Headley's "Beowulf": combine or keep separate?


Entre no LibraryThing para poder publicar.

Headley's "Beowulf": combine or keep separate?

Ago 28, 2020, 3:40pm

I just read a New Yorker article on Maria Dahvana Headley's new translation of Beowulf and I'm wondering if it should be combined with the main work or kept apart. I haven't read Headley's version, but the article makes it sound more like an adaptation:
Grendel is “fucked by fate,” Wealhtheow, “hashtag: blessed” ...Hrothgar’s thanes are his “fight-family,” Wealhtheow admires Beowulf’s “brass balls,” treasure is “bling.”

This version hasn't been combined with the main work; I'm inclined to keep it that way and mark it as an adaptation. Any thoughts?

Ago 30, 2020, 5:33am

I'd favour combining it with other translations, and adding Headley as a translator of some editions under "other authors".

The description that appears on Headley's and the publisher's websites calls it a "translation". Although it says the translation is "radical" and "brings new context", it also presents some of the differences from previous translations as the result of greater fidelity to the original ("brings to light elements that have never before been translated into English", "unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation").

I'm reluctant to consider a text as an adaptation rather than a translation, where that's against the creator's and publisher's stated intention, unless the original elements are clearly beyond what most readers would consider as translation. But from the New Yorker review, it seems Headley adds brief elaborations on the original text ("That’s not in the original: not the antler-tipped towers, not the generalization about burning castles"), while making different decisions from previous translators about phrasing, register, and the reading of parts of the text that may not have been transmitted correctly. I'd consider all that as within the bounds of translation (especially for pre-modern literary texts). The review doesn't suggest Headley has (for example) invented new plots or characters or changed the setting, which would lead me to consider her work as an adaptation.

Ago 30, 2020, 1:26pm

I'm reluctant to consider a text as an adaptation rather than a translation, where that's against the creator's and publisher's stated intention, unless the original elements are clearly beyond what most readers would consider as translation.

I understand and don't disagree. I suggested marking it as an adaptation because to me it seems like a radical departure from the original poem. Yes, it's marketed as a translation, but I've read adaptations that hew closer to the original than the excerpts I've seen. *shrug* Since I haven't read Headley's translation, I'm really not qualified to render a final decision.

I did a little digging and discovered a similar discussion was had in regard to Seamus Heaney's translation,
http://www.librarything.com/topic/50819. Heaney's translation is combined, but there are a lot more separated editions of Beowulf than I expected there to be: Norton Critical Editions are separate due to the annotations and criticism, Chickering's Beowulf is split apparently on the grounds of scholarship, and Tolkien's because Tolkien, I guess? I'll leave it up to people who've actually read Headley's translation to decide whether it should be combined or if it should join the list of exceptions.

Editado: Ago 31, 2020, 7:58am

If anyone here has read both the original and this version, I'd be very interested to hear their input. Mine, having read neither but having read a couple translations (Chickering's and Heaney's) is:

Combine. No question. Translations do not need to use stilted, archaic, or formal language. It was written, intended, and marketed as a translation. Just because you don't like the translator's choices to use colloquial 2020-era English doesn't mean it's an adaptation instead.

Editado: Ago 31, 2020, 9:03am

>4 lorax: My instinct says you're right, but I don't know this translation / adaptation.

Ago 31, 2020, 9:19am

We also don't know how close the Dutch, French, German, and (what do I know) Chinese translations are. Lump them.

Ago 31, 2020, 10:43am

>4 lorax: Who said anything about not liking the translator's choices? The excerpts I read just struck me more as adaptation, so I asked for input. If the consensus is to combine, then combined it should be.

Ago 31, 2020, 10:48am


In that case, can you link to the excerpts in question? What you quote above are just a few word choices, so that's what I thought you were basing your assessment on.

Ago 31, 2020, 11:37am

>8 lorax: I linked to the New Yorker article in the first post. Here's a longer quotation:
Every elder knew I was the man for you, and blessed
my quest, King Hrothgar, because where I’m from?
I’m the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best.
Yes: I mean—I may have bathed in the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea
and made sashimi of some sea monsters.
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me. . . .
Now, I want to test my mettle on Grendel, best him,
a match from man into meat. Just us two,
hand to hand. Sweet.

I was looking at another excerpt somewhere else but can't seem to find it again. Headley isn't inventing new scenes, but the rhythms and word choices just struck me less as translation and more like Beowulf-inspired hip hop. As I said, I haven't read her version so I freely admit my impressions may well be wrong. I really don't want to get into an argument over a work none of us have read. :)

I'll combine Headley's translation with the main work and mark her as a translator.

