumb it in its original form.

I'm not sure if the skepticism is warranted here? If I recall, Heaney's process was to go line-by-line with a dictionary and conjugation table as he worked through his interpretation. A good understanding of English and grammar can get you far enough to get the sense of a line before you make your interpretation, there is no fluency requirement for this kind of project.
posted by Think_Long at 12:34 PM on August 24 [7 favorites]


Hrothgar, do you even lift?
posted by Foosnark at 12:38 PM on August 24 [15 favorites]


the sobsister, do you have any indication at all that she did not do the translation herself?

No, I was just curious if her use of "translation" meant she actually read the text in OE and turned that text into English. I say that because I've seen a number of books from reputable sources that are advertised as "translations," and it's only once one delves into the introduction, usually near the end, that it becomes clear that, well, the authors didn't "translate" it, per se, but worked from the very finest translations to create their synthesis or reinterpretation or recasting of the text.

A translation is a translation. An interpretation of others' translations is not a translation.

Further, I know a perennial topic in the translation community is: How faithful does one need to be to the text? I've found Dr. Emily Wilson's discussions of her methodology particularly interesting in that regard. She "modernizes" her Odyssey, but not by having Odysseus say, "Poseidon dude! Ur being totes harsh!" To quote Dr. Wilson, "My Homer does not speak in your grandparents’ English, since that language is no closer to the wine-dark sea than your own. I have tried to keep to a register that is recognizably speakable and readable, while skirting between the Charybdis of artifice and the Scylla of slang." She did so by knowing, intimately, the language with which she worked. Given Headley's silence in this regard, I was curious as to whether she'd read-read the text herself. It also sounds as if she steered too close to Scylla in her trip.
posted by the sobsister at 12:56 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


Did she, in fact, translate from the original OE text?

This is her second go-around with Beowulf, the first being a modern retelling of the story (talked about previously on the blue). In this Publishers Weekly interview, she talks briefly about working with the original text. That, and the words you quoted, lead me to the conclusion that, yes, she translated from OE.

Surprisingly, she doesn't indicate the time or effort involved in learning OE, something that I, as a person who's tried to take on OE as a solo learner, am curious about. It's also easier to be cavalier about a text if you haven't the skills and background to really plumb it in its original form.

The palpable dismissiveness of these two sentences is astonishing. Whether or not she flashed her OE credentials to you is irrelevant to her level of expertise. Merely using modern slang, as dated as that might eventually become, is not evidence of "being cavalier" with the original text.
posted by hanov3r at 1:01 PM on August 24 [21 favorites]


oh wow The Girlfriend's Guide to the Gods is amazing!!!
posted by supermedusa at 1:03 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


A translation is a translation. An interpretation of others' translations is not a translation.

She's pretty up front that she was intentionally taking a looser approach to interpretation in favor of characterization and thematization, all relevant choices as discussed in like, all the links in the post. I also think you're ignoring the fact that OE to an English speaker is much more accessible than classical Greek is to a non-classicist.
posted by Think_Long at 1:05 PM on August 24


On Sept. 16, The Center for Fiction's free online event, Radical Translations: Maria Dahvana Headley, Emily Wilson, and Madeline Miller, has Headley "joined in conversation by Emily Wilson, translator of Homer’s The Odyssey, and Madeline Miller, author of Song of Achilles and Circe. Together, these three authors radically re-envision classic texts once saturated in toxic masculinity and sexism with fresh perspectives."
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:09 PM on August 24 [7 favorites]


To quote Dr. Wilson, "My Homer does not speak in your grandparents’ English, since that language is no closer to the wine-dark sea than your own. I have tried to keep to a register that is recognizably speakable and readable, while skirting between the Charybdis of artifice and the Scylla of slang." She did so by knowing, intimately, the language with which she worked. Given Headley's silence in this regard, I was curious as to whether she'd read-read the text herself. It also sounds as if she steered too close to Scylla in her trip.

Too close for whom? Surely not all translators would choose the same register to translate into, and stylistic choices about how much slang to use are not objectively right vs wrong.
posted by jeather at 1:10 PM on August 24


Whether or not she flashed her OE credentials to you is irrelevant to her level of expertise. Merely using modern slang, as dated as that might eventually become, is not evidence of "being cavalier" with the original text.

I agree that the absence of flashed OE credentials is not inherently a sign that one can't read in the original. It's just that, in my, perhaps limited, experience, if one is publishing a translation from a language that's either no longer spoken or inaccessible due to difficulty or other reasons, the translator or their publisher will speak to their credentials/language experience to do so either explicitly or indirectly.

