Future Tense

Beowulf, ICYMI

A conversation with Maria Dahvana Headley on Beowulf: A New Translation.

The cover of Beowulf: A New Translation is seen repeatedly.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by FSG.

On Wednesday at noon Eastern, join Future Tense for a conversation with Maria Dahvana Headley; Alena Smith, creator of Dickinson; and Gretchen McCulloch, internet linguist. The event will launch Predictive Text, a new Future Tense series that explores how the past, present, and future of language collide.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s decision to begin her translation of Beowulf with “Bro” has gotten a lot of attention. Though the 3,182 lines that make up the Old English poem have been translated many times, Headley’s Beowulf: A New Translation is decidedly new, blending traditional language with modern slang (“hashtag: blessed,” “swole,” “thirsty”) to present the iconic story through a new, feminist lens. Like it or not, it’s a translation that opens doors.

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I spoke with Headley about the meaning of translation, the ways the internet shapes language, and the lessons the 1,000-year-old text carries into 2020. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mia Armstrong: Your translation was my first foray into Beowulf. I think that I, like a lot of other people, am intimidated by Old English literature and some of these adjacent genres—it feels like they’re disconnected or inaccessible. And so your translation, for me, was just this beautiful welcome mat into a world that I didn’t know could be welcoming. When you set out to do this translation, who were you doing it for?

Maria Dahvana Headley: Everyone. I did the translation for every purpose at once—which is chaotic, but I’m chaotic. My goal has always been to broaden the audience. I want to open the doors that have historically been closed … to diversify the audience that has been pushed out by translators over the years. A lot of the translators of Beowulf were and are ivory tower translators, and I’m not from that realm. I didn’t come from a university, Old English education. I’m not a scholar. I’m a passionate learner and a very curious person. What I want from this is, maybe I’ve gotten to kick down some of the doors of accessibility, in terms of accessibility for women, for scholars who are more diverse than just the old, straight canonical dudes.

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But I wrote this from a sort of bro POV as well. I’m hoping to also speak to readers who are interested in thinking about masculinity in different ways.

I’m interested in how you entered this world dominated by these folks in ivory towers. My understanding is that you came to Beowulf through Grendel’s mother, who in your translation is a “warrior-woman,” “an outlaw,” “a reclusive night-queen”; in other translations she is an “ogress,” “monstrous hell-bride.” Tell me about your entrance into this world—and also about the conflict surrounding Grendel’s mother’s identity, and how you’ve explored that in your translation.

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I came to the Beowulf translation through writing The Mere Wife, a novel that was based on Beowulf. What I was really interested in when I was writing The Mere Wife was Grendel’s mother. I thought, OK, Grendel’s mother has been done wrong over the couple of centuries of translation and also adaptation, in which she was adapted specifically as a monster. It was a combination of choice and habits, I think, to make Grendel’s mother a monster. And in the original text, she is the mother of someone who has monstrous characteristics, but her characteristics actually aren’t monstrous—which to me says that maybe there were some monstrous characteristics coming from Grendel’s father, who isn’t mentioned. I think it just didn’t occur to a lot of male translators.

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In this poem, it seems like there are a lot of gray spaces, a lot of debated spaces, in terms of the meaning of the original text. Given that context, what does translation actually mean to you?

Translation hopefully uses all of the concepts of the original, and not necessarily the language of the original, but hopefully we get it right in terms of what the original poet intended.

However, we often don’t know in the case of an ancient text like this. We don’t know who the original poet was, for one thing. It’s been broken down over the years to maybe a three-century span of possibilities for when this text began to exist. Three centuries—imagine for a moment what we’ve done over three centuries in English-language literature.

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My own version of translating this was me translating it very consciously through the lens of a 21st-century feminist novelist. I looked at it purposefully that way. I also looked at it purposefully through the lens of someone was born in 1977 and grew up with the knowledge of what masculinity is in this period of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. I thought a lot about the analysis of masculinity we’ve done.

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I used a lot of scholarship on gender, a lot of scholarship on queerness, a lot of scholarship on monsterization. So I was using not just direct translation, and not just literal translation, but what might be under the surface here.

The translation is a reimagining of what Beowulf means, consciously locating its possibilities in our recent political history as Americans and in the last thousand years of violence. I was really consciously using the way that the Beowulf text has influenced society in the last 200 years, because of being assigned reading, because of being canonical reading.

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That sounds like a massive amount of material that you were referencing and using. Take me into a day in the life. What did doing this translation actually look like?

If you could have seen me doing this, what you would have seen was someone who was between three months pregnant and literally having a baby as I was doing this translation, carrying around a rolling suitcase full of books everywhere I went, plus having like 90 tabs open all the time. I was carrying dictionaries around with me. I was translating word for word, also using old literal translations and old poetic translations from the entire history of translation of Beowulf. I just was sitting with a pile of books around me for two years. That’s not even anything compared with the history of translating Beowulf. I mean, people did 40-year translations of Beowulf. I just didn’t have the luxury of being able to do a 40-year translation.

