Good translation is an art: Bēowulf

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As a published translator myself, I certainly strive to make my translations worthy of being considered as art.  But it isn't always an easy task.  Witness "The Tricky Art of Translation and Maria Dahvana Headley’s Modern Beowulf", CD Covington, (Mon Feb 7, 2022):

It’s not very often that a thousand-year-old poem has a new translation that gets people hyped up, at least in the Anglophone world, but Maria Dahvana Headley’s recent Hugo Award-winning translation of Beowulf stirred up a lot of interest—there’s even a video series of writers and entertainers reading it out loud. (Alan Cumming’s section is excellent—he really knows his way around alliterative verse.)

Translation is a surprisingly controversial field. One might think “oh, you just take these words and turn them into these other words, how’s that so hard?” But the reality of translation isn’t quite that simple or straightforward. The translator has to decide how they’re going to translate some things, such as cultural references. You’re probably familiar with the Pokémon anime series. There’s a scene where Brock is eating rice balls (onigiri), and the US dub calls them “jelly donuts.” This is widely seen as an absurd choice, because onigiri look nothing like donuts and don’t even really fill the same gustatory niche. However, the target demographic for the show is elementary school kids, regardless of what other demographics also watch it. The average (probably White) first grader isn’t going to pay that much attention, or even really care, the logic goes, so why not use something American instead? That in turn raises the question of whether this is cultural homogenization or some other type of racism, and now the whole translation question doesn’t look so simple, does it?

For an example of localization that works spectacularly for our purposes, take the Ace Attorney video games. They star a man named Phoenix Wright and his rival Miles Edgeworth, and the witnesses in their cases have names like Larry Butz. Edgeworth has a paralyzing fear of earthquakes. They’re given a vaguely Californian setting in the US version. The original Japanese names of the rival attorneys are Naruhodo Ryuichi and Mitsurugi Reiji, and the game is FULL of puns and word-play. When Capcom brought the game to the English market, they had to make these puns make sense, or the players wouldn’t enjoy the games. Naruhodo means “I understand” or “I get it,” so the localization team went with Wright (right?), and the characters used to write Mitsurugi include “sword,” so: Edge-worth.

Beowulf, as you may remember from high school, is the oldest English-language epic poem that we know of and tells the story of the hero Beowulf, who comes to Heorot Hall to save the people there from the Grendel, a monster who attacks people while they sleep. Then Grendel’s mother attacks and Beowulf kills her, too. The original text is in Old English in the heroic epic style, which in the Germanic languages means alliterative verse. 

There are a lot of specific types of alliteration used in Germanic verse, which I won’t go into, but there’s a nice Wikipedia article on it if you’re interested. But here are the highlights: The first stressed syllable will alliterate with another stressed syllable in the same half-line and with one or two in the subsequent half-line. There can be more alliteration in a line than this, and it may also go across lines, but there will always be at least one alliterated syllable on each half-line. Modern English speakers still find alliteration pleasing and poetic, and we still use it, but not in the same way as Germanic alliterative verse. [Side note: all of Tolkien’s songs of the Rohirrim are in alliterative verse. Dude knew what he was about.]

This is relevant to the question at hand, because when a modern English speaker decides to translate Old English poetry, they have to decide what to do about the underlying alliterative structure. They also have to decide whether to try to retain the original meter or not, and whether to use verse or prose . Because Old English had extensive case markings on nouns and adjectives, it didn’t rely as much on word order as modern English does to convey information, which means the poets could swap things around to make the alliteration or meter work in ways which would sound wrong today.