Her use of slang, which will make this translation as groovy as a Nehru jacket in about 15 minutes, is, however, evidence that she's being cavalier with the original text. One doesn't have to tug at one's forelock and bow before the original text, but "hashtag: blessed"? Well, let's not call it "cavalier." Let's call it "making some questionable translation choices," then. Beowulf is not some sacred text that demands utter fealty. However, if you're going to produce something that's entirely unfaithful to the spirit, language and style of the original, don't call it a translation. See also: Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.
posted by the sobsister at 1:12 PM on August 24


All you seem to be saying is "I don't like it", though! All translations sound dated as the date changes - it's not like there was a period where English was 'right' for things to be translated to, and we owe fealty to those particular choices.

Is your claim that she can't have read the original, since her translation isn't to your liking? Or that she is somehow doing harm by "not respecting" the original? Because I think those are two different things.
posted by sagc at 1:15 PM on August 24 [4 favorites]


I also think you're ignoring the fact that OE to an English speaker is much more accessible than classical Greek is to a non-classicist.

Umm...have you read Beowulf in the original?

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.

If you find that accessible without study and training, I tip my hat to you.
posted by the sobsister at 1:16 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


Also, it's obviously not in the same style or language as the original, but I think you'd have to go a lot further to prove that it's not in the same spirit.
posted by sagc at 1:17 PM on August 24 [3 favorites]


Sorry, at this point, are you claiming that the author has neither studied nor trained in OE? Like, obviously this is something people aren't born knowing, but it doesn't mean that there's only one way to know it.
posted by sagc at 1:17 PM on August 24


I admit I'm skeptical of some of the 'hashtag' type language because I don't think anyone actually talks like that out loud, but her solution for the opening line sells the whole project for me.

I mean, plenty of people do, usually with a sense of playfulness and irony rather than utter sincerity, but they do. I think they've mostly given up making the hashtag with their fingers, though.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:29 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


sagc,

Please see my above postings to answer your questions.
posted by the sobsister at 1:40 PM on August 24


I mean, I've read them...

But alright. Am I understanding that you believe there's a link between the original style of the original Beowulf and the 'correct' dialect to translate it into? That it's not just unentertaining to make those changes, but actually harming the legacy of the text? If the answer is basically just "Well, look what Tim Burton did to Alice in Wonderland", I think that just comes down to a matter of taste.

I would also remind you of the aphorism "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" - are you claiming actual willful acts on the part of the publisher and author to disguise what the actual project in question is - ie, translation vs reinterpretation - or just that they're not using your preferred definition of translation?

Otherwise, it seems like you're arguing that because of what Headley's arrived at, she can't possibly have been working from the original text?

I guess I'm just not sure whether your complaint is about the product or the process.

Not that I've ever seen Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, but whoo boy have I ever seen Romeo+Juliet.
posted by sagc at 1:47 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


sagc,

Not to derail this thread any more than it has been already, but my only points were two: 1) The excerpted translations/interpretations, I did not like. 2) I wonder if she translated, in the formal sense, from OE.

I did not mean to imply that her use of slang or her interpretative choices = she did not learn her conjugations and power through the rough gutturals of Anglo-Saxon. Nor do I claim a nefarious coverup of a lack of OE chops by her and her publisher.

Simply, her work isn't a "translation" as I understand and use that term. That doesn't make it bad, in and of itself. Nor do I believe that translations must be word-for-word trots of the original, in the spirit of the Loeb Classics. That said, I think that calling it an "interpretation" would be closer to what I understand the spirit of the enterprise to be. The anonymous author of Beowulf did not intend this to be a "fierce, feminist" (to use language I found about her book online) version of that story. Producing one is fine, but it's not a translation.
posted by the sobsister at 2:14 PM on August 24


Makes sense. I still think you're speculating that she didn't translate from the original without any particular evidence to do so, though.
posted by sagc at 2:20 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


I don't think there is such a thing as translation without interpretation. That's impossible even when translating an entirely contemporary text into another language. You will never have exact equivalents for every word, phrase, metaphor, etc. You have to make choices. Creating a false bright line between translation and not-translation is misleading and here seems to be masking simple disagreement with the stylistic choices made by this author, whose translation none of us have actually read.
posted by prefpara at 2:22 PM on August 24 [11 favorites]


I liked her interpretations of the themes, and translation decisions, which were pretty clearly discussed in the linked piece.