Ago 31, 2020, 12:21pm

>9 amanda4242: John Lesslie Hall offers this, for roughly the comparable section.

This my earls then urged me, the most excellent of them,
Carles very clever, to come and assist thee,
Folk-leader Hrothgar; fully they knew of
His fight with the nickers.
The strength of my body. Themselves they beheld me
When I came from the contest, when covered with gore
Foes I escaped from, where five I had bound,
The giant-race wasted, in the waters destroying
The nickers by night, bore numberless sorrows,
The Weders avenged (woes had they suffered)
Enemies ravaged; alone now with Grendel
He intends to fight Grendel unaided.
I shall manage the matter, with the monster of evil,
The giant, decide it.

Beowulf was written in the language of its time; Hall's translation was not in any way written in the language of the 19th century.


“Thou Hrothgar, hail! Hygelac’s I,
kinsman and follower. Fame a plenty
have I gained in youth! These Grendel-deeds
I heard in my home-land heralded clear.
Seafarers say how stands this hall,
of buildings best, for your band of thanes
empty and idle, when evening sun
in the harbor of heaven is hidden away.
So my vassals advised me well, --
brave and wise, the best of men, --
O sovran Hrothgar, to seek thee here,
for my nerve and my might they knew full well.
Themselves had seen me from slaughter come
blood-flecked from foes, where five I bound,
and that wild brood worsted. I’ the waves I slew
nicors by night, in need and peril
avenging the Weders, whose woe they sought, --
crushing the grim ones. Grendel now,
monster cruel, be mine to quell
in single battle!

Headley offers what is definitely a nativizing translation, but that's not a sin in and of itself, especially with such a frequently translated work as Beowulf.

Editado: Out 9, 2020, 7:24pm

>10 prosfilaes: I didn't think there was any sin and I know translations can vary wildly; I'm actually interested in reading Headley's take on the poem and seeing how it compares to others I've read. I simply saw a version which struck me as more divergent than other translations, discovered it hadn't yet been combined with the main work on LT, and wanted to know if others thought it should be combined.

Set 1, 2020, 1:46pm

"Grendel is fucked by fate"...
Beowulf is fucked by Headley...

Set 1, 2020, 3:33pm

I find it especially ironic that people are tsking about curse words on a thread about BEOWULF, when "Anglo-Saxon" is commonly used as a descriptor of exactly that sort of coarse language. Men and monsters can be murdered bloodily, but in God's name don't use four-letter words.


Set 1, 2020, 3:39pm

>13 lorax: Who's tsking?

Editado: Set 1, 2020, 3:45pm

It sounds to me like she is trying to use a lot of alliteration, which is a major characteristic of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Personally, I could see trying to read this translation, where the others really turn me off.

Set 1, 2020, 3:45pm

>15 MarthaJeanne: Yep. The fucks don't bother me at all. Bling, hashtag, and sashimi are what have me questioning it.

Set 1, 2020, 3:54pm

I love the line 'and made sashimi of some sea monsters.' You can't do a literal translation of lots of the descriptions, because the idioms just don't make sense to us. but this is very clear and graphic.

Set 1, 2020, 4:10pm

I didn't think you were tsking. I thought Crypto-Willobie was.
I love "made sashimi of sea monsters". Great alliteration.

This thread is convincing me I need to read this translation. I still won't be qualified to comment since I can't read Old English, but at least I can compare it to other translations and talk about whether major parts are left out or changed, which would to my mind make it an adaptation, or if it's just that it leans hard into the slangy 2020 language.

Set 1, 2020, 4:27pm

>18 lorax: I also want to read it, but will have to wait until either my library gets a copy or it goes on sale.

I don't really want translations to be slavishly literal or full of archaic words, but I do wonder if there's a point where an ancient work is so changed by translation into modern idiom it becomes a different work. "Made sashimi of some sea monsters" is certainly evocative, but so are the kennings of the original: "battle-sweat" and "sleep of the sword" seem to me excellent descriptors of blood and death.

Editado: Set 1, 2020, 5:37pm

>14 amanda4242:

She's taking me to tsk.


ETA - I must admit I find the use of 21st century idioms and flippant metaphors to be grating rather than intriguing. They call attention to themselves for one thing. But that's probably just grumpy old me.

Set 2, 2020, 9:25am

Crypto-Willobie (#20):

I must admit I find the use of 21st century idioms and flippant metaphors to be grating rather than intriguing. They call attention to themselves for one thing. But that's probably just grumpy old me.

