How true does Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf remain to the text?

Beowulf was written around the start of the 7th century, by an unknown poet. Chronicling the life of its eponymous hero, Beowulf is one if the earliest known non-classical epic poems in existence. Classical epics, such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, were written primarily to be heard rather than read, Virgil himself reading the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus. Beowulf follows in this mould.

Translations of Beowulf have tended to ignore this fundamental aspect of epic poetry, choosing instead to interpret Beowulf as a text to be studied rather than a work in the oral tradition. As Kevin Crossley-Holland says in the introduction to his 1968 translation: “scholars and critics regard Beowulf as a museum for the antiquarian, a sourcebook for the historian, a treatise for the student of Christian thought”. Owing to this trend, translators have striven to convey the meaning as accurately as they are able, rather than the sound effects of the verse.

Seamus Heaney’s translation of 1999 does not follow this drift toward the transformation of the poem into an academic exercise. He does not shy away from what he calls in his introduction a ‘ ‘shield-wall’ of opaque references’, nor from the ‘word-hoard’ of the poem. For example, the Crossley-Holland translation on line 156 transcribes the word ‘wergild’ lit. man-price leaving it there, supplying instead a footnote explaining that it is the monetary compensation paid by a murderer to the family of their victim. Heaney, however, offers ‘death-price’. This seems self-explanatory to the first-time reader, especially since the context also helps to explain the concept of wergild. It is an adventurous and novel use of language to create a compound noun where English has few such.

The most notable examples of Heaney’s reversion to the oral tradition are his treatment of the two ‘episodes’ in the poem. The ‘digressions’ in the poem run from 883-914 and 1070-158. They are poems within the poem, sung by minstrels at banquets. In the latter section the metre shortens. These have been treated no differently from the rest of poem, with only inverted commas to denote song rather than narration. The Old English itself only acknowledges the minstrels with opening and closing semi-colons or colons. Heaney treats each part slightly differently, both from their former versions and from each other. Heaney’s writing becomes more stylised, and the passages in question are italicised. There is in the first song a visible hiatus where each line’s caesura falls, and in the second there is a line break there, rendering the physical appearance of the passage much more like a song than prose. The end result in each part is both to bring out the ballad-like nature of the sections and, by raising their profile in the poem to emphasise their thematic importance: the first prefigures Beowulf’s last battle with the wyrm, and the second depicts the cyclical wars ravaging the region that are a part of the Danes’ culture.

These two sections, especially the first, are analogous to the customary prophecies and warnings of classical epics, like Jupiter’s prophecy in The Aeneid. So standard is the use of prophecy in the epic that Alexander Pope’s 18th Century mock-epic The Rape of the Lock includes a lengthy caution to Belinda from Ariel on the perils in store from ‘Man’. Thus, Heaney’s accentuation of the two ‘digressions’ helps to highlight the epic nature of Beowulf.

Heaney’s use of alliteration is both effective and faithful to the original. In Anglo-Saxon poetry the alliterations are notionally divided by a caesura in the line. For example, ‘þone deorestan deadne wisse’ (1309) of the original alliterates across the caesura with ‘deorestan’ and ‘deadne’. Heaney’s supplied translation for this is: ‘his dearest companion, was dead and gone’. Heaney is especially fortunate here in that the same words alliterate in both languages. Elsewhere, he is less fortunate, but his skill as translator allows him to overcome the problem. For example, ‘fela feorhcynna forð onsended!’ (2267) is full of lyrical alliteration, but there is not such a convenient transcription available to Heaney as there is in line 1309. His version is ‘have emptied the earth of entire peoples.’ Not only does Heaney keep the caesura and the rhythm of the line, he manages to include a triple alliteration as in the original where no direct derivatives exist. Occasionally, however, it is impossible to be so faithful to the Old English and avoid contrivance. In such circumstances Heaney allows himself to deviate from the rule that the alliteration must fall on the first stressed syllable, without which flexibility Heaney would have used an ‘artificial … or unusual word choice just for the sake of correctness', as he says in his introduction. In line 1068, ‘be Finnes eaferum, ða hie se fær begeat,’ in Heaney’s version is ‘the tale of the fierce attack in Friesland.’ Although this caesura falls naturally, the alliteration is not authentically placed. To do so would require a forced choice of words, and Heaney here favours content over style. In line 681:’ Nat he þara goda þæt he me ongean slea,’ Heaney gives: ‘He (Grendel) has no idea of the arts of war’. He does not alliterate, saying in his introduction that he often prefers to let the ‘natural sound of sense’ prevail over convention.