Even if I decided her work wasn’t for me, that would not make it not a real translation. She appears to have done the work, whether we like it or not.

It seems ironic to argue for the redefinition of the word translation because it doesn’t reflect a particular point of view of OE. Is that not exactly what you are accusing her of doing, redefining words to reflect her world view?

Anyway, as someone who likes this poem and its many different and beautiful translations and reinterpretations, I very much enjoyed reading this piece.
posted by Concordia at 2:31 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


I've always taken the word "translation" as having "interpretation" as part-and-parcel of the process. (It has to be, that's what translating is--there is no process where comprehensible thoughts, sentences, paragraphs, chapters in one language exactly match similar structures in another language, word-for-word, thought-for-thought.)

A "wild" translation may not be to someone's taste, but it's no less a translation.
posted by maxwelton at 2:37 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


Also, sorry, but the audacity of claiming to know what the anonymous author of Beowulf intended with respect to the contemporary framework of feminism!
posted by prefpara at 2:38 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


(See? On preview, I have translated prefpara's comment into something less eloquent and further from coherence, a stylistic choice meant to appeal to my audience.)
posted by maxwelton at 2:40 PM on August 24


Man, the cognitive dissonance, when New Yorker pieces and MetaFilter commentary are at odds -- which opinion to swipe for books I haven't read?
posted by Iris Gambol at 2:40 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


I don't think there is such a thing as translation without interpretation.

I agree, and even the most-faithful translation involves interpretative choice of various kinds. That said, if you choose to foreground elements that were background elements in the original or to give them central roles or significance that the original author(s) did not include or, likely, intend, or to introduce themes and language that didn't exist in the original, and by doing so, you alter the trajectory or meaning of the work significantly, then it's not a "translation" in any conventional sense of the word. It's an interpretation.

For me, at least, it's a substantial difference, one that I would want to know before buying a book. Based on what I've read about her version of Beowulf, this is her interpretation of the work. The excerpts in the article speak to that, but her words and those of reviewers are the more-compelling arguments that she's chosen to retell the story from a different angle, keeping much of the language, but also changing much of the language and giving the story different emphases.
posted by the sobsister at 2:42 PM on August 24


I am Very Far Indeed from an expert on Saxon England, but from the little I know about Beowulf I can totally buy it as a story by and for douchebros, which makes the bits of the translation we've been shown make sense.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 2:44 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


She seems to think that she's doing something more faithful to the original than what was done by the male translators who chose to distort the most interesting female character. By the mere accretion of their consistent approach, they create the illusion of accuracy. That isn't evidence of greater faithfulness to the partially-burned original text. We're filling in a lot of literal gaps here.

In other words, her angle is indeed different from that of the other translators who came before her. Her unfaithfulness to their interpretive choices should not be mistaken for a departure from the actual text.
posted by prefpara at 2:52 PM on August 24 [19 favorites]


This is a fascinating discussion that illustrates one of the root problems with translation - the translators are human, who have their own ideas and biases that often, intentionally and not, seep into the text and influence our understanding of that text.

Headley's version sounds fascinating, The lack of scholarly apparatus is deceptive: Headley has studied the poem deeply and is conversant with some of the text’s most obscure details. Though she comes to “Beowulf” from a feminist perspective, her primary purpose is not polemical or political but, as she writes, to render the story “continuously and cleanly, while also creating a text that felt as bloody and juicy as I think it ought to feel.”
I look forward to getting a copy.
posted by From Bklyn at 3:07 PM on August 24


prefpara,

That's entirely possible. And I'm sure there'll be commentary on this from people far better informed than I, as there was in the wake of Dr. Wilson's Odyssey. I'll be curious to see if what you say is borne out once the full work is available.
posted by the sobsister at 3:14 PM on August 24


I have always found Cervantes's (alleged) position - that reading a translation is like looking at the back of a tapestry - to be an interesting starting point toward understanding what I'm looking at when reading.

I don't know exactly how much Headley has studied OE as a language in itself. Could she pick up an unfamiliar text and read from it easily? No idea. Not sure it matters to me?

Even familiar texts look pretty odd in OE:
Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod
to becume þin rice
gewurþe ðin willa
on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg
and forgyf us ure gyltas
swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge
ac alys us of yfele soþlice
Her reasons for such a rendering, and the journey she wants to take readers on, are fascinating all by themselves. I am not a *huge* fan yet of it, and find it a bit, um, cringey at times? But who knows? Maybe the cumulative effect will fold that impression into a bigger vision of the speaker's voice.

