Beowulf, Unknown & Seamus Heaney

Beowulf, Seamus Heaney Beowulf by Unknown Author

Translated by Seamus Heaney

First Published: between 700 and 1200
First Published:
1999 (this translation)
Pages: 106 including notes  – plus introduction (Paperback)
Form: Epic Poetry

Rating:3/5 = I liked it3/5 = I liked it3/5 = I liked it3/5 = I liked it3/5 = I liked it

Composed towards the end of the first millennium, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is one of the great Northern epics and a classic of European literature. In his new translation, Seamus Heaney has produced a work which is both true, line by line, to the original poem, and an expression, in its language and music, of something fundamental to his own creative gift.

The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on, physically and psychically exposed, in that exhausted aftermath. It is not hard to draw parallels between this story and the history of the twentieth century, nor can Heaney’s Beowulf fail to be read partly in the light of his Northern Irish upbringing. But it also transcends such considerations, telling us psychological and spiritual truths that are permanent and liberating.

– Taken from Amazon. No blurb on book itself

Taking a quick break from Les Misérables (great, but fucking long) to type up a brief review. And it will be brief because basically all I have to say is that I like the story itself, but I simply can’t make myself trust Heaney as a translator.

I have no particular reason not to trust him as a translator, let’s get that straight. I don’t read Old English, have never read an unabridged Beowulf translation before, and this one is very highly and widely regarded – so I’m not anywhere near qualified to say anything about how faithful/good a translation it is. It’s just a gut feeling that, really, I’d have been better off with a different translation. When I finished the book I didn’t feel ‘yes I’m done with Beowulf, I’m one badass classics reader’ but, ‘I should probably go buy/borrow the Oxford World Classics edition’.

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone for an edition translated by a poet who’s famous in his own right – but then that never bothered me with Simon Armatage’s translations of Arthurian epics. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone for one translated by a poet I studied and disliked at school – but I assumed I’d grown out of that rather juvenile ‘I studied it so I hate it’ dislike and had only heard good things about his translation. Maybe it’s just because it’s Beowulf and I was expecting something truly awesome… Whatever the reason I ended up feeling disappointed with the poem and disappointed with myself for picking this translation. It’s not bad, it’s very readable in fact and the story, as expected, is pretty damn cool. I just simply can’t get over the feeling I’m reading Heaney’s version of Beowulf rather than Heaney’s translation. It’s probably irrational – not being able to read Old English I’ll probably never know – but reading the introduction, which is lots about Heaney and very little about Beowulf didn’t really do anything to challenge this gut feeling. In fact reading the all about Heaney introduction (in several parts cause I had to keep putting it down from boredom) just reminded me why I found him so unbearable to study at GCSE.

But for people without my anti-Heaney baggage – it tells the Beowulf story  and it is very readable. I can’t speak for its accuracy as a translation, just my own personal response to it so I’d take this whole review with a massive grain of salt.


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Filed under Poetry, Reviews

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