So, what Headley decided to do with her translation was to make it modern by using modern slang, mostly bro-speak, to recontextualize it for the modern reader. Probably the most talked-about translation choice she made was to use “Bro!” for the Old English “Hwæt.” The word, pronounced pretty much like it looks—rhymes with “at”—means “what,” but in this context, i.e. the opening of an epic poem, it serves the function of getting the listener’s attention: “Listen! I’m about to sing a song.” So when Headley opted for “Bro!” here, she drew on a modern reader’s knowledge of the various ways people start telling stories. She could have gone with “Hey!” or “So” (Seamus Heaney’s choice) or “Yo” or even “Listen up!” and each of these choices would reflect a particular style. (Imagine “So, back in the old days, we spear-Danes used to know the stories of princes and kings.”) One of the things I appreciated about Headley’s translation was that she kept alliteration and kennings when it was possible, even as she threw in modernisms like “hashtag blessed.” A kenning is a short phrase that is a metaphor for something else, like “the whale-road” for the sea. Poets could use these to make the alliteration or meter work, and they sound pretty cool. You could even say that phrases like trash panda (raccoon) or danger noodle (snake) are modern kennings.

Headley says in her introduction that she is as interested in the archaic as in the modern, so she wanted to preserve the original feel. This means sometimes she invented new kennings, and sometimes used the original ones. Sometimes it didn’t work for me, whether because it felt forced or just that the whiplike snap of anachronism was too much. Here are some examples of things that didn’t work for me.

(19-20) We all know a boy can’t daddy until his daddy’s dead.

I don’t have “daddy” as a verb in my mental lexicon, and all I can think about is how tumblr uses daddy, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what’s intended here.

(236 ff) How dare you come to Denmark costumed for war? Chain mail and swords?! There’s a dress code! You’re denied.

Here, the border guard is accosting Beowulf and company, and he’s treated like a bouncer at a club. It feels forced to me.

(802-803) His spells warded him, annealing his skin.

Anachronism whiplash on this one.

On the other hand, here are some that I thought were excellent:

(101-102) Grendel was the name of this woe-walker, unlucky, fucked by fate.

Woe-walker is a great use of kennings (which, as noted, allow the poet to provide alliteration where otherwise would be difficult), and, yes, “fucked” is one of those Modern Words but really it isn’t, so the vulgarity here works.

(29-30) back when mind and meter could merge in his mouth

This is a really cool image AND a good example of alliteration.

(845 ff) He’d left a river of gore, and the warriors had no regrets, imagining him dropping, a doomed carcass, into those wicked waters, which even now were blood-clotted, scarlet drifts. O, the gift of this! That devil-diver, deep in the dark, dimmer, and dimmer yet, dying, dying, dead!

This. I just. Wow. This is a beautiful mix of archaic and modern, and it’s just so well done. In the reading linked above, it’s in Alan Cumming’s section, and you all need to hear him read this.

Question:  Is Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of Beowulf good — because of or in spite of her use of modern slang?


Selected readings

[h.t. Mark Metcalf]


  1. Jon Lennox said,

    February 20, 2022 @ 11:47 pm

    I recommend (for those who know the idiom of Yiddish-inflected English) Dov Velvel, inspired by the observation that the Yiddish (and Yinglish) "nu" can fill much the same role as "hwæt".

  2. Peter Taylor said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 6:15 am

    What's the anachronism whiplash in "His spells warded him, annealing his skin"? Annealing as a process probably goes back to the bronze age, and as a word it goes back to Old English. Etymonline claims that

    Meaning "to treat by heating and gradually cooling" (of glass, earthenware, metals, etc., to toughen them) was in late Old English"

    Am I missing something and there's a word in there which wasn't in Old English?

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 6:59 am

    "That [onigiri -> "jelly doughnuts"] in turn raises the question of whether this is cultural homogenization or some other type of racism". While I regard the replacement of onigiri by "jelly doughnuts" as misguided, unnecessary, condescending and patently abrogating the responsibility to educate and inform, I am not convinced that "cultural homogenisation" is any form of racism, and even more unconvinced that there was any racism, of any type, in this misguided linguistic replacement. It was simply stupidity.

  4. ardj said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 7:10 am

    I am not clear why "fucked by fate" is even there: "cursed Cain-kin" I could understand, but it was not fate, rather the creator who decided the future of Cain's offspring and friends. Similarly, I am puzzled by the addition (? – not in my text) of "the gift of this!" to an otherwise largely serviceable description of Grendel's last swim.