BUT, I'm not at all worried about whether anyone today speaks as she writes, because I am 100% certain no one spoke as the Beowulf author wrote. Poetry in a great hall may have been *declaimed* in such a style, but that wasn't everyday language.

An interesting comparison is with Ezra Pound's "The Seafarer":
May I for my own self song's truth reckon,
Journey's jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care's hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship's head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood....
Pound took his lumps from the philology crowd, for sure, but by the time I got to it in the early 90's my teachers talked about it as "playing around" and a success in its own way.

Anyways, this is a all very fascinating to take in, and I'm just sketching out some general observations.
posted by Caxton1476 at 3:18 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


A "wild" translation may not be to someone's taste, but it's no less a translation.

And this may be at the root of my objections. I mean, I still find "hashtag: blessed" cringey af. But, generally speaking, I like "faithful" translations. Artful mirrorings, if you will, that get me as close to the original language, mood and style as I can get, while still using the lovely expressive qualities of English.

One could say that there are plenty of those for Beowulf, and that's true. And there's certainly an audience for new translations of canonical works. Wilson's Odyssey brought Zeus knows how many new readers to that work.

Beyond my point about translation/interpretation, though, I just happened not to like what I read of her translation/reworking. Attempts to contemporize language in translations rarely work for me. The "hip" Gospels I noted above are one example, but they're not alone. And I don't think they're good strategy, as they start aging as soon as you drive them off the lot, or out of the bookstore, I suppose. Imagine a Beowulf done in the mid-'80s that has a character asking, "Where's the beef?" as a way to express dissatisfaction, and imagine reading that even as soon as the early '90s.
posted by the sobsister at 3:37 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


I think we're all missing out by not talking about what a truly metal line "Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me" is.
posted by Gygesringtone at 3:43 PM on August 24 [15 favorites]


How much does that matter, though? Must every translation stand the test of time? Is it not useful to think about these texts in contemporary language? If someone was telling a story like Beowulf today, what might it look like? A series of Insta posts with accompanying comments? A twitter thread? What language would they use? How would the language of social justice play?

Those are interesting questions that potentially bring new understanding to the original work AND understanding of how different registers of language are used today. If they'll seem cringey in 10 years, who cares? The original will still exist in 10 years, and someone can retranslate it then.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:44 PM on August 24 [14 favorites]


To my surprise, the spirit of Headley's translation isn't all that far removed from those of the renowned founder and first general editor of the Penguin Classics, E V Rieu:
Often, though, he embroidered Homer's verse, following the principle that has since become known as dynamic equivalence or thought-for-thought translation. Whereas a literal translation would read, for example, "As soon as Dawn appeared, fresh and rosy-fingered,"[5] Rieu's version offered, "No sooner had the tender Dawn shown her roses in the East."[6] Some of his renderings seem anachronistic or in the wrong linguistic register: "the meeting adjourned," "I could fancy him," and, "It's the kind of thing that gives a girl a good name in town." He sometimes discarded Homer's anonymous immortals: "A god put this into my mind" became "It occurred to me." Rieu also tended to make the characters more courteous by preceding orders with "Kindly..." or "Be good enough to..." Some of these foibles were amended in a revision made by his son D. C. H. Rieu,[3] who also translated The Acts of the Apostles by Saint Luke (1957) for the Penguin series. The sole contemporary rival to his prose translation of the Iliad was a verse translation by Richmond Lattimore.[7]
posted by jamjam at 4:02 PM on August 24


Beyond my point about translation/interpretation, though, I just happened not to like what I read of her translation/reworking. Attempts to contemporize language in translations rarely work for me

I think the reason you're getting such pushback is that you framed your initial impression (this is kinda cringey*) as a suspicion that this isn't a serious project and that Headley is misrepresenting her efforts. The question of 'translation vs interpretation' is eternal and valid, but that wasn't how you chose to present your stance.

You keep bringing up Wilson's recent translations as a model example, but look back at the criticism she received at the time - they weren't that different from yours: She isn't a serious scholar. Her interpretations are not from the text. This translation has an agenda.

*I don't disagree
posted by Think_Long at 4:13 PM on August 24 [4 favorites]


[Folks maybe we can re-rail this from being about a single commenter's take on this linked content?]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:37 PM on August 24 [3 favorites]


Think_Long,

That's interesting. My own sense of the response to Wilson's translation was that it was met, nigh unto universally, with cheers and kudos. I'll have to look for the brickbats thrown.