It is interesting to note that in writing about Beowulf, many critics veer towards the use, whether conscious or otherwise, of the compound noun, virtually obsolete in Modern English. In his Translator’s Note, Crossley-Holland thanks his wife for ‘weathering the word-storm’, and Heaney in his introduction says that he considers Beowulf to be ‘part of my voice-right’, both of which sound peculiarly Anglo-Saxon in tone. Old English itself is descended from German, and thus shares some linguistic rules, one of which is the ability to construct compound nouns or adjectives to suit any purpose or metaphor. The Beowulf poet makes extended use of kennings, conjuring strange images with the combinations used. Other translators make relatively sparing use of this linguistic device, fearing perhaps that it might alienate readers with its over-rich feel. Crossley-Holland seems to use it only with occasional poetic license or when forced to. He translates ‘helrunan’ (lit. ‘hell-witches’) as the more sinister ‘hell-whisperers’ where Heaney has the less Germanic but equally gothic ‘reavers from hell’. However, Heaney tends in his translation to stick with a compound from the original to preserve the oral effect, as when ‘wergild’ becomes ‘death-price’. He is able to incorporate this into his alliteration, and the whole line reads: ‘nor stop his death-dealing, nor pay the death-price.’ The 1968 option of leaving ‘wergild’ and supplying an explanation disrupts the rhythm of the lines, and the word becomes a blot on the aural landscape of the poem.

Heaney uses compounds both to move closer and further away from the text. One of my favourite images is ‘But the Lord was weaving / a victory on his war-loom for the Weather-Geats’ (696-7). This is only a figurative translation, but the analogy is powerful. The Geats’ vessel almost invariably has a ‘ring-whorled’ prow and at 32 it is ‘ice-clad’. He says in his introduction: ‘I try to match the poet’s analogy-seeking habit at its most original’, and to do so he must have at his disposal the same linguistic tools as the Beowulf poet. He uses the same plethora of terms for ‘ruler’ as the original, from ‘ring-giver’ to ‘gold-giver’ to ‘his people’s shield’. Heaney also recognises that it is not the precise translation of the compound that matters; it is the use of a compound there to preserve the rhythm. The presence of the kennings is one of the most enjoyable things about the poem: ‘death-qualms’, ‘wound-slurry’ and ‘sea-brutes’ amongst them. The adherence to this archaic style of writing brings the poem more powerfully to life and the presence of alien syntax makes the reader aware in turn that an alien culture is being described. This glimpse of Old English through the modern translation makes the reader more conscious of the original atmosphere and tone.

Starting at line 2215 there occur a series of gaps in the text, where the original has become illegible. From 2215 to 18 the omissions are only occasional words, and the general sense can be construed from the context. Heaney and Crossley-Holland’s differences are mostly incidental. However, over the larger gaps from 2226-30, there are major differences in approach. There are roughly three whole lines illegible or missing, and Heaney simply leaves a gap to signify this, filling in the overall meaning of the passage around it: ‘….. in shock/…..the wretch.........../.........panicked and ran/away with the precious…../metalwork.’ Crossley-Holland, conversely, writes: ‘stiffened with horror. Unhappy as he was,/he stole the vessel, the precious cup.’ I find the pretence that the original supplies a complete and legible text strange, but Heaney’s admission of the fallibility of the Old English text is reassuring, and exciting. Emerging from the Geats’ cultural universe, the reader suddenly remembers that Beowulf is itself an historical document. The presence of the unknown in these lacunae reminds the reader that this is an ancient tale, some of which has been lost to the ravages of time. This text is in a sense more alive for its incompleteness, and Heaney’s unflinching acceptance of this brings his translation closer to the original than Crossley-Holland, whose fudging of the lines is embarrassed, and embarrassing.

Another difference between Heaney and Crossley-Holland occurs at lines 168-9. The Old English has ‘(Grendel) was not suffered to outrage Hrothgar’s throne, by reason of God’s prohibition: he knew not His mind (Grendel’s fate)’ and Heaney renders this as ‘but the throne itself, the treasure-seat, he was kept from approaching; he was the Lord’s outcast.’ There is controversy, however, over the subject of these lines: Hrothgar, Grendel, or God. It is perhaps for these reasons that Crossley-Holland entirely omits these lines from his version, ending the section two lines earlier. It is significant that Crossley-Holland chooses to omit these lines, because it is indicative of his opinion as to whether Beowulf is a Christian poem or not. Although he says in his introduction that it is ‘still a matter of opinion’, and that we lack sufficient evidence to answer the question, his exclusion of these lines would suggest that he does not think the poem is Christian. Conversely, Heaney seems to believe that Beowulf is a firmly Christian poem, and so his translation refers repeatedly to ‘Almighty God’ and ‘The Lord’.

