An Appreciation of Seamus Heaney’s Translation of Beowulf

And how a first reading lead to a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mario Carlini / Iguana Press / Getty Images

Seamus Heaney, recipient of 1995 Nobel prize for Literature, attends the celebrations for the centenary of Italian author Giovanni Pascoli for University of Bologna at Archiginnasio on Apr. 3, 2012, in Bologna, Italy

I started reading Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf on the way to my first cross-country meet in 8th grade. I didn’t know anything about the story—I didn’t even know that the language printed on the other side of the English translation was even a form of English at all. What was a Beowulf? Why did my parents’ friend think this was a good birthday present?

Much later, I would learn that Heaney, a contemporary Irish poet, achieved no small measure of literary stardom with his translation of the Old English epic.

The poem begins as ambiguously as some great modernist works end: So. This is what a professor would later tell me was “an audacious swing at in medias res,” the epic tradition of beginning a tale in the middle of an action. Heaney’s so is a callous invocation to a reader; it begins the poem almost as though it were a campfire story.

Heaney’s translation was not only famously readable—like Fagles’ translations of Homer—but it took a widely under-read story and made in accessible again. The thousand-year-old saga appeared on many bestseller lists, on countless assigned reading curriculums, and could be seen just as easily on public transport as in a classroom. It tells the story of a Beowulf, the future-king who is called on by a neighboring ruler for help when a monster terrorizes his domain.

Beowulf - cover

W.W. Norton & Company

The year I read Heaney’s translations came with its own set of related disasters; I insisted on making a Halloween costume that was as dangerously armored as it was pretentious; I decided to feast like a Scandinavian king at a Thanksgiving meal, refusing to use knives and forks while eating turkey leg, leaving my parents unsure of whether they should scold me, or do nothing because at least I had gotten it from a book.

On the long bus ride to the meet I’d managed to read several hundred lines. I ran distracted that afternoon; I thought about the broad-beamed ship that rode the water, and waiting for Grendel, the monster, with whetted swords—raiding troll’s nests, night-seas and slaughtering sea brutes. There were no lotus-eaters, no sirens. There were jugs of wine, beasts, and swords.

I began hopelessly trying to crack the code that sat on the other side of the dual-language translation, and when I failed at that, I tried to read other stories, but none were the same as Beowulf. Arthur was no match for Beowulf; I even tried to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s translations of Old English texts. But I had already learned to love Beowulf as much as his soldiers did. In the fashion of a true epic hero, he did not kill for amusement, but when he had to kill, he was damn good at it.

When I had to read Beowulf translated by Burton Raffel in high school, I still read Heaney’s again, even though I was asked to use the version from the school bookstore. Heaney’s translation was shamelessly modern; it gave me pleasure to read.

To use Heaney’s own words in his translation, today readers “shall walk bereft, bowed under woe.” Will twelve warriors ride out to see Heaney’s pyre lit? Certainly not, but in 50 years there will only be one translation of the great Old English epic, and it will be his. This indeed is a “marvelous death.”

Heaney’s translation has been so successful perhaps because, more than anything else, it reminds readers that literature does not necessarily exist in a vacuum, and is not meant only for Milton’s fit, few readers.  A poem survives 1000 years not by being unreadable, but maybe instead by finding an opportunity to present itself again every so often before a new audience.  Perhaps the art of translation comes in proving that works of literature are not plastic, and there are translations that have been able to do this much, and resuscitate a text altogether. Heaney’s has certainly been one of them.

Listen to Heaney read

SEE ALSO:  The Big Surprise of Martin Luther King’s Speech