Review: Beowulf: A New Verse-Translation, by Seamus Heaney

Beowulf: A New Verse-Translation, by Seamus Heaney
Reviewed by A.Z. Foreman

Heaney's Beowulf is a more or less passable poem, all told. It has its strong passages, its unforgivably dull ones, and a few that leave me baffled as to how someone could be that bad without actually trying to suck. Moreover, the flaws of his translation, which haven't been discussed by most print-reviewers in the way they should be, and his general inadequacy to the translational task overshadow the books merits almost totally.

But let me try and begin on a high note (god knows I'll have a hard time ending on one.) There are passages, particularly those containing dramatic dialogue and those whose main virtue is narrative, where Heaney is at his best. Here, it seems to me that the need to stick to the motion of the original text prevents him from dithering on dullness as he so often does in his original work (except where the original is dull. But that's not his fault.) Just look at the following passage where Beowulf and his battle-band first cross the ocean into Denmark:

Time went by, the boat was on water,
in close under the cliffs.
Men climbed eagerly up the gangplank,
sand churned in surf, warriors loaded
a cargo of weapons, shining war-gear
in the vessel's hold, then heaved out,
away with a will in their wood-wreathed ship.
Over the waves, with the wind behind her
and foam at her neck, she flew like a bird
until her curved prow had covered the distance
and on the following day, at the due hours
those seafarers sighted land,
sunlit cliffs, sheer crags
and looming headlands, the landfall they sought.
It was the end of their voyage and the Geats vaulted
over the side, out on to the sand,
and moored their ship. There was a clash of mail
and a thresh of gear. They thanked God
for that easy crossing on a calm sea.


Fyrst forð gewāt: flota wæs on ȳðum,
bāt under beorge. Beornas gearwe
on stefn stigon; strēamas wundon
sund wið sande; secgas bǣron
on bearm nacan beorhte frætwe,
gūð‐searo geatolīc; guman ūt scufon,
weras on wil‐sīð wudu bundenne.
Gewāt þā ofer wǣg‐holm winde gefȳsed
flota fāmig‐heals fugle gelīcost,
oð þæt ymb ān‐tīd ōðres dōgores
wunden‐stefna gewaden hæfde,
þæt þā līðende land gesāwon,
brim‐clifu blīcan, beorgas stēape,
sīde sǣ‐næssas: þā wæs sund liden,
eoletes æt ende. Þanon up hraðe
Wedera lēode on wang stigon,
sǣ‐wudu sǣldon (syrcan hrysedon,
gūð‐gewǣdo); gode þancedon,
þæs þe him ȳð‐lāde ēaðe wurdon.

The one issue (aside from one or two clichés for which the original is just as much to blame as Heaney) I might have is the gussying of wudu bundenne as "wood-wreathed." Though Beowulf is rife with poeticisms, this isn't really one of them. It is merely a reference to shipbuilding practice back there and back then: likely ships built with overlapping strakes, narrowing toward the front and back, which were bound (and not "wreathed") together with metal rivets. Alternatively, one could read this as a reference to planks of a ship lashed together with bast rope. In any event, that bunden is nothing so ornate as "wreathed" is further evidenced by the use of the word bundenstefna to describe a ship with a tightly bound prow, and also the adjective bundenheord to describe a person with hair bound up in a bun.

Though this gaffe is in the grand scheme of things trivial, it is symptomatic of what ultimately becomes a major problem as I'll show later. Heaney's disregard for the social and material culture of the people who constituted Beowulf's intended audience. Moreover, even this well-executed passage gives us nothing that we couldn't get from untranslated Modern English verse. This all brings us to the main topic of this review: how many ways Heaney has thoroughly fucked up.
[Note well: this is a snark-sprinkled essay. Meaning that my random, indecorous, irreverent asides of varying relevance and maturity may be found in blue in brackets. Sometimes, I'm just screwing around and going off topic to take a break from the linear thought process forced upon me by the essay format, sometimes it's to take a moment for extended hyperbole and sometimes I'm just blowing a verbal cylinder over Heaney's behavior. .]