That said, one of the reasons I use her work as a model is that she has been very generous, on social media and elsewhere, in sharing, publicly, her rationale for translations, even on individual word choice. It's fascinating to me and speaks to the rigor of her work and her commitment to uncover the story that has been, in her exposition, covered up by earlier translators. Her example of how women are described is a good one that shows how male translators added moralizing language that doesn't appear in the Homeric original.

Now, that appears to be Headley's approach, to a certain extent, as well. The question for me, and this ties together both the OE chops and the translation/interpretation points that I raised originally, is: Is Headley excavating and refining this meaning from the original text through her knowledge of OE and of its use at that time, in that milieu, or is she simply saying, I like Grendel's mother as a character, and I want to tell her story differently?

The latter is what, for me, would make it not a translation, but an interpretation of, a riff on, the text/story.
posted by the sobsister at 4:43 PM on August 24


Sorry, jessamyn, didn't intend for my comments to dominate the conversation. I'd certainly be interested in reading others' take on the article, etc.
posted by the sobsister at 4:45 PM on August 24


You keep bringing up Wilson's recent translations as a model example, but look back at the criticism she received at the time - they weren't that different from yours: She isn't a serious scholar. Her interpretations are not from the text. This translation has an agenda.

It's disheartening to read a thread about this new translation of Beowulf-- and please read the introduction if you haven't, there are excerpts in there that are head-spinningly beautiful, and I can't wait to read it in its entirety--where more than half the comments cast aspersions on the author's abilities, intentions, and even, in subtext, whether she has a right to put her work out into the world. Emily Wilson received similar feedback? Well, that falls into the pattern as well.

In a time when women are responding to Classical literature with profound retellings and translations, from Emily Wilson to Ann Carson to Mary Beard (while we're at it, do consider reading Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls, which retells the Iliad from the point of view of Briseis, and is amazing) it would be nice to skip over the usual she isn't qualified/it isn't really translation/she uses unusual words ruminations.
posted by jokeefe at 4:59 PM on August 24 [18 favorites]


The excellent New Yorker piece inadvertently (apparently) brings up what I think is an issue inherent in Beowulf's battle with Grendel's mother that we moderns are not prepared to deal with and which always makes me scrunch up my face when I think of it (but which does tie Beowulf more explicitly to the Iliad along thematic lines jokeefe alludes to):
In addition to such confusions, there’s a surprising lack of agreement among scholars about the literal meaning of many lines. When Beowulf dives into the sea in search of Grendel’s mother, who lives in a kind of underwater castle, does the poet say that he swims for most of the day before reaching the bottom or that he gets there while it is still daylight? What should be done with the combat scene between the two of them, in which Grendel’s mother seems to sit unceremoniously on Beowulf—a verb that “will simply not do,” as one translator complains? Heaney renders it as “pounced upon him.” Headley, concerned with neither fidelity nor heroic style, says that she “turned on him, gripping / and flipping him".
...
More important, it’s unclear from the description of Grendel’s mother whether she’s meant to be understood as a monster or as a human woman. As Headley notes, the Old English word “fingrum” is often translated as “claws,” but Grendel’s mother uses a knife during her fight with Beowulf, and “wielding a knife while also possessing long nails is—as anyone who’s ever had a manicure knows—a near impossibility.” The character is called “aglaec-wif,” which others have translated as “wretch,” “ogress,” “hell-bride,” and even “ugly troll lady.” But Headley asserts that it is a female equivalent of the noun “aglaeca,” which means awe-inspiring. Many versions also call Grendel’s mother a “sea-wolf,” but the Old English equivalent for this is “brimwylf”—and the manuscript itself reads “brimwyl,” which, Headley points out, could easily be a scribal error for “brimwif,” “sea-woman.” (Not one of six translations by men which I consulted noted this possibility.) By contrast, Headley’s translation allows for the monstrous element but also emphasizes the character’s recognizably human emotions.
...
But Headley believes that Grendel is neither a wanderer nor a fugitive; he lives in a hall with his mother. What if the standard interpretation is wrong? In the original text, the first scribe wrote that Grendel was descended from “Ham’s kin,” which the second scribe emended to “Cain’s kin.” (In Old English, the spellings of “Ham” and “Cain” are similar.)
...
Toni Morrison, in an essay called “Grendel and His Mother,” published last year in the posthumous collection “The Source of Self-Regard,” examines the way both figures are presented as “beyond comprehension . . . mindless without intelligible speech.” Neither has or requires a motive; evil “is preternatural and exists without explanation.” Morrison lingers on the moment in which Beowulf vanquishes Grendel’s mother. After Unferth’s sword fails Beowulf, he tries unsuccessfully to attack her with his bare hands. Suddenly, a ray of light—the narrator implies that this is God’s doing—shines upon a nearby sword, part of Grendel’s mother’s armory. Beowulf grabs it and beheads her, then beheads her son’s corpse. The sword melts away, leaving him holding only the hilt. Morrison is unconvinced by the usual interpretation: that the steel was melted by the monsters’ foul blood. “The image of Beowulf standing there with a mother’s head in one hand and a useless hilt in the other encourages more layered interpretations,” she writes. “One being that perhaps violence against violence—regardless of good and evil, right and wrong—is itself so foul the sword of vengeance collapses in exhaustion or shame.”
A sword the blade of which melts away after use is all too perfect a metaphor for an erection. And the raiding parties which were the real world counterparts of Beowulf and his crew did the things raiding parties do, which include killing sons and husbands and raping mothers.
posted by jamjam at 5:16 PM on August 24 [5 favorites]


