Seamus Heaney, translator, and Daniel Donoghue, editor, Beowulf: A Verse Translation [critical edition] (Norton, 2002)

Norton Critical Editions are great books. As any English major (of which your current reviewer counts himself) can tell you, they are a blessing to anyone attempting to gain an initial understanding of an important text. The typical Norton Critical Edition starts with an introductory essay, putting the text in its historical context. The text itself follows with extensive notes and annotations to help explain and make clear items that the centuries may have made murky. Then follows many pages of critical essays that cover a wide range of historical and theoretical issues related to the text. While no one book can claim to entirely set the context for any given text, the Norton Critical Editions have built for themselves the reputation of coming close.

Therefore, it was with much excitement that I dived into Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Beowulf has always been a favorite of mine from my days in graduate school. The Norton Critical Edition of Beowulf did not disappoint.

The book begins with a preface by Daniel Donoghue, editor of the edition, in which he attempts to justify the need for yet another translation of Beowulf. As Donoghue notes, 'Over sixty translations of Beowulf have appeared since the early nineteenth century.' He's correct, and I can count no less than a dozen of them on my shelves. Some of them have been quite forgettable, but a number have become standards in the art of translation. For example, Howard Chickering's side-by-side translation of the poem, published by Anchor, skillfully reproduces the alliterative verse and keeps the language as similar to the Old English as possible, while also being readable. Not quite as successful in its readability, but much more successful in the Old English practice of creating compound words, is the Frederick Rebsamen translation. These two alone, when used together, could provide a reader who cannot read Old English with enough to appreciate Beowulf without having to learn it. So why another translation? Donoghue hints at the reason when he writes, 'but none has caught the reading public's attention as much as Heaney's.' In other words, the need for a new translation was because the public needed something new. And who better to do the translation than currently trendy poet Seamus Heaney? This is not to slam Heaney's poetry. What little of it I've read I've quite enjoyed. But I think the success of the Beowulf translation has as much to do with marketing — 'Hey! Here's a translation by a modern poet!' — as with folks reading it because they appreciate Heaney's poetry. I know of numerous folks who read the poem for the first time in Heaney's translation, not because it was Beowulf, but because it was Heaney. But when I further asked them what they knew of Heaney before reading his translation, they could only give the vague answer that he was some award-winning poet. Had they read any of his poetry? Nope, but they might now.

If having Heaney's name on the book as translator will help get people to read Beowulf, then I'm all for it. But where I draw the line is at the hype that is accompanying the translation. Donoghue, for example, writes in the preface that '[w]hat sets Heaney's apart from other translations, however, is the language.' But is the language considerably better? What Heaney has chosen to do in his translation, as he explains in his 'Translator's Introduction' is to use his own rural Ulster dialect. His reasons are complex and somewhat compelling, but they immediately beg the question of 'why?' Why use his own dialect? To begin with, Heaney writes that all translations are in part a kind of 'cultural determination'. But, oddly enough, as with much of current neocolonialist thought, he doesn't justify this statement: he just makes it baldly and it is up to the reader to accept it or be considered unenlightened.

What is there that is unique about this translation? How does it reflect this bold idea of being written in a dialect that is foreign to most of its audience? There is no more stellar example than the opening word of the poem. In the Old English, the poem opens with 'Whæt', which was the word that was used to call the listeners to attention. Most translations render it 'Lo!' or 'Oh!' or even 'Listen!' or 'Take heed!' How does Heaney render it? 'So.' And the full stop is in the translation. To the ears of most English speakers 'so' is a most mundane word, whereas all those other words, most of which are not used in everyday parlance, can convey across dialectical boundaries a sense of calling-to. Heaney, however, uses his own dialect and uses a word that in other dialects has different semantic nuances. In other words, he's committing the very cultural determination that he spends so much of his introduction trying to decry. Heaney appears to know what he's done because he spends another good portion of his introduction trying to explain and justify some of his choices. The 'So.' consumes nearly a page of the introduction — a lot of space for only one word of a poem that spans nearly 3200 lines. He also focuses heavily on the word 'tholian' (which most English speakers have no clue about), again spending nearly a page explaining it. Why this need? Simply because he has written a translation that commits the very cultural determination that he found so objectionable in much of the literature he studied when young.

In short, as a translation, it is as competent as any of the others, but in Heaney's hands it becomes more than a translation, and as that something more, it fails miserably, revealing the inadequacy of Heaney's philosophy of literature and political outlook. If literature is culturally determined, then Beowulf has no transcendent meaning and is just another cultural artifact. If not, then there is not adequate justification for Heaney's idiosyncratic translation.

Oddly enough, included in this edition is the key lecture in Beowulf studies that helped rescue the poem from the historical literature specialists who were reducing the poem merely to its historical context (Heaney's 'cultural determination') and put it back within the realm of great literature, viz., J.R.R. Tolkien's lecture 'Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics.' Although Beowulf studies have grown immensely since Tolkien gave his lecture nearly seventy years ago, it still is applicable as a good overview of how to read the poem and how not to read the poem. Following Tolkien's essay is a selection of more recent criticism, including John Leyerle's 'The Interlace Structure of Beowulf', which is almost as famous as Tolkien's essay.

Preceding the critical essays are about twenty pages of 'contexts': texts from the same general time period as Beowulf, which are intended to give some idea of the milieu in which the poem was composed. Included in this section is a map of the Scandinavian settings of the poem, as well as genealogies of the characters, and a fascinating essay by R.D. Fulk and Joseph Harris, attempting to decipher the origin of the name 'Beowulf'.

What's most amazing to me is how much is packed into such a slim volume, for this edition runs only 256 pages. As I said above, the translation is good, but not stellar; but it is made up for by the strong supplementary material. If you are looking for a good introduction to Beowulf, or if you're an old friend of the poem looking for a good critical edition, you can't go wrong with Norton's Beowulf: A Verse Translation.

[Matthew Scott Winslow]

You can find another review of Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf here, and a review of Heaney reading aloud from his own translation here.