"Beowulf" is justly regarded as a cornerstone of English literature, but those of us who do not read Anglo-Saxon must approach it through a translation. Certainly there is no shortage of translations; I have at least a dozen sitting on my bookshelf. However, I would eliminate half of them as adequate vehicles for really appreciating this grand poem because they are prose versions. While they may accurately convey the literal sense of the Old English words and provide a readily understood storyline, prose can never adequately render the poetic essence of the original.
Verse translation, however, is of necessity an imprecise art; poetry is too tightly bound to the language of its creator for a valid direct transposition to another tongue. Anglo-Saxon verse relied upon strong alliteration and a balance of stressed syllables rather than the use of rhyme and formally patterned meter as in later English poetry. The contemporary translator has a formidable and delicate challenge to transform "Beowulf" into a poem suited for today while remaining loyal to its ancient timbre. Although I greatly admire Ruth P.M. Lehmann's 1988 translation for its steadfast replication of the tone and cadence of the Old English original, there is truth in what another "Alliteration is a key element in Old English metrics ... but long stretches of it in Modern English will stupefy the most ardent reader". At times the beat and alliteration of Lehmann's verse threatens to overwhelm the present-day listener, becoming a deadening drumbeat. Yet, if the translator strays too far from the Anglo-Saxon structure in attempting to create something palatable for present taste, then the result inevitably lacks the bardic flavor at the heart of the poem.
Achieving a fitting balance between the vibrant aural core of the original and the requirements of a contemporary reader is a matter of subtle artistry. It may be that Seamus Heaney is an ideal poet to meet that challenge in this era. He has produced here a work which, in its four-beat line and tempered alliteration, keeps faith with its source, yet avoids excessive archaisms which would alienate a Y2K ear. Still, Heaney allows the voice of the past to emerge here and there to keep us fixed in time, resulting in a blend of contemporary language seasoned with ancient echoes. Beowulf the warrior, virtually a caricature of exaggerated, implausible heroism in some translations, is rescued in this new version to stand revealed as someone credibly human. Heaney's translation is eminently readable, but does not sacrifice the poem's true soul.
The Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition is a markedly handsome volume, a bilingual presentation with the Anglo-Saxon original and Heaney's translation on facing pages. The US publication was delayed a few months, and I would not be surprised to learn that release was intentionally held until after announcement of the Whitbread Award in the UK. Heaney's "Beowulf" beat the latest "Harry Potter" novel for that prestigious honor by a single vote, proving the adolescent wizard to be as formidable an opponent as a grim monster from a mere.
To anybody who has been promising him- or herself to get around to reading this classic poem "one of these days" but has been deterred by vague memories of awkward verse from "Beowulf" may finally be here. Seamus Heaney's translation reads as smoothly as any prose, yet the poetry can always be heard, whispering in your ear.