I have Beowulf on my mind again, for all sorts of reasons, but at least one of those reasons is Stephen Mitchell’s recent (2017) translation. I’m a fan of Mitchell. I relied on his translations of Rilke as my introduction to that poet, which took place long before I could read German fluently. And his Gilgamesh is astounding. No question about that. But I admit that I’ve had trouble warming up to his most recent accomplishment.
My original reticence had little to do with the translation itself, which I’ve read in patches, and find beautiful in its phrasings. It was more…the marketing. For example, at the end of the book jacket description, we get: “This new translation—spare, sinuous, vigorous in its narration, and translucent in its poetry—makes a masterpiece accessible to everyone.”
Buuuuut…I wanna cry out from the corner of my heart that loves the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf as much as I’ve ever loved anything I’ve read. The thing is…we’ve had a masterful and highly accessible translation since at least the year 2000. So what makes this translation necessary or different?
One thing I will definitely give Mitchell, based on the sections I have read throughout the work: he has got his rhythm down cold. His lines have a thrust to them that is incredibly satisfying and which never, ever gets tiring. I’ve felt a real satisfaction reading some of his translation aloud.
(By the way, another bonus of his version: he includes a pronunciation guide to all those names. Even if I never bother to read the actual translation, which is not what’s going to happen, this guide has made the purchase worthwhile for me. Because, among other pronunciation crimes, it turns out I’ve been saying Wiglaf all wrong—it’s WEE-laf. I kind of have a reason to need to know this, so this nugget of information has been particularly helpful.)
One thing I am interested in—can any one translation of a work that has been translated multiple times ever be considered definitive? I’m not sure there’s an answer to that, or at least I feel as if the answer is probably no, but I would also argue that Seamus Heaney problematized the translation of the beginning of Beowulf for every mainstream translator who comes after him.
As everyone who’s read the poem surely knows, the first word of Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon is “Hwæt.” Before Heaney, that was usually translated to “Harken/Hark!” or “Lo!” But then Heaney showed up and threw down with a masterful, understated, “So.”
Immediately, any version of “hark” or “lo” became cheesy or hopelessly old-fashioned. (And in almost fake-old-fashioned way. “So” feels contemporary, a good reminder that Beowulf was once a contemporary poem.) But post-Heaney translators probably can’t use “So,” because then their beginning would lack any unique quality. And who knows, they might be dismissed as copycats.
Mitchell finds a work around this seemingly impossible quandary by beginning his translation as follows:
“Of the strength of the Spear-Danes in days gone by
we have heard, and of their hero kings:
the prodigious deeds those princes performed!”
My contention? Everything else in the Mitchell translation that I’ve read is gorgeously written but those three lines I’ve quoted above are not that.
But then come the next three lines, and the awkward phrasing of the beginning begins to fade from memory:
“Often Scyld Scefing shattered the ranks
of hostile tribes and filled them with terror.
He began as a foundling but flourished later
and grew to glory beneath the sky…”
Mitchell has always struck me as particularly adept at employing rhythm (see the entirety of his Gilgamesh for more evidence on this point), and I’m definitely sensing the hum and lilt of his language in these lines.
Suffice it to say, I’ve gone through a bit of a journey with regards to this newest translation. I started off feeling miffed because of some of the marketing claims, then transitioned into feeling aghast by what I feel is a somewhat awkward beginning, but now find myself genuinely looking forward to carving out some time to read the whole thing from beginning to end. (And, I now know how to pronounce Wiglaf. And all the other names too.)
But I still love the Heaney translation. That’s never going to change. And may we all learn to do as much with our words as he did with his one, powerful, “So.”