The question I have to ask is: why another Beowulf translation? A new one has come out once every two or three years since the beginning of the 20th century. It's a literary treadmill, an autobahn to nowhere. This is quite unlike even the state of affairs with Homer, Virgil, Dante, where one translation will remain the "definitive" version for a decade or two before the world decides to definitely redefine the definitiveness.
[snarky comment: though often with Dante, all that happens is that some schmuck wants to inject some silicone into their CV and boost their cachet via the slight aroma of highbrowness which they hope to exude upon becoming a "Translator of a Classic", even though the classic in question has been so victimized by centuries of overanalysis and overtranslation, in a tradition they don't even know how to question, that they have all of the actual intellectual gruntwork done for them already- so that all the new translator really has to produce is creative paraphrase of others' work. Inferno-translator Robert Pinsky is a case in point who, when talking about his language proficiency, could only say "I did pass an exam in Italian once on the basis of having studied Latin and Spanish." And he admitted something close to the truth when he said "I don't think of myself. as a translator...really I'm a metrical engineer. I'm an extremely good metrical engineer." It would have been even closer to the truth had he omitted the word "extremely." I do wonder though how Pinsky manages to rationalize his posture as a "working class poet" after producing the 66746985356th translation of the Inferno. Thank god for Dante though. Otherwise many more than the current handful would be pressured to go for things not available in English- and then they'd be in a position of (GASP!) actually needing a reading-knowledge of the original language. But then, this is probably all moot, since the only definition I can think of for "a classic" which applies to most books so titled is "a text which everyone quotes lovingly, and everyone had to read grudgingly."]

So, again, why the perennial translational tsunami of Beowulf? My guess would be: Beowulf is much, much shorter and therefore seems less daunting. Just so I suspect this to be the reason why translators of Dante often stop at the end of the Inferno. It was just Dante's bad luck for the first part of his trilogy to be the weakest.

However, in all honesty and fairness, this is not true of Heaney. Heaney, in fact, was commissioned by Norton to produce a version of Beowulf for their anthology, geared toward undergrads without a background in early English. Why Norton couldn't just pick one of the hundreds in existence, I do not know. Why they chose Heaney of all people to spit out a new one, I probably don't want to know.

One thing I really wish I didn't know is the fellatric level of praise most reviewers gave Heaney's product. Most reviewers had no knowledge of Old English and simply gave it a servicing as a new work by a Nobel Laureate. Hell, even those reviewers who knew Old English gave it their best effort at hagiography. (Mind you, the only exceptions were Anglo-Saxon scholars who often seemed miffed at the translation for just not being Old English. Their objections are seldom of a purely literary nature, but constitute another iteration in the long history of attempts to deligitimize the very practice of literary translation.)

The situation would be quite other had Heaney not been placed in that literary Trojan Horse which is the Nobel Prize. The thing I hate about the Nobel Prize in literature (aside from the fact that it is usually given to really bad writers these days) is that the one who receives it is often accorded the status of literary guru and so anything they produce has to be top-notch almost by axiom, whereas anyone who doesn't think so has some explaining to do. For example I know that some readers are ready to discount this review as worthless if it doesn't recognize Heaney's greatness as a poet.

In fact, Seamus Heaney, having been bequeathed the million-dollar literary prophethood by a committee of would-be Gabriels in Stockholm on his own personal night of destiny, is a prime example of this kind of crap. His literary productions are often (though not always) revered regardless of how weak or strong they may in fact be, people are reluctant to give him bad reviews, his stature as a man of letters is sealed with a titanium lock, and his pronouncements on what is or isn't poetically valuable are accorded a veritably Qur'anic level of unquestionability.

Beowulf is a poem I love, and Old English is a language which has over time profoundly endeared itself to me. (This, by the way, is thanks in no small measure to the fact that the woman who taught me Old English was one of the most easy-going, patient, reasonable and accommodating professors I ever had. Even though I only got reasonably good at OE long after I studied under her, I would never have done so had she not instilled in me a sense of why she so enjoyed it. Oh and she deserves a medal for putting up with all my callow undergrad slackery and still taking me seriously.)

My fondness for the techniques employed in the Old English Beowulf, and for the Old English poetic style in general, is what makes Saemus Heaney's Beowulf so irritating, depressing, amusing and alarming to me, for all its many merits. Heaney's production is an English poem written by an Irishman- but no more than that (and often only barely that.) In our age and culture, when verse has been taught not to put on airs, this means that Heaney prefers "to let the natural sound of sense prevail over the demands of the convention" and has been "reluctant to force an artificial shape or an unusual word choice" because "what I was after first and foremost was a narrative line that sounded as if it meant business, and I was prepared to sacrifice other things in pursuit of this directness of utterance."