  5. Linda said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 7:11 am

    @Peter Taylor

    It was "warded" that gave me pause. I had to work it back to a synonym for protected.

  6. Andrew Brown said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 7:32 am

    As someone who waded into Beowulf unhappily more than once I found Headley's version of the poem very welcome. (I listened to it as an audio book walking and wending in winter woods, mostly.) I can't speak for any textual inaccuracies, but her portrayal of Meade-soaked bros really did ring true at a deeper level. As did her characterization of Grendel's mother – whose re-writing was a main motivation of hers. There is no perfect translation, and if you want the historical artifact, I'm sure there's lots to dislike here. If you want a poem that grabs rather than bores – as it presumably did in its time, then I'd recommend this one.

  7. CD Covington said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 9:17 am

    OP here. Annealing (the word) was entirely too modern for me. I didn't go and check the etymology, let alone the history of metalworking, when I read it. It felt wrong. Perhaps anachronism whiplash was the wrong phrasing, but it didn't work for me.

    Overwriting another culture, especially one that is minoritized in the region where localization is occurring, is kina pretty much definitionally racism, bruh. Whether the studio heads in charge of US Pokemon were actively rubbing their hands together and saying "mwahahaha how can we do a racism today?" (which, obviously, they weren't), it's a US studio's decision to erase an aspect of Japanese culture to make it more palatable to kids in the US (because OBVS there aren't any Japanese-American kids who might watch the show) that's part of the systemic racism in the US.

  8. Scott P. said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 9:27 am

    I am not clear why "fucked by fate" is even there: "cursed Cain-kin" I could understand, but it was not fate, rather the creator who decided the future of Cain's offspring and friends.

    Would your average early medieval Saxon have much cause to distinguish the two?

  9. KeithB said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 9:31 am

    I wonder what Tolkien would have thought:

    I suspect he might have approved, but he could be a bit fussy and uptight.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 9:54 am

    "it's a US studio's decision to erase an aspect of Japanese culture to make it more palatable to kids in the US" — your view, Mr Covington; what they might, in fact, have been doing is trying to make their content more accessible to children unfamiliar with Japanese culture. Do I approve ? No, for the reasons I have outlined above (a failure to seek to educate and inform). Was it racism ? A clear "no".

  11. Rodger C said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 10:21 am

    Speaking of Tolkien, everyone who's read him knows that when Sir Gawain was out questing, "etyns aneleden him."

  12. Tim Morris said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 10:24 am

    I remarked of Stanley Lombardo's Iliad that "if your translation of the classics doesn't sound too colloquial, it probably isn't colloquial enough." The risk is that colloquialisms come and go. "Bro!" may sound perfect in 2022, but by the 2030s it may sound very 2010s and date the translation severely. But what of it – someone else can make a new translation then.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 21, 2022 @ 10:30 am

    CD Covington: I see no objection to finding that a word feels wrong and saying so, but how could someone with a degree in linguistics not have looked up the history of metalworking or at least the etymology of "anneal"? Incidentally, it's apparently a lot more specific than the original, which in literal translations such as this one just says weapons wouldn't "greet" Grendel and add that he had forsworn weapons.

    Referring to overwriting one word in one show as "overwriting another culture" is kinda definitionally wild exaggeration, sis. (Sorry, I don't know a female equivalent of "bruh", unless that's it.) There's much, much more to say about your claim of racism, but I don't have time.

  14. David Marjanović said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 6:10 am

    Probably the most talked-about translation choice she made was to use “Bro!” for the Old English “Hwæt.” The word, pronounced pretty much like it looks—rhymes with “at”—means “what,” but in this context, i.e. the opening of an epic poem, it serves the function of getting the listener’s attention: “Listen! I’m about to sing a song.”

    Insert my usual rant here about how I continue to fail to see any reason to punctuate the original text that way. Why can't it start with a rhetorical question?

    "What have[n't] we heard about the Spear-Danes […]!"

    In German, you don't even need the negation.