They do draw attention, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Faux-archaic language would do the same, and add distancing - that this is something from Long Ago. Which is true. But to those who were hearing it as a tale told by firelight, it wasn't told in archaic-to-them language (even though it was still cast as a story about long ago), it was in everyday speech. The question of whether a translation should try to preserve the increasingly archaic idioms of the language-as-written, or try to recapture how it felt to readers (or listeners) at the time, is an interesting one, without a right or wrong answer, but *if a translation does not make major structural changes*, it can choose the "immediacy of current language" option without surrendering its identity as a translation. IMO.

Has anyone else here read Emily Wilson's recent translation of Odyssey? When it was released it also got notice for more modern (though far less colloquial than this) language than previous translations. (There's a NYT article about it here.) I find it interesting that these translators who, in Wilson's words in the opening paragraph of her translation, "tell {an} old story for our modern times", are both women tackling very masculine epics.

Editado: Set 2, 2020, 10:06pm

>21 lorax:

"it was in everyday speech."

No, it was in heightened, metaphorical, patterned speech.
I suppose the argument could be made that Headley's language is heightened, metaphorical and patterned, but I find its immediate effect is to push me away.
And I like a bit of archaism with my breakfast -- say, a bowl of Pound's 'Seafarer'?

And I must protest, believe it or not, I would have the same reaction if it were translated by a guy. But I'm going to read that NYT article.


ETA... now I remember reading this back when it was published. I rather like her translation voice. No bullshit in it.
(and KD-J and ANW for parents!)


And anyways, back at >12 Crypto-Willobie:, that's just me attempting what passes for wit in my library stacks....

Set 2, 2020, 7:14pm

>21 lorax: They do draw attention, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Faux-archaic language would do the same, and add distancing - that this is something from Long Ago. Which is true. But to those who were hearing it as a tale told by firelight, it wasn't told in archaic-to-them language (even though it was still cast as a story about long ago), it was in everyday speech

I agree that being deliberately archaic can have the same effect as using slang; of course, slang often becomes outdated not long after its invention! But as >22 Crypto-Willobie: pointed out, Beowulf wasn't written in everyday speech. I downloaded a sample of Headley's translation and in the introduction she quotes Tolkien on the language of the poem:
If you wish to translate, not re-write, Beowulf, your language must be literary and traditional: not because it is now a long while since the poem was made, or because it speaks of things that have since become ancient; but because the diction of Beowulf was poetical, archaic, artificial (if you will), in the day the poem was made.
Unsurprisingly, Headley disagrees with Tolkien about how a translation should be (as do I, although maybe not to the extent she does), but she doesn't argue with his description of the original's language.

Headley's introduction gives her argument for her translation choices and I found it very interesting, even if I don't always agree. I definitely want to read her version and hope others will too, if for no other reason than it will spark lively discussion.

Editado: Out 9, 2020, 9:17am

My copy has (finally) arrived, and I am looking forward to reading it. I think Amazon.co.uk greatly underestimated how popular this would be. My order was made on September 4. If you order now delivery will be in November.

I'll be borrowing the original (with German translation) from the library so I can check things that make me curious. I used to be able to at least act as if I could read various early Germanic languages. I suspect that even that is long gone, but it should be fun.

Out 9, 2020, 11:11am

As someone who hasn't read any version of Beowulf in its entirety, I think YA novelist's Maria Dahvana Headley's retelling should not be combined with the original translations.

Headley's version is described in Amazon.com reviews as something different: "A good retelling, a poor translation". That supports what I was seeing in the examples by New Yorker, despite the journal author's attempts at comparisons.

High school teachers won't structure discussion around a reading of Headley's "revisionist translation" incorporating "feminism and social-media slang" the same as around old translations based on other old translations. Her work is contrasted against the previous translations of Beowulf, and readers will likely review them differently enough to cause confusion in discussion if they're lumped together as the same work.

The guidance in the combination system provides as an example of what should not be combined:
Edition or language differences with a significant social difference. This concept is up for debate, but I have two examples:

(1) The Kama Sutra is not the same as the The Pop-Up Kama Sutra (a remarkable assemblage of paper and thread). In theory the same text, the content is really quite different, with attending social differences.

(2) A Greek edition of Homer is not the same as an English translation. Socially, the former connects you with other Greek scholars, and should recommend other Greek-language works, not the "Classics of Western Civilization" works that the English translation does.

My thought is that Headley's Beowulf is sufficiently like that Homer example despite being available in the English language in multiple works.

Out 9, 2020, 11:12am

>25 aspirit:

Amazon.com reviews as something different: "A good retelling, a poor translation".

I would never choose to combine or not based on amazon reviews.

