I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m not much one for reading poetry. I don’t know if I have some sort of mental tone-deafness or some other strange issue, but I can never get the cadence and tone right in my head. It has to be read aloud. Now while this is something that I can do myself, I prefer having poetry read to me.
This was somethinghad in mind when she was working on a more contemporary translation of Beowulf. Beowulf is one of the greatest poems of the early English language, mostly based on how fun it can be. It’s like an action blockbuster for a millennia-past. While others have debated as to the best way to approach a translation into modern English (Tolkein had a bit of a bee in his bonnet about this), imagines a scenario where there’s one older bloke at a bar or pub regaling this story to his mates. This is a sort of telling that would be cocky, direct and full of braggadocio, but also one where the teller is secretly hoping for a little affirmation and ego-boosting from his bar-mates at the same time.
And this is why, instead of a translation along the lines of ‘Lo! The glory of the kings and the people of the Spear-Danes’ in the days of old, we have heard tell’, we get the very punchy and direct: ‘Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings!’
Yeah, we’re in for a bit fun here, aren’t we?
does spend some time going over the choices she made in her translation before we dive into the poem proper. She discusses how she came to be so preoccupied with the poem, her interpretations of the text, and why she’s decided to exploit ambiguities the way she has. The preamble is actually quite interesting in and on itself, and it prepares you for the fact that 1) some of the liberties she’s decided to taking are really very liberal (Cue John Ronald Reuel tut-tutting from beyond the grave) and 2) she has real sympathy for the devil approach to all of the antagonists—especially Grendel’s mum. She also preemptively draws attention to the fact that yes, the use of contemporary, ‘millennial’ vernacular will likely age this translation really quickly—but that’s all the more reason to come back in 15-20 years and do a new one.
As for the reading itself, the poem is performed by JD Jackson, who has an excellent voice for this kind of telling, and listening to his voice is aeons above trying to read it aloud to myself. I did fumble around at the phone a bit while listening in order to bookmark some of the best lines, but I couldn’t stop—there is a proverbial goldmine of them
Grendel’s grim deeds:
When golden teeth tasted the sky,
Grendel’s silent skill was seen. His kills:
grim crimson spilt on banquet boards
Hrothgar advises Beowulf:
Listen to me, boy. Keep your shit straight.
I’ve been fostered by frost-seasons, fathered by time,
and I’m dropping knowledge now
And this top-tier bragging:
I may have bathed in the blood of beasts,
netted five foul ogres at once, smashed my way into a troll den
and come out swinging, gone skinny-dipping in a sleeping sea and made sashimi of some sea monsters
Anyone who fucks with the Geats? Bro, they have to fuck with me!
Yes, sometimes the use of terms like ‘swole’ and ‘blessed’ can seem a little jarring, but if you acknowledge that yes, it is a little tongue in cheek and just let it flow over you, the whole poem settles into a comfortable rhythm.
I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of debate over what’s considered true to form and whats revisionist when it comes to translations. But Beowulf is over one thousand years old, and there are some trade-offs between keeping it ‘true’ in Modern English and keeping it accessible. I was a big fan this one, but I do sit on the far end of the accessible scale—as I mentioned at the start, I don’t have much of head for reading poetry. So I would be curious as to what other people think.
I might crank this out for a re-listen in the meantime, with a plentiful supply of beer and folk metal.