From the introduction (I added line breaks for readability):
early English verse is distinguished by both alliteration and stress patterns over a caesura (in oral versions, the caesura is a pause—on the page, a gap between the two halves of a line). Each half line contains two stressed syllables; the two stressed syllables in the first half line alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the second.

Rhyme is used in Beowulf, but less predictably. It’s typically used to emphasize sequences—waves crashing against a shore, for example.

And stylistically, Beowulf employs a variety of compound words, or kennings, to poetically describe both the commonplace and the astounding. Hence, we’ve got some wonderful and distinctive things: “whale-road” for sea; “battle-sweat” for blood; “sky-candle” for sun.
Translation is freaking hard. I took a translation class and trying to do onomatopoeia (Korean to English) broke me. How to get the feeling of playfulness? The alliteration and the rhythm?
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:31 PM on August 24 [4 favorites]


OOHHH I love this explanation for her word choices:
Language is a living thing, and when it dies, it leaves bones. I dropped some fossils here, next to some newborns. I’m as interested in contemporary idiom and slang as I am in the archaic. There are other translations if you’re looking for the language of courtly romance and knights. This one has “life-tilt” and “rode hard … stayed thirsty” in it.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:33 PM on August 24 [5 favorites]


My teenager was sitting next to me while I was reading the New Yorker review, so I showed her some of the excerpts. She was intrigued. I need to go to the bookstore this week, so I'll pick it up for both of us.

And this post also reminded me I never read Emily Wilson's book, so I put it on hold at the library and will be reading it soon.
posted by mogget at 6:19 PM on August 24


I am suddenly reminded of Tolkien's assessment of Naipaul's academic work in Anglo-Saxon, and cannot help imagining the centuries of insights we have been denied, or have denied ourselves (given that Tolkien, Naipaul are obv problematic)
posted by Caxton1476 at 7:02 PM on August 24


Slightly embarrassed to be recommending this here, since it's likely most of you know more about the subject than me. But if you enjoyed the discussions about the meaning, purpose and challenges of translation, you might also be interested in Douglas Hofstadter's book Le Ton Beau de Marot, where he wallows in such thoughts for... well a lot of pages. ( I say this fairly affectionately- I have enjoyed a lot of the book over the years, but have never been able to finish it.)
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 10:38 PM on August 24 [3 favorites]


Later, the narrator tells us that Unferth “unexpectedly stanned” Beowulf by lending him a sword for the fight with Grendel’s mother.

I certainly hope she would be an expert in Old English, since she doesn't really seem to grasp 2020 argot.
posted by Greg Nog at 6:00 AM on August 25


Further departing from this thread's intent: If you haven't read Grendel, the story told from the monster's point of view, you're missing something. It's hilarious, obscene, philosophical (John Gardner saw it as an argument against existentialism), and while definitely not a translation, perhaps a re-imagining of Beowulf, particularly in the anthro-historical way it used to be read before Tolkien almost single-handedly put the piece into the literary canon.
posted by kozad at 8:02 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


So, I finally read the entire introduction, which I’d strongly recommend anyone does before forming a clearcut opinion of the translation in question, and I have started reading the whole thing (the ebook came out today! reading it on my smartphone, oh the sacrilege!), which I’d recommend doubly strongly but of course who has time for that - actually, time flies away neatly when reading, it’s very engrossing and the translation (or should I really call it transcreation? that’s a term mainly used for marketing translations though, it doesn’t seem quite right here – no this is a translation in the proper full sense of the term, just like any other translation of anything, be it more or less faithful, more or less literal, more or less creative, more or less modern etc. it’s still a translation, degree of adherence to the source vs creative license or if you will betrayal – traduttore traditore – can vary hugely but it still falls within the definition of translation) is a joy to read, definitely bold and juicy.