Out 9, 2020, 11:15am

I am curious what >24 MarthaJeanne: says after reading, though.

Also, how does Headley's The Mere Wife relate?

Editado: Out 9, 2020, 11:19am

>26 lilithcat: as a deciding factor on its own, that could be ridiculous. I included that review title to support my main point.

ETA: I'd like to believe you didn't stop reading at that line.

Out 9, 2020, 11:34am

I was convinced that combining was appropriate after attending this event: https://centerforfiction.org/videos/radical-translations-maria-dahvana-headley-e...

>27 aspirit:

The Mere Wife sets the story in contemporary suburbia. The "mere wife" is Grendel's mother. It should not be combined.

Editado: Out 9, 2020, 11:54am

Mensagem removida pelo autor.

Out 9, 2020, 11:49am

>25 aspirit: I always mention that I read a translation in my review on LT. If you mention anything in the review that is edition specific you need to make that clear.

Out 9, 2020, 11:53am

>24 MarthaJeanne: I wonder if the delay was due to popularity or just everything being delayed? I look forward to your thoughts on Headley's version.

Editado: Out 9, 2020, 11:56am

>29 lilithcat: sure, but I was considering relationships, not combinations for The Mere Wife.

>30 jjwilson61: as I pointed out, translations should usually be combined. Translations with different cultural meanings should not always be combined.

Out 9, 2020, 11:56am

>33 aspirit:

Then the relationship would be "inspired by" or "based on". (I don't do relationships very much, so I'm not sure how it's phrased.)

Editado: Out 11, 2020, 6:24pm

I got my hands on a copy of Headley's translation today so I'm now able to give an informed opinion! I'll post my review here for anyone interested in my full thoughts, but the short version is that yes, it should be combined.


Publicity materials and professional reviews of Maria Dahvana Headley's new translation of Beowulf have been using words like "radical" and "recontextualize" to describe her work, and making much of her use of modern slang. So great has been the effort to cast Headley's version as entirely different that I've been left wondering if it's so divergent that it shouldn't even be combined with other translations. Imagine my surprise when I read it and discovered it's actually a pretty standard translation.

Published reviews I've seen have chosen to quote passages showing Headley's incorporation of modern slang into the ancient poem, but this gives a false impression of most of the text. These lines spoken by Wealhtheow are much more representative of the translation:
Accept this cup from me, my lord of rings, and lift this golden goblet. Give the Geats their due. Be good to them who've been good to you. Gifts are for granting, and your hands should be open, your heart happy, even as you remember--I know you do--the good men who gave kith-gifts to you.
That's definitely modern English, and it isn't deliberately archaic or full of poetic flourishes like some translations, but it's not earth-shatteringly radical either. Headley does use modern slang in places, but she also drops in old-fashioned terms just as often; readers are as likely to come across a "swan-road" and "warp and weft" as they are a "bling" or "hashtag." Oddly, this sparing use of slang actually works less well than more liberal use would have; the effect here is like a poseur trying to sound cool by slipping in words they don't really understand.

The most radical thing about Headley's translation is her clear sympathy for the monsters. Her word choices emphasize Grendel's alienation and his mother's grief-fueled rage at the death of her son. This interpretation isn't unsupported by the text; it's just a different take from most other translations, and it certainly makes for thrilling action scenes. I must say I don't share Headley's enthusiasm for Grendel's mother: I find it hard to stir up much sympathy for someone who goes on a murder spree to avenge a son who was killed while breaking in next door so he could eat the neighbors.

To sum up:

Do I believe this version meets the LT standard for combining with other translations? Yes.

Would I recommend this version to someone looking for an epic poem with some good action in it? Maybe.

Would I recommend this version to someone looking for a good translation of Beowulf, the 1,000+ year old poem? No.

Edited to fix my inability to type.

Out 9, 2020, 9:25pm

>35 amanda4242:

Thanks so much for that.

I find it interesting that reviewers of this and other modern literary translations are bothered by the use of contemporary language. Particularly in a text this old, the translator, unless she intentionally uses archaisms, and particularly if she seeks to attract a non-academic audience, will want her readers to feel comfortable with the language, the word choices, the references. And there is nothing wrong with that.

This may be especially true with poetry, which in our age already has a couple of strikes against it with much of the reading public.

Out 27, 2020, 10:33am

I'm really enjoying reading this. As in, this is fun to read. I don't feel like I am reading something I should, or something I feel I ought to have read.

I just hunted out my old Alexander translation. I note that my record states that I read this in 2009. I certainly have no recollection of that, and trying to reread portions that I have just read in Headley's translation, I got bogged down fairly quickly.