Modern Western literary culture is rather unusual in the earnestness of its presumption that poetry is best when plainspoken or unadorned. We often act like it's some kind of aesthetic universal. By shoehorning a 1000 year old poem into this rather idiosyncratic way of thinking, Heaney himself admits that "the appositional nature of the Old English syntax is somewhat slighted, as is the poet's resourcefulness with synonyms" which is kind of like saying WWII was a bit of a tiff. What he seems not to realize is the degree to which this kind of erasure vitiates his entire enterprise. By refusing to operate outside the accepted bounds of what modern English-speakers expect from (contemporary) narrative poetry he is refusing to give the reader anything that he/she can't get from untranslated Modern English narrative verse (such as it is.) There's no reason not to read, say, Vikram Seth's "Golden Gate" instead of Heaney's Beowulf
[snarky comment: except that because Beowulf is old and has been gilded with that hilarious title of "classic", the latter will usually seem more high-brow and therefore a more appropriate payload-delivery system for the weapons-grade sadism which bad highschool teachers need to deploy in order to help the forces of schooling successfully carpet-bomb the forces of education. So at least Heaney's got prejudice and tradition going for him.]

Heaney's Beowulf gives us nothing new (at least, nothing new worth a damn.) And that is the worst way for a translation to fail. The original text of any literary work is by hypothesis something new if it justifies the translator's or the reader's attention. To appreciate the gravity of this kind of literary narcissism and self-castration, one need only put one of the more typical passages from Heaney's Beowulf beside some lines of Ezra Pound's transmogrification of the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Seafarer" of which Pound's editor Hugh Kenner has said "other translators of Anglo-Saxon verse have been content to take the English language as they found it...Pound has had both the boldness and resource to make a new form....which permanently extends the bounds of English verse." Behold Pound's versioning:

Ne biþ him tō hearpan hyge ne tō hringþege,
ne tō wīfe wyn ne tō worulde hyht,
ne ymbe ōwiht elles, nefne ymb ȳða gewealc,
ac ā hafað longunge se þe on lagu fundað.

He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having
Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world's delight
Nor any whit else save the wave's slash,
Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water.

(Sure, one might not know what ring-having is. But any more paraphrastic rendering would probably be an approximation that misses the expression's rightness in context.) Often one hears from scholars/reviewers/philologists/sorry-excuses-for-the-above things to the effect that "Modern English poetry simply cannot match the clangorous magnificence of the Old English." This is a fallacy best described as "bullshit by lack of imagination."

Now a passage from Heaney's Beowulf.

Bēow wæs brēme (blǣd wīde sprang),
Scyldes eafera Scedelandum in.
Swā sceal geong guma, gōde gewyrcean,
fromum feoh‐giftum on fæder wine,
þæt hine on ylde eft gewunigen
wil‐gesīðas, þonne wīg cume,
lēode gelǣsten: lof‐dǣdum sceal
in mǣgða gehwǣre man geþēon.

Him þā Scyld gewāt tō gescæp‐hwīle
fela‐hrōr fēran on frēan wǣre;
hī hyne þā ætbǣron tō brimes faroðe.
swǣse gesīðas, swā hē selfa bæd,
þenden wordum wēold wine Scyldinga,
lēof land‐fruma lange āhte.

Shield had fathered a famous son
Beow's name was known through the north.
And a young prince must be prudent like that,
giving freely while his father lives
so that afterwards in age when fighting starts
steadfast companions will stand by him
and hold the line. Behaviour that's admired
is the path to power among people everywhere.

Shield was still thriving when his time came
And he crossed over into the lord's keeping.
His warrior band did what he bade them
when he laid down the law among the Danes

Plainspoken, sure. But at a cost that constitutes a con. Interesting phrases like wordum wēold "He ruled by words" are replaced by outright clichés like "he laid down the law". So too "Hold the line", "stand by him" are likewise empty clichés whose effect is merely to slander the much better-phrased original. The opening lines "Shield had fathered a famous son/ Beow's name was known through the North" are not only bad verse, but bespeak a bad understanding of the Old English. Scedeland does not mean "the north" at all. It is a place-name which, depending on when and where it is used can describe Scandinavia generally, the southern tip of the peninsula, or more broadly any area under Danish rule. Sometimes the word "Northlands" or "the lands of the north" is used to translate this word when found in Old English texts, for lack of a more apposite, less anachronistic toponym. But "known through the north", which reduces it all to a mere thataway, is absolutely unacceptable. So far removed is the sense of Heaney's English from the original, that I actually am not quite sure what he was thinking (maybe it's my mistake to assume he was thinking at all.) At best, he just made a lobotomized translation-choice based on geographical position, without realizing how much of a howling stinker that choice was (a translation isn't much good if only telepaths would get what you're trying to convey.) At worst, Heaney wasn't even reading the Old English at all, but simply saw, say, the term "Northlands" in some prose translation, and went with "the north" without ever knowing what the hell he was doing, or how hilarious it was to replace a culturally, politically and historically charged proper noun with a compass-point that could just as easily refer to the location of Santa's headquarters. The line as he has it now ("known through the north") just makes me wonder if the south just didn't get the memo, or if they just don't trust those uppity fancy-talking yankees.