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In 40 years, maybe I’ll publish another translation, and it would be different. Old English is a language where you’re always just like, It could mean this, it could mean nine other things.

There are a lot of possibilities, and there are a lot of lenses to look at a translation through. Historically, a lot of people have thought that the lens was a very specific colonialist lens, colonialist as in a “we don’t need to analyze it” lens, as opposed to, we do need to analyze those impulses throughout the history of translation of a text like this. We need to think about what it means to come in and build a hall on someone else’s land. I mean, at least I think we need to think about that.

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One of the choices that you made in your translation was blending what you acknowledge are “archaic or underknown words” with slang like swole or thirsty. It seems like it’s a hard line to walk there, sewing those two things together in a way that doesn’t feel forced or cheesy but actually just feels understandable and brings people in. How did you walk that line?

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I mean, it’s actually just how I talk. So for me, it wasn’t difficult. It’s pretty normal for me to be gobbling from every corner of the language. My whole career has been grabbing bits of folklore and repurposing them, and testing out different meters and repurposing them. That’s the writer I am. But in terms of using some of the more recent slang, I was really just interested in how much of the English language has been constructed out of slang always. That’s just the nature of the language. It’s a language that grabs culturally, jumps class.

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Have you received criticism from some of the ivory tower folks who maybe feel scandalized that “hashtag: blessed” or “bro” appear in a Beowulf translation?

Not really. One of the things that’s wonderful about medieval scholarship is that people often get into it because it’s fun. It’s full of really interesting, weird stuff that’s fun to play with. It’s basically just a nerd-joy situation.

And I’m sure there are certainly people who really feel scandalized by this, I know there are. But for a lot of people, because the text has been translated so many times, and especially if you’re a person who works in that field, you’re like, “Well, this is a new version.” It doesn’t feel like the same thing over again. It doesn’t feel like somebody just got more tightly bothered about the details and the nitpicks of it—because I didn’t. I was like, OK, let’s make sure the story comes through. Let’s make sure the feeling of the oral tradition comes through. Let’s make this juicy and fun.

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In your introduction, you write, “Language is a living thing, and when it dies, it leaves bones.” I’m curious about what you think about how the internet and online communication are changing language, what bones they’re leaving, and how they’re affecting oral tradition.

It’s amazing to watch it happening in real time, and in a way that we’ve never been able to before, because of this sort of instant archaization of slang, specifically internet slang. I remember 20 years ago when I was first texting, and I had to press the buttons five or six times to get the letters. Lots of slang came because it was really hard to get those words out. You had to reduce the words, and it became a sort of encryption due to tedium. A lot of those words continue in the lexicon, but they were convenience words. And then the words that died are now really shameful to use—it’s now embarrassing.

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People feel nervous when they read this translation, because they’re like, it’s going to be obscure really quickly. Instantly these words are going to die, and it’s going to be embarrassing—which to me isn’t even a thing, because I think that language is evolving all the time. And we’re just happening to witness the evolution of language right now in a really exciting way.

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It also speaks to the original, which has words in it that only occur in that text, nowhere else. We don’t know where they came from; we don’t know what they mean. And we have lots of guesses, but there are words that are clearly their own slang and their own typos within the original text of Beowulf. I love that about it.

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You write that Beowulf is a poem about “Then” and “Now.” Tell me what this poem means to you in the “Now” of 2020, and what you hope it might mean to your readers.

Well, I mean, 2020 has been evolving, every day it evolves.

I was really thinking a lot about boundary making, about insisting that the people on the other side of the boundary are your enemies. And that’s something that’s really intensely a part of American history and culture. The idea that “on one side you have your stuff and your people and on the other side are the monsters” is an insane aspect of American culture that we consistently re-create in order to justify bad behavior in every part of our society.

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I was thinking about border walls. I was thinking about every monsterization that has been coming out of the administration for the last four years, [Donald Trump’s] insistence upon the monsterization of, really, every category of person except for himself. That exists in the poem.

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I’m interested in the ways that heroic language is deployed by people who are very unheroic in order to create a heroic response or to create a protective response in society. And right now we’re watching that happen. We’re watching a panicky, protective response. People are trying to protect this guy who’s sitting on his own treasure right now, trying to hoard it, trying to keep it. He’s clearly a bad king, but that doesn’t matter because he’s deploying heroic language and saying: “I’m your hero. And now I’m a victim.”

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I’m always thinking about the storytelling techniques that we need to be using and developing in order to create a more generous society—because the hero-monster society is not a generous society. It’s inherently not.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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