19.12.16 Heaney (trans.), Beowulf, 2nd ed.

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Alison Elizabeth Killilea

The Medieval Review 19.12.16

Heaney, Seamus, trans., and Daniel Donoghue, ed. Beowulf: A Verse Translation (2nd Norton Critical Edition). Norton Critical Editions. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Co., 2019. pp. xxxix, 300. ISBN: 978-0-393-93837-1 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Alison Killilea
Independent Scholar

Since the first publication of Seamus Heaney's celebrated translation of Beowulf twenty years ago, and subsequent publication of the first Norton Critical Edition in 2002, Heaney's translation has remained one of the most popular editions of the poem for students and the general public alike. Its popularity, cemented through the release of a second Norton Critical Edition in 2019, is a testament to its success as both a laudable piece of poetry (as evinced in its winning of the Whitbread prize for poetry in 1999) and an accessible and stimulating introduction to a potentially challenging work of early medieval poetry.

As noted by Schulman and Szarmach, Heaney's translation "bridge[d] the gap between the ivory tower where most who studyBeowulf reside and the lay readers drawn to the poem because of Heaney's reputation," re-popularising (or arguably, simply popularising) the poem for a wider audience. [1] In the twenty years since its emergence in Heaney's translation, the Old English poem has become an "internationally marketable and colonizable product," having "acquired new cultural capital" as seen in the release of numerous film, television, comic, and novel adaptations. [2] Some of these adaptations (e.g. Gunnarsson's Beowulf and Grendel and McCain's Outlander) are arguably directly influenced by Heaney's particular postcolonial approach to Beowulf, an approach that has made this particular translation of the poem an enduring talking piece in the classroom, as well as a text of continuing relevance in today's social and political climate.

Heaney's hesitation when it came to translating Beowulf, as outlined in his Introduction (xxxiii-xxxv) no doubt was influenced by the fraught politics between Britain and Ireland, and the long history of the linguistic politics of Beowulf translation itself--one need only take a cursory glance at translation criticism since the Victorian era to recognise that "Englishness," when it came to the translation and identity of the poem, was a contentious issue. [3] This appeared to be still an issue with some reviewers of Heaney's translation, such as Nicholas Howe, who accused Heaney of trying to "graft himself" onto the English literary tradition and attempting to make an Irish poem out of one that is English, [4] a somewhat tone-deaf assessment of the translation considering the 800-year colonial subjugation of Ireland under British rule. While Howe's (and others') assessment of the poem as revisionist is essentially true, the number of Hiberno-English Celtic-derived terms (e.g. "bawn," "bothie," "graith," and "kesh") is relatively low given the length of the poem, and thus quite subtle. They are perhaps no more intrusive than any archaisms or other such foreignizing terms that may be found in other translations of a poem whose subject is one so far removed from our own contemporary era.

As others have observed, the translation is not necessarily one that is founded in faithfulness to the original (although, it must be noted, the idea of "faithful" translation is contentious), and, as Heaney notes himself, sacrifices were made in order to achieve a distinct delivery of tone (xxxviii). Indeed, the translation transforms the text into a more straightforward and direct retelling of the story, resulting in the loss of complexity seen in the original Old English as well as in other translations of the poem (such as Fulk's or Tolkien's, which more readily preserve the syntax of the original). Heaney's popular poetry is known for its clear-cut yet richly textured phraseology, and no exception is made here: "I have been reluctant to force an artificial shape or an unusual word choice just for the sake of correctness" (xxxvii). It appears somewhat fruitless with this admission to linger too much, then, on "faithfulness" to the text, and certainly it is Heaney's refusal to adhere to the strict metrics and appositional nature of Beowulf, and instead create a retelling closer in tone and diction to his own original poetry, that has made his translation so popular for a wider audience.

While Heaney's translation may fail for those in search of another Chickering or similarly scholarly edition of the text, it has arguably opened doors to other areas of study regarding the poem, namely translation theory and postcolonial theory, here inextricably bound to one another. Heaney's poetry cannot be separated from his cultural background, heavily shaped by The Troubles in Northern Ireland and his sympathies towards Irish Republicanism. Much of Heaney's "Bog Poetry" (such as "The Tollund Man" and "The Bog Queen") is shaped by this cultural and political background, and his translation of Beowulf is no different. Heaney's subtle employment of Irish colloquialisms reminds the reader that it is a translation, and that translation, by its very nature, is rarely, if ever, separable from its producing culture. As Susan Bassnett, a pioneer in the field of cultural translation theory, states, "language is embedded in culture, linguistic acts take place in a context and texts are created in a continuum not a vacuum." [5] Heaney'sBeowulf is the most obvious example of this when it comes to translations of the poem, and its complicated political context allows for rich discussion on the wider topic of translation.

Perhaps of more importance, especially at a time when we are witnessing the troubling rise in white supremacist and far-right groups, is the potential for Heaney's Beowulf to be studied as a piece of postcolonial literature. While some, like Howe, have criticised the revisionist approach taken in the translation, this re-positioning and re-appropriation of the text may be seen as a disruption of narrative ownership, much like Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea or Aimé Césaire's Une Tempête, albeit in a much more subtle fashion given the nature of translation. Where Heaney's translation itself may leave room for doubt with regards to its intentions, his Introduction makes glaringly clear its position in terms of Anglo-Irish history. This is most pronounced in his powerful description of Hrothgar's embattled keep, or "bawn":

"Every time I read the lovely interlude that tells of the minstrel singing

in Heorot just before the first attacks of Grendel, I cannot help

thinking of Edmund Spenser in Kilcolman Castle, reading the early cantos

of The Faerie Queene to Sir Walter Raleigh, just before the Irish would

burn the castle and drive Spenser out of Munster back to the Elizabethan

court" (xxxix).

While Howell D. Chickering reads this analogy, which situates Hrothgar as the colonising English and Grendel as the disenfranchised Irish, as "deeply confused," Heaney's alignment of Grendel with the Irish is very much intentional. [6] As with colonised peoples throughout history, the Irish were bestialised and made savage in British imperial discourse as a means to justify their subjugation, and Heaney, writing from within the English tradition, purposefully takes on an English perspective and writes Grendel in the same fashion that the English had written the Irish.

In conjunction with its Introduction, Heaney's Beowulf, which may perhaps be more accurately be described as a "rewriting" or re-appropriation (at least more so than other translations), may successfully serve as a means to explore the idea of race and culture in both the medieval period and in medieval studies. The prominent themes of colonialism and narrative ownership fruitfully allow for discussion that may otherwise not transpire in a classroom or lecture hall which chooses to ignore Heaney's edition of the poem for whatever reasons.

While it has been twenty years since Seamus Heaney's Beowulf, it is arguably even more relevant in the contemporary zeitgeist than at its first publication. At a time when medieval imagery is being co-opted and misappropriated by far and alt-right groups throughout the world, and importantly in an Anglo-Irish context, with the hateful rhetoric being far more frequently platformed as a result of the Brexit process, this translation allows readers to rethink and re-approach the Medieval. While the translation may not replace those more scholarly versions (of which Liuzza's and Fulk's are recent commendable examples), it is no doubt one of the most poetically engaging and thought-provoking translations of Beowulf published.



1. Jana K. Schulman and Paul E. Szarmach., eds. Beowulf at Kalamazoo: Essays on Translation and Performance (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2014) 1.

2. E. L. Risden, "The Cinematic Commoditization of Beowulf: The Serial Fetishizing of a Hero," in Beowulf on Film: Adaptations and Variations, eds. Nickolas Haydock and E. L. Risden (Jefferson: McFarland, 2013) 66-80, at 66-7.

3. See, for instance, Prosser Hall Frye, "The Translation of Beowulf," Modern Language Notes 12, no. 3 (1897): 79-82.

4. Nicholas Howe, "Scullionspeak," in Beowulf at Kalamazoo: Essays on Translation and Performance, eds. Jana K. Schulman and Paul E. Szarmach (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2014) 347-58, at 356.

5. Susan Bassnett, "Culture and Translation," in A Companion to Translation Studies, eds. Piotr Kuhiwczak and Karin Littau (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2007) 13-23, at 23.

6. Howell Chickering, "Beowulf and 'Heaneywulf,'" in Beowulf at Kalamazoo: Essays on Translation and Performance, eds. Jana K. Schulman and Paul E. Szarmach (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2014) 305-321, at 318.

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