And that's not all that's unforgivable in those lines. Even a sedately fastidious prose rendering of these lines captures more grandure than Heaney's flaccid, thin, unsatisfying, impotent poetastry: "Beow was famed, the glory of the son of Scyld spread wide through the Northlands".

Another thing that really steps on the dick of sanity is the phrase "Behavior that's admired/ is the path to power among people everywhere." The English as Heaney has it is essentially a machiavellian statement of the no-shit-sherlock obvious, the maxim of politicos, social climbers, and others whose nose can never be too brown. Nothing could be farther from the intent or tone of the Old English, whose literal translation is "In every tribe/clan, a man must prosper through praiseworthy deeds." It is a statement embodying a key aspect of what ancient Anglo-Saxon culture considered a social virtue i.e. the reciprocity between a lord and his men: the value of a lord's generosity and benevolent (read: praiseworthy) treatment of his men, and the reciprocal steadfastness and loyalty of those men (via praiseworthy deeds) in times of adversity i.e shortage or battle.

Heaney's version of the above-quoted lines is in fact so bad that one could be forgiven for thinking him a parodist rather than a translator. But no, he's not a parodist. He's just a hit-and-miss poet who knows less about Ancient Anglo-Saxon language and culture than Michael Moore knows about the serving size on a box of Oreos. And remember that this is a poem Heaney claims to love!!! What the hell?

For reasons such as those demonstrated above I am somewhat incredulous of Heaney's claim in the introduction that he has "studied Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems and developed not only a feel for the language but a fondness for the melancholy and fortitude that characterized the poetry." It stinks of literary posturing or self-delusion. If he had indeed developed such a feel, he would have been well advised to put it into practice, instead of things like the above passage, which constitute an active assault against OE literature.

Then there is his fanciful, distracting and intellectually flaccid attempt to triangulate his relationship to Beowulf within the linguistic mental universe of an Anglophone Irishman. The result is not Beowulf, but rather an off-brand, half-price substitute- a translation so overwhelmed by the translator's personality, baggage and personal issues that, instead of dressing up as the original, he has dressed the original up as himself. And Heaney oftentimes just isn't worth dressing up as, except maybe on Halloween as a gag.