    Was wir schon alles über die Speer-Dänen […] gehört haben[, expected independent clause left off as redundant]!

    Works beautifully, and note the word order.

  15. unekdoud said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 10:21 am

    Pokemon themselves are very interesting for localization: since most of the hundreds of them have a thematic portmanteau name that doesn't translate out of Japanese, a different combination is used in English, another in Chinese, another in Korean, another in German…

  16. Jason said,

    February 22, 2022 @ 9:15 pm

    This translation looks as gauche and cringeworthy in its attempt to be with-it as Baz Luhrmann's horrifically dated MTV version of Romeo and Juliet. Tolkien may have been an stodgy old fusspot over language, but at least he had enough respect for the source material to make Old English feel like Old English.

  17. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 8:52 am

    It seems there's a common-sense view, but one of the linguists (or wanna-be linguists like me) can jump in an correct me where I'm wrong:

    When you're reading something like Beowulf or the Iliad or the Decameron, the more you can step into the mind of the author, the more you can have a real, genuine semiosis between reader and author. If I can't "inhabit" the world(view) of the Homeric Greek, if I'm looking at the burial rite from the 21st century "functional" or "ceremonial" perspective, I spend a lot of time puzzling over what's going on.

    I guess the point is that any language that can "nudge" me back into the author's world, or perhaps knock me out of my own, is language that is useful to appreciation of the text.

    When I hear "bro", I reference my "frat culture" library, not my "Anglo-Saxon culture" library, and it's harder for me to appreciate what the text wants me to appreciate, and, apart from, say, a superficial similarity between Heorot and the frat house, it's not _helpful_ for a translator to "nudge" me in that direction.

  18. ardj said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 1:12 pm

    @Scott P.

    Fate or creator – “Would your average early medieval Saxon have much cause to distinguish the two?”

    Leaving aside when the Middle Ages may have started (and how one spells mediaeval), the text also speaks in the same breath of the eternal lord, the ruler and god. The introduction of fate is perhaps misplaced. I suggest it was merely to allow the alliteration with “fucked” – after all, if one is going to do something as daring as writing in bro-speak, then why not make the whole thing as charmless as possible ? That, surely, “preserves the original feel”.

    Of course, my acquaintance with this strange patois is limited to chance remarks, here and there, and Beards, Bears and Brian’s excellent introduction, so I may be doing Headley an injustice. But not, I suspect, very much.

  19. Terpomo said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 2:44 pm

    Honestly every minute I spend thinking deeply about translation just convinces me more and more that translation is basically impossible and I'll have to learn every language if I want to really appreciate the world's literature. But then, I'm the sort of person who wants to learn every language anyway; it's just a shame I only have so much time and mental energy.

  20. Alyssa said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 10:10 pm

    "The average (probably White) first grader isn’t going to pay that much attention, or even really care, the logic goes, so why not use something American instead?"
    That's selling the translators short I think. At that point in time, the average American first grader would have had no idea what an onigiri was. "Rice balls" isn't really any more enlightening, and sounds very unappetizing. "Jelly donuts" is silly but at least conveys that it's a food that a kid might want to eat.

  21. Andrew Usher said,

    February 23, 2022 @ 10:55 pm

    I would question if this is even a proper translation. I have no intent to read it anyway as I consider Beowulf to be of historical interest only and surely _this_ is not the version to use for historical purposes! The admission that Grendel's mother has been re-written in a feminist manner really doesn't help either.

    Mixing archaisms into the modern slang she uses doesn't improve it, it just makes it more weird. This review's author got it completely wrong about the 'annealed' line: it's actually an archaism, with the used of 'warded' for 'guarded' and 'annealed' in the broader sense it once had, not the modern sense that would not apply to skin.

    It would seem Headley is capable of making a good translation, but did not choose to. At least, by any reasonable standards of translation.

    k_over_hbarc at

  22. Rodger C said,

    February 24, 2022 @ 10:43 am

    Arms and the man I sing, who, fucked by fate
    And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate …

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