Beowulf is an Epic Poem

Beowulf is an epic poem written roughly between the 8th and 11th centuries by an unknown author. It is a masterful story born from Old English and has lived up to its heroic and virtuous protagonist, Beowulf. Primarily, Beowulf yearned to be immortalized by being remembered for generations beyond his death. It is thanks to the contributions of many scholars that helped carry on the legacy of Beowulf through translating the archaic poem into Modern English, cementing itself into accessible text and never forgotten. Beowulf: A New Verse, by Seamus Heaney, published on February 15th, 2000, arguably has the most readable and therefore superior translation of Beowulf compared to prior translations.

To appreciate the arduous challenge of translating Beowulf, it is important to note the obstacles translators had to face. James Shapiro, an English professor from Columbia University, who published an article to The New York Times titled, A Better ‘Beowulf’ stated what those difficulties were. The first issue is that while translating from Old English into Modern English is not the most difficult part, it is actually the issue of the translation being too bland to read.

Beowulf in its original form is complex, highly formulaic, rich in compounds, apposition, repetition and parallelism; and very few lines mesh well with the flow into Modern English (Shapiro). The role of a great translation, according to The Institute of Export and International Trade, is to disguise a translation as simply what the original text would had read if it was written in the language it was translated to. Mistakenly, many translators were too rigid in their translations and felt like an obvious translation.

The second issue is that the original author of Beowulf had a very specific rhythm for each line in the poem, which followed a pattern called iambic pentameter. This means that each line will have ten syllables, and within that line, will have five stresses. Unfortunately, Modern English rarely follows these kinds of restrictions poetically. Scholarly translators that wanted to understandably maintain the richness of Beowulf, by forcing modern vocabulary into an iambic pentameter formula, often translated certain lines into a painful-to-read jog-trot (Shapiro). Without a sense of poetic rhythm, many elements of the story and the representations of the characters tend to fall flat. The duty of these translators was to ideally recapture the passion the original author intended, many of whom could not; until Seamus Heaney successfully cracked the code.

Capturing the true essence Beowulf lies in properly representing the protagonist, Beowulf of the Geats, and the translations by Heaney proved to be the best representation. According to Melissa Snell, a historical researcher with a concentration of the Middle Ages, the first translation of Beowulf into Modern English was done in 1837 by J. M. Kemble. Beyond the fact that Kemble took on the task in the Nineteenth Century, and for the fact Beowulf has been translated into roughly sixty-five other modern languages, that means there have been multiple variations of the same character, Beowulf, way before Heaney finished his interpretation in the year 2000 (Snell).

Many translators simply did not come close to expressing the passionate, noble, and virtuous Beowulf as the original author did. For example, as Salim E. Al-Ibia, an English Assistant professor of Al al-Bayt University, pointed out in his article titled, A Comparative Study of Three Modern Translations of the Old English Lines (675-702) of Beowulf most readers will feel the positive attitude toward Beowulf with Heaneys translation. Unlike a notable translation in 1952 by Edwin Morgan, Beowulf astonishingly has character traits of being flaunty and arrogant (Al-Ibia).

To demonstrate a clear distinction between the language of Morgans and Heaneys translations, the confrontation between Beowulf and Grendel exposes the differences right away. In lines 675-679, with Morgans translations, of the epic poem, Beowulf is only depicted as the good warrior and Grendel has personified qualities of being able to boast in works of war. This is problematic because it diminishes how much of a threat Grendel is, and how even greater of a necessity Beowulf is. Essentially, Morgan is implying that theres been a war, rather than a one-sided bloody massacred rampage, between Grendel and the Danish. In contrast, Heaney proclaims Beowulf as that prince of goodness and proudly asserts that he is as dangerous any day as Grendel when it comes to fighting. Heaney undoubtably writes Beowulf as the present-day cape-crusader; a hero to fill ones despair with hope.

Seamus Heaneys Beowulf is not only remarkable because of the fluidity the prose, but because of Heaneys background and method towards crafting the final translation. While the epic poem has cultural and locational ties to the Scandinavian area within its story, it is Heaneys Irish heritage that marries his translated Beowulf into an aspiring interpretation that prior translators failed to achieve. In an NPR radio interview from 2007, Heaney explains how he was able to dig into his Irish roots and write more expressively. Rather than use words such as defensive wall he used an Irish word from the seventeenth century called bawn (NPR). Given Beowulfs Anglo-Saxon origins, it also helped that Heaney was able to collaborate with Anglo-Saxon scholars.

Heaneys earlier poetic works also enlighteningly followed iambic pentameter rhythm, giving him further credence for the quality Beowulf: A New Verse famed. Using these techniques allows for the story to maintain its richness in coming across as an ancient, epic tale but also mold his translation fluidly into iambic pentameter measure, in Modern English no less!

It is no slight against for the many translators that endeavored to bring Beowulf into modern eyes. After all, they were performing the ultimate duty: immortalizing Beowulfs legacy for centuries after the fictious, glorious death. However, it is a laborious process to consider when there is a vast quantity of translations but few lacking genuine quality. Even fewer with as passionate and spirited verse as Heaneys translation. Beowulf, a timeless classic, inspired many scholars and translators, but it only took one procure the modern representation of Beowulf that would shower the story with as much love and excitement as the original author had done, centuries ago.

Works Cited

  • Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.
  • Morgan, Edwin. Beowulf. London: The Hand and Flower Press, 1952. Print.
  • Salim Eflih Al-Ibia. A Comparative Study of Three Modern Translations of the Old English
    Lines (675-702) of Beowulf. Journal of Arts and Humanities, Vol 7, Iss 2, Pp 66-72 (2018), no. 2, 2018, p. 66. EBSCOhost, doi:10.18533/journal.v7i2.1337
  • Shapiro, James. A Better ‘Beowulf’. New York Times, 27 Feb. 2000,
    archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/00/02/27/reviews/000227.27shapirt.html.
  • Snell, Melissa. “What You Need to Know About the Epic Poem ‘Beowulf’.” ThoughtCo, 26 Aug. 2018, thoughtco.com/beowulf-what-you-need-to-know-1788397.
  • Translation of ‘Beowulf’ Revives Epic Tale. Talk of the Nation. National Public Radio. 19 Nov. 2007, https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=16425752.
  • What makes a good translation? The Institute of Export and International Trade. 12 Feb. 2018, https://www.export.org.uk/news/386348/What-makes-a-good-translation.htm

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