And to me the most striking elements are not to so much the modern slang injected into the narration like the repeated opening "bro" and the one "dude" I ran into so far, but the way she rendered the alliterations and the word compounds. It makes it a pleasure to read. There’s also still lots of less modern terms. The original spirit and tone of the poem is there, in fact I’d say it shines through even more powerfully. I’m not an OE expert, only studied the bits that were required in uni, and I’m not a literary translator, so feel free to disregard my own opinion if we’re implying that it takes some level of academic scholarship to even have an opinion as readers of a text, I am just a reader, and so far I love it. I can’t put it down. I’m at the point where (spoilers!) Beowulf and his guys arrive in Denmark to lend a hand against Grendel and the speeches bits are just... delicious.

The language is made more readable or rather listenable, but it still preserves all the flavour of an ancient epic poem. I don’t see a betrayal here. I see a successful attempt to bring this ancient epic to contemporary eyes and ears.

Many others have translated it before and had different approaches. There’s definitely room for this one too.

Just three examples of bits I especially loved so far for the oral flow of the alliterative poetry (other than those quoted in the intro or New Yorker article already) - hope no one minds me posting these and that if you’re already interested they entice you to read the whole thing even more:
... He rose in the realm
and became a famous warlord, fighting ferociously
dawn to dusk, fathering his own horde of four,
heirs marching into the world in this order: Heorogar,
Hrothgar, Halga, and I heard he hand-clasped his daughter
(her name’s a blur) to Onela. Tender, she rendered that battle-Swede
happy in fucking, where before he’d only been happy in fighting.

War was the wife Hrothgar wed first. Battles won,
treasures taken. Admirers and kin heard of his fight-fortune,
and flanked him in force. ...
and...
...Those who lived, left—
or locked themselves in ladies’ lodgings, far from fault lines.
Those who stayed? Slain.

For twelve snow-seasons, Grendel reigned over evening.
Hrothgar suffered, Heorot buffeted, no hero to hold it.
Every outsider talked shit, telling of legends and losses.
Hrothgar’s hall became a morgue, dark marks on floorboards.
No songs, no scops, no searing meat, no blazing fire.
And Grendel, incomplete, raided relentlessly.
Dude, this was what they call a blood feud, a war
that tore a hole in the hearts of the Danes.
Grendel was broken, and would not brook peace,
desist in dealing deaths, or die himself.
and this bit spoken by the messenger relaying the arrival of Beowulf and his men:
...
"Geatlanders have come ashore, sea-sullied
from their long sail. Their captain and compeller
is called Beowulf, and he petitions for words
with you. Hrothgar, most generous,
don’t deny them. They’re well dressed,
thus well-born, and thus worthy.
And the man who led them here—
he looks so right! His chest, broad in girth,
his armor blazing, bright!
Blatantly of noble birth."
posted by bitteschoen at 8:39 AM on August 25 [12 favorites]


there is no fluency requirement for this kind of project.

You are right. It is the author's landscape. But there is also a difference between translators who are fluent and those that are not.

And if one wants to argue nuts and bolts over the historicity of interpreting ancient texts I'm going to listen more keenly to someone that is fluent. Because inflected language is hard.
posted by NoThisIsPatrick at 8:46 AM on August 25


Thank you for those excerpts, bitteschoen! I like the cadence she’s got going there - it feels very true to the rhythm of the OE.

The “dude” does feel weird, though. I’d love to see a modern translation of an epic poem like this done with really cutting-edge slang throughout, but there are very few people with their finger sufficiently on the pulse of colloquial speech to do that. I once translated and adapted Das Nibelungenlied for a university theatre club performance, and the original text is so lively and confrontational that I really do think something like estuary English would have made the most exciting and fitting translation, but I don’t speak it and could never do it justice.
posted by jglitter at 9:51 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


Their captain and compeller
is called Beowulf, and he petitions for words
with you.


"Oi'm Beowulf an' I'm 'ere ta kill your monstah."
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 10:00 AM on August 25


The “dude” does feel weird, though.