As an epic, and as a tale reputed to have been put together by a group of singers, the poem’s tone has to be vocal, and in this Crossley-Holland and Heaney enjoy varying degrees of success. The tone might also be relatively informal, and here the two translators differ. Crossley-Holland is more formal and declamatory in his translation. The first word of the poem: ‘Hwæt’ has been variously interpreted, from ‘Lo!’ ‘Behold!’ and ‘Hark!’ to the 1968 edition’s more idiomatic ‘Listen!’ Heaney chooses instead to have ‘So.’ In defence of what he admits is ‘attending to the grain of my original vernacular’ as much as the Old English, he rightly states that it is a poem hospitable to contemporary idiom. Whether this departure from the strict sense of the word represents a distancing from the text or a movement closer to its culture is dependant upon how the reader views Beowulf itself: sacrosanct academic document or living interpretable poem. Heaney suggests that the middle way he sought between these two extremes was one equally sought by the Beowulf poet himself.

In line 732, ‘atol aglæca, anra gehwylces’ is often translated as something approximating to ‘the savage monster (Grendel) planned to sever’ and this is a translation that stays fairly close to the literal sense of the line. However, Heaney has ‘his glee was demonic / picturing the mayhem’ which at first glance seems a far looser and less accurate version than that which is usually offered. It would be easy, the reader might think, to substitute ‘mayhem’ for ‘havoc’, with little alteration to the meaning of Heaney’s line. This is not in fact correct. Havoc means destruction or devastation, but ‘mayhem’ in its strictest sense means ‘the privation of the use of a limb or member of the body, by which one is rendered less able to defend himself or to annoy his adversary’. In using this, Heaney has managed to portray the meaning precisely in one word. ‘Mayhem’ is fuller and more graphic than ‘to sever’, and has specific connotations of disabling a foe by the removal of a limb. Again Heaney uses unconventional means to move closer to the original intentions of the text.

Any translator will find in the original, language with untranslatable nuances. Words might have subtleties that the direct or literal translation does not carry. Heaney, speaking about this problem, said that there were in Anglo-Saxon ‘cultural depth-charges … in certain words and rhythms’. Obviously, the same associations do not still apply, and to try to recreate them is a near-impossible task given the many other restraints on the choices of word and rhythm. Heaney settles for the next best option: putting in words that are cultural ‘depth-charges’ for him. These are pieces of Northern Irish dialect, like ‘hoked’ (3026) for ‘laid bare’, ‘thole’ (an almost direct transfer from the Old English word þolian to the Irish) for ‘suffer’ and ‘graith’ for ‘harness’ at 342 and 2988. The most potent piece of Irish vocabulary he employs is the word ‘bawn’ used in Elizabethan English to refer to the fortified dwellings built by the English in Ireland to keep the dispossessed Irish out. This refers to the keep to which Hrothgar retreats to watch Grendel. This is as much recasting of the original as translation, and in adding his own Irish heritage to the poem in these subtle ways, he overlays his translation with fascinating cultural tinges whilst losing nothing of the original meaning.

Heaney’s own poetry has many aspects of Anglo-Saxon verse. In Beldberg he writes of a man’s home: ‘Mossbawn / A bogland name…I could derive / a forked root from that ground / and make bawn an English fort.’ Heaney’s poetic associations with the bawn date to at least 1975 when North, from which this is taken, was published. In Punishment, he writes ‘oak-bone, brain-firkin:’ and these kennings are a trochee and a dactyl, metrical rhythms the Beowulf poet uses. In Bone Dreams he writes of ‘the scop’s twang’: ‘(the) flash of consonants / cleaving the line’ which is similar to its subject in metre and alliteration. Heaney’s introduction points out in Digging one line that runs: ‘My father, digging. I look down’. This alliterates across the caesura. He writes: ‘Part of me…had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the beginning.’

Heaney has written about the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, and his experience of the conflict there stands him in good stead in Beowulf. As an Irishman, he knows what Cromwell’s armies did in the seventeenth century, and how England colonised and subjugated the Irish. His knowledge of the consequences of violence enables him to express its aftermath very well in Beowulf. The Geat woman’s grief at Beowulf’s funeral pier (3150) reads: ‘a wild litany / of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded, / enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles.’ This imagery remains current. For Heaney, it could describe either Cromwell or the worst atrocities that have taken place in Northern Ireland.

After the release of the 1999 translation, one critic wrote that Heaney is the ‘one living poet who can rightly claim to be the Beowulf poet's heir.’ This is not only because Heaney appreciates everything about the poem: its epic nature, its aural music and rhythms, its acclamation of indomitable spirit. It is not only because as a poet Heaney’s word-craft is perhaps on a par with the Beowulf poet’s. It is also because Heaney can identify so completely as an Irishman with the poem’s broad themes of oppression and loss that he is able to convey it so thoroughly and truly into Modern English.


Beowulf translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland
Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
Beowulf Wyatt and Chambers Old English text
North by Seamus Heaney