Heaney's translation, in large measure, is to Beowulf what blackface is to black people. Much of it is simply apathetic to Old English literary achievements. Mind you, I'm not saying that fanciful departures from a text's method or meaning are always to be avoided. But such departures should be in the service of the text and motivated by those qualities that make the text worth translating, rather than a way for the translator to get in touch with his/herself, as it seems to have been for Heaney, or, as he called it, "a kind of aural antidote, a way of ensuring that my linguistic anchor would stay lodged on the Anglo-Saxon sea-floor" He seems to think this is all relevant for the following reasons, excerpted from his introduction:
the erotics of composition are essential to the process, some pre-reflective excitation and orientation, some sense that your own little verse-craft can dock safe and sound at the big quay of the language. And this is as true for translators as it is for poets attempting original work....to find the tuning fork that will give you the note and pitch for the overall music of the work. Without some melody sensed or promised, it is simply impossible for a poet to establish the translator's right-of-way into and through a text. I was therefore lucky to hear this enabling note almost straight away, a familiar local voice, one that had belonged to relatives of my father's, people whom I had once described (punning on their surname) as "big-voiced Scullions." I called them "big-voiced" because when the men of the family spoke, the words they uttered came across with a weighty distinctness, phonetic units as separate and defined as delph platters displayed on a dresser shelf. A simple sentence such as "We cut the corn today" took on immense dignity when one of the Scullions spoke it.. They had a kind of Native American solemnity of utterance, as if they were announcing verdicts rather than small talk. And when I came to ask myself how I wanted Beowulf to sound in my version, I realized I wanted it to be speakable by one of those relatives. I therefore tried to frame the famous opening lines in cadences that would have suited their voices, but that still echoed with the sound and sense of the Anglo-Saxon
[Snarky comment: What the hell? I mean, I'm glad Heaney found an emotional inroad to the text without breaking his delicate little psyche (though I'm still not sure why I, or any of the thousands of other readers who are neither North Irish nor Heaney's life-coach, am supposed to care) but that doesn't give him license to recycle western myths about the creative process (scholars familiar with the development of Classical Chinese poetic theory, or the history of pre-modern Arabic poetry know just how culturally parochial it is to take as axiomatic that no poet ever wrote a masterpiece by sheer force of will. The thousands of Chinese poets of the Tang dynasty are all shitting in their graves. Just as a thousand monkeys are shitting at the back of my mind right now) or to presume to speak for all translators no matter what their methodology (many poets, including Octavio Paz and, incidentally, yours truly, experience translation as a different process þ original work in every major way), or for that matter to hock up an ethnic stereotype of "Native American solemnity" and then spit it at the reader. HEY SHAMELESS PALEFACE HEANEY, is your model for Native American behavior drawn exclusively from the Lone Ranger's injun sidekick? Or have you diversified to include the Disney portrayal of Chief Powhatan and Commander Chakotay on Star Trek Voyager? Either way, Heaney, would you mind getting your Native American behavioral info from somewhere outside Hollywood? And no, games of cowboys-and-indians don't count. And no, neither do strippers dressed as Pocahantas. The only way this racialized cliché could be any more a quintessence of the should-be-dead white male, would be if you included the lyrics to "What makes a red man red" in a footnote, or translated Grendel's mother as "Squaw". But then I'd have to scalp you myself, to complete this cartoon.
Speaking of which, where does Heaney get off foisting cliché images on the reader?...Poetry as music to be played in tune..... The ship of verse. Yeesh. What next? A woman's cheek like a rose? Love like a fire in the heart? Large human penises akin to those of livestock? And this in the introduction to his verse-translation! That's like starting off a stand-up routine with a series of age-cold knocknock jokes. Oh, and I'm glad he specified both the "note AND pitch for the overall music." Cause otherwise I would have thought he meant one of those musical notes that don't carry pitch. Oh, wait. THOSE DON'T EXIST. But then, Heaney's own poetry is so often abusively unmusical that he just might be daft enough not to be able to tell the difference between actual musicality and three drunk Irishmen just slurring a whisper of "99 bottles of beer on the wall" before falling off the barstool and congratulating one another on the Irish-green hue of their vomit.
Hey, if Heaney can have his solemn Native Americans incapable of small talk, then I can have my hilariously drunk Irish stereotype. There's no reason why I can't give him a good dose of the golden rule while I'm dosing myself up with enough Jack Daniels to be able to get through this nutjob introduction of his.
Mind you, I'm harping on such punctilios because Heaney claims to be a poet, and language is the poet's business. Just as I'd make fun of a professional musician playing twinkle-twinkle-little-star on a recorder, so too does Heaney's dull or tired language, his disregard for linguistic aesthetics or perhaps even inability to wield language in an aesthetically respectable way in this context, entitle me to have some fun at Heaney's expense. After being subjected to a Beowulf that renders Scedeland with a compass direction and transforms a cultural maxim of mutual reliance into a platitude unworthy of even the most desperate fortune cookie (to say nothing of the introduction's gutpunchingly bad prose and intellectual listlessness) I've earned it.]

All sportful skewering aside, what's really going on here is that Heaney is part translator, part cultural kidnapper, and part hopelessly parochial. He cannot, and does not seem to really wish to, get over his issues of Irish/English identity. Heaney gives a good deal of information about his personal relationship to Old English. After finding the project difficult, he says

Even so, I had an instinct that it should not be let go. An understanding I had worked out for myself concerning my own linguistic and literary origins made me reluctant to abandon the task. I had noticed, for example, that without any conscious intent on my part certain lines in the first poem in my first book conformed to the requirements of Anglo-Saxon metrics. These lines were made up of two balancing halves, each half containing two stressed syllables-"The spade sinks into gravelly ground: / My father digging. I look down .. ."-and in the case of the second line there was alliteration linking "digging" and "down" across the caesura. Part of me, in other words, had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start.... I suppose all I am saying is that I consider Beowulf to be part of my voice-right

[snarky comment: Neither of the lines mentioned here actually "conform to the requirements of Anglo-Saxon metrics." The first one has two different alliterative sounds on each half of the caesura, not something allowed by Anglo-Saxon metrical practice. As for the second, the fourth stressed syllable cannot be part of the line's alliterative pattern. I'm not trying to be a metrical schoolmarm or anything, but has Heaney so much as googled "Anglo-Saxon metrics"? What is he saying this for?] Then he goes into a thing about how a lecture on the Irish etymology of the English word "whiskey" offered him a vision of "some unpartitioned linguistic country, a region where one's language would not be simply a badge of ethnicity or a matter of cultural preference or an official imposition, but an entry into further language." Whatever. That's just a whole new kind of stupid that I don't want to get into.