It does, doesn’t it? At least, when you are looking it at that single sentence, it does stand out. But when you’re in the flow of reading, to me it didn’t really stand out as much, or, not in a jarring way. I also think there’s a touch of humour there, because whether it’s the narrator telling the story of these warriors or the protagonists themselves speaking in quotes, these are men who do a lot of boasting about, and I think Headley explains rather well in the introduction how she was "imagining the narrator as an old-timer at the end of the bar, periodically pounding his glass and demanding another". She also explains rather well why she used the opening "bro" and how Seamus Heaney had used a simple "So" at the opening, "taken from the memory of his Irish uncle telling tales at the table".

So I think even the "dude" works within that framework and with that conversational approach, with a hint of humorous undercutting of all the grandeur of the narration, perhaps. Just my impression, but I don’t think it breaks the flow at all, once you’re in the flow of the poem. You’re of course constantly aware this is a classic epic from many centuries ago, written in a dead language, yet those elements of slang and modern language infused in it don’t really bring you back to the present with a jolt, rather they kind of plunge you a bit more fully into the oral style of the poetic narration. It all becomes suspended outside of time.

(Besides... there’s a rhyme there with "feud", eh. It’s amusing, made me chuckle but not think uhh this is too much.)

Mind you, I’m enjoying it a lot it so I’m probably not being very objective, but I’d encourage anyone who loved previous translations to give this one a try, regardless of first impressions from the article or excerpts.
posted by bitteschoen at 10:39 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]


I'm reading it too and having a great time. Highly recommended so far!
posted by potrzebie at 6:00 PM on August 27


I'm suffering over here, for whatever reason the UK publishing date isn't until next year (oh when will 2020's cold and cruel reign be over?!). I've considered importing it, but paper books barely get read in my house. If I wait it out, maybe there will be an audiobook announced, even better...

If it was 'just' a modern language translation, I wouldn't be so interested in it, but all the excerpts I've seen sound just beautiful.
posted by Glier's Goetta at 2:15 AM on August 28


Glier's Goetta: After I lamented on this, a US friend took pity and has ordered a copy for me! I'd be happy to send it to you afterwards – just PM me.
posted by adrianhon at 6:55 AM on August 28


A review of the translation on Poetry Foundation:
Instead of changing names or places, Headley sticks closely to the original Old English text while updating the vocabulary with flourishes of internet humor. She uses the slang neologism swole to describe Beowulf’s body, for example, which actually has a ring of Old English about it. Elsewhere, the neologisms don’t work quite as well. For example, as he armors up to attack Grendel’s mother, the Beowulf-poet writes that he does not mearn for his ealdre—mourn for his life. In her version, Headley translates those words to mean Beowulf “gave zero shits.” It’s not inaccurate, I suppose, but that doesn’t necessarily make it funny.

Though Headley opts for some startling choices, such as translating the Old English word hwaet (usually rendered “Listen!” or “So”), as “Bro!,” her Beowulf is a close, line-by-line rendition of the original poem in all its baffling glory. She even follows the metrical pattern of the Old English, using alliteration on stressed syllables to create a propulsive, tense rhythm.

... The feminism in Headley’s translation is embedded in the texture and language of the poem itself rather than in its individual events or characters. When Beowulf’s boat sails into Hrothgar’s harbor, for example, Headley depicts the coastguard as a chagrined bouncer, puffing out his chest: “Did you send word? No! Were you invited? / No! You’re not on the guest list. And, also, who’s the giant?” By sending up this kind of pissing contest, which happens regularly in the story, Headley lampoons the narrative’s cartoonish masculinity and brings out the satirical, downright negative mood that characterizes the poem’s mournful ending.

...Headley’s boyish narrator wraps his story in colloquial language almost as a trick, a flashy come-on to lure readers into a story that turns out to be full of dark lessons about traitorous soldiers and the inevitability of old age. Her Beowulf is a tragicomic epic about the things men do to impress one another.
(There’s also an interesting bit about the origins of the word "orc", which I never knew!)
posted by bitteschoen at 4:35 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


I'm about halfway through, and I think this translation is positively delightful. The meter, the alteration, it's just super FUN to read. I have read a couple of other translations of Beowulf over the years, and somehow the framing of the story as a story by bros for bros, makes it easier to digest.
posted by TheCoug at 7:15 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]




The video of the conversation between Madeleine Miller, Emily Wilson, and Maria Dahvana Headley, in case you forgot about it, like I did.
posted by mogget at 11:50 AM on September 17 [3 favorites]


« Older Ah, a zookeeper. So, you just babysit the animals...   |   Street Food Pakistan 🤤 Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments