Saturday, August 31, 2013

An Appreciation of Seamus Heaney's Translation of Beowulf

I started reading Seamus Heaney's Beowulf on the way to my first cross-country meet in 8th grade. I didn't know anything about the story--I didn't even know that the language printed on the other side of the English translation was even a form of English at all. What was a Beowulf? Why did my parents' friend think this was a good birthday present? Much later, I would learn that Heaney, a contemporary Irish poet, achieved no small measure of literary stardom with his translation of the Old English epic. The poem begins as ambiguously as some great modernist works end: So. This is what what a professor would later tell me was "an audacious swing at in medias res," the epic tradition of beginning a tale in the middle of an action. Heaney's so is a callous invocation to a reader; it begins the poem almost as though it were a campfire story. Heaney's translation was not only famously readable--like Fagles' translations of Homer--but it took a widely under-read story and made in accessible again. The thousand-year-old saga appeared on many bestseller lists, on countless assigned reading curriculums, and could be seen just as easily on public transport as in a classroom. It tells the story of a Beowulf, the future-king who is called on by a neighboring ruler for help when a monster terrorizes his domain. W.W. NortonI insisted on making a Halloween costume that was as dangerously armored as it was pretentious; I decided to feast like a Scandinavian king at a Thanksgiving meal, refusing to use knives and forks while eating turkey leg, leaving my parents unsure of whether they should scold me, or do nothing because at least I had gotten it from a book. On the long bus ride to the meet I'd managed to read several hundred lines. I ran distracted that afternoon; I thought about the broad-beamed ship that rode the water, and waiting for Grendel,
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