Tag Archives: Maria Dahvana Headley

keep your shit straight

Currently reading, and finding assorted resonances within, Maria Dahvana Headley’s radical re-translation of Beowulf. I’ve seen (admittedly few) accusations that its linguistic choices, exemplified by the use—first line, first word, and throughout the piece thereafter—of “bro” as a parsing of the tricky-to-translate “hwæt”, are somehow gimmicky. It certainly marks it at a translation of its time, but I think that’s maybe not a bad thing, given any translation of such an old text is by necessity a thing of its time: might as well lampshade it, and see where it takes you.

“A ruler who’s been known as a good man since
days of old, a generous, just gift-giver, a war-wielding
homeland healer, is equipped to say the following:
this man’s as good a man as me. Beowulf, my boy!
You’ve proven yourself in every context. Your name
will be known around the world. You’re steady, strong,
and sure in all respects. I open my arms to you, as agreed,
and fulfill the bonds of friendship. For your people,
you’ll be, like me, a defender and a hero.
But… hold up, hear me out, indulge me a moment.
Heremod, that old king, was no hopeful hero to the heirs
of Ecgwela, the Honor-Scyldings. His rise was their fall.
He raged, cut down close comrades, aged advisers,
and when he died, he died galled and alone, friendless,
though famous. God had given him grace—granted him
wealth, health, and power. His road had no rocks on it.
He’d known only joy. Somehow though, his heart
was not a hawk but a drone. He bombed his own bases,
denied his Danes damages, kept entrenched in combat.
He commanded his kingdom’s collapse, and was, when ancient,
loathed when he could’ve been loved, his life lesioned
with losses. Listen to me, boy. Keep your shit straight.
I’ve been fostered by frost-seasons, fathered by time,
and I’m dropping knowledge now…”

lines 1700-23

And it makes it fun, easy to read. I vaguely recall starting and bouncing off the Heaney translation in the early Noughties, when I was trying to broaden my poetic base. That’s no discredit to Heaney, who had (I assume) a very different project in mind to Headley: the latter’s linguistic choices, much as they will date far faster than Heaney’s, nonetheless do the work of making what might otherwise seem like a worthy but dusty historical curiosity and making it timeless and relevant simultaneously. The words become transparent, letting the story and (crucially) the characters shine through—and that roster of characters very much includes the narrator, who is a creature of the milieu he is describing (and yes, he, because this is very much a male milieu, which is another thing the language choices make clear) even as he also carries the hindsight of the poet, of the tale-teller, which was (as I understand it) the closest thing in that era to being an arbiter of that which we now think of as history.

All that worthy bollocks aside, though, it’s just a breezy and entertaining read. Recommended.