Then he discovered þolian "to endure" in the Glossary to Beowulf and realized it was

the word that older and less educated people would have used in the country where I grew up. "They'll just have to learn to thole," my aunt would say about some family who had suffered an unforeseen bereavement. And now suddenly here was "thole" in the official textual world, mediated through the apparatus of a a scholarly edition, a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt's language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage.

And believe it or not, "thole" is the word used to translate þolian in Heaney's version. What I have a problem with here is not just the quasi-mystical approach to language. (Hey, Heaney's religion is his own business after all.) Rather, I have a problem with Heaney's logic insulting my intelligence. By using words like "thole" which are not known to people who don't speak Heaney's version of English, he is not undoing the cultural straightjacket as he professes. There is no linguistic at-onement. Rather, he is reinforcing cultural determinism. He claims to have used such words judiciously and only when one "presented itself uncontradictably", as if English-speakers outside Ireland should some how give a crap about what obscure lexical items present themselves uncontradictably to somebody somewhere.

To the overwhelming majority of readers, words like "graith", "bawn", "reavers" and "thole" might as well be the ravings of an aphasic hobo on an acid trip imagining himself to be speaking japanese. Remember that bit about Heaney saying he was trying to "avoid unusual word-choice"? Yeah. I call bullshit. And it's a really dishonest, in-your-face kind of bullshit too.

I can't shake the impression that Heaney decided other people are too hard to translate for, and he himself was his only target audience. Heaney was the absolute wrong choice of translator for Norton. They should've gone for someone who didn't have so much emotional baggage attached to language/identity that it ended up being dumped in the reader's face like the contents of a fertilizer-bag that burst while being hoisted. The poor guy just couldn't get over it, and as a result he subverted the Englishness of the most famous Old English poem almost without trying, all because he thought he'd found a
way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism, a history which has to be clearly acknowledged by all concerned.
A public Beowulf-translation is a deeply questionable vehicle for a private Good Friday Agreement with one's inner self. Especially when the translator flipflops so much about what the hell he even thinks he's doing. He's not translating Beowulf into Ulster English (which would totally be fine actually), but he seems to think a light dusting of extremely regional vocabulary is called for. He's clearly concerned with fidelity to what makes Beowulf a translation-worthy text. But he's obsessed with the notion that somehow that fidelity would benefit from the gargantuan postcolonial chip he has glued to his shoulder as manifested in the above citation.

Mind you, giving a well-known and overtranslated text your own personal slant, or using translation as a way of exploring your own way of relating to an overtranslated text in new ways, is quite alright and in fact quite awesome- as long as you admit, both to yourself and to the reader, that that's what you're doing. In fact, I myself have done something similar in a few of my versions from Greek and Latin like this version of Vergil . But unlike Heaney (a) that was what I set out to do in the first place (b) I was fully aware of what I was doing and why, (c) I was quite candid about doing it and (d) I wasn't doing it under the dishonest/delusional pretext of offering "merely the poem as poetry" to undergraduates reading a Norton anthology.      

It is cultures primarily, and languages -if at all- only secondarily as a result of culture, that have what can be called essences. When politicians, schoolteachers and reactionary organizations forget this, they're displaying a mindset unimpressively typical of them. But when translators neglect this nuance, the result sometimes sounds like a monument to absurdity on the level of Coleman Barks' colonizations of Rumi (which is not the case with Heaney's Beowulf thankfully), and at other times simply reeks of that fart of the faculties ever-so-rightly known as rank amateurism. It doesn't help one bit that poor-little-privileged-Heaney isn't just a second-rate poet, but just can't seem to allow that there may be some things in the world that don't have to do with being Irish.

In short: Do not buy this book unless you're already one of Heaney's acolytes.

1 comment:

  1. Have to agree with you about von Nolcken. Loved that Beowulf class. And I have to say, your (seemingly?) off-the-cuff translations in class were wonderful.

    -The other Alex

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