Over the past year I finally read Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, a retelling of the Beowulf story, which is fantastic and I will write about later. More recently, her translation of Beowulf was released and I believe it may be the most compelling translation to come out since Seamus Heaney’s version was published in 1999.
Just as Seamus Heaney’s version was imbued with his cultural background and experience as a poet and playwright, Headley lays out how her background affected her own translation:
And so, I offer to the banquet table this translation, done by an American woman born in the year 1977, a person who grew up surrounded by sled dogs, coyotes, rattlesnakes, and bubbling natural hot springs nestled in the wild high desert of Idaho, a person who, if we were looking at the poem’s categories, would fall much closer in original habitat to Grendel and his mother than to Beowulf or even the lesser denizens of Hrothgar’s court….
I come from the land of cowboy poets, and while theirs is not the main style I used for this translation, I did spend a lot of time imagining the narrator as an old timer at the end of the bar, periodically pounding his glass and demanding another. “I saw it with my own eyes” (xv-xvi)
What I love about Headley’s translations (and perhaps some of this comes from having read The Mere Wife beforehand) but her identifying to a degree with the vilified Grendel and Grendel’s mother, and her perceptive analysis of the power of women in the poem, a power often overlooked by scholars and readers alike, allow for new and needed interpretations of the women in the text, such as Grendel’s mother. In Heaney’s version Grencel’s the first appearance of Grendel’s mother reads not dissimilar to other translations, casting her as a monster:
monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs. (1258-59)
Headley’s, is, to me, more positive, almost celebratory, like a legendary myth:
Warrior woman, outlaw, mediated on misery. (1257-58)
While both provoke the imagination, Headley’s speaks more to my natural empathy for Grendel’s mother as a strong woman than any other translation ever has, and perhaps some of this has to do with my own background. I admit I may be biased, I am from the west and grew up with “outlaw” representing the wild independence of the desert, scrub bush covered hills of southern California, riding horses across isolated, dusty, sun-drenched river bottoms. Others might view “outlaw” more negatively, but there is still a romance to it in the American west. Grendel’s mother as an outlaw, as an exile, as an independent single-mother in an epic blood feud, is simply looking for old testament style, eye-for-an-eye, vigilante revenge after the murder of her only son. And the image of Ruth Cole from AMC’s Hell on Wheels (2011-2016) comes to mind; granted, Grendel did murder first, but when has such a minor detail ever mattered to an angry mother?