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Beowulf: A New Translation

Maria Dahvana Headley

MCD x FSG Originals

Beowulf: A New Translation Download image

ISBN10: 0374110034
ISBN13: 9780374110031

Trade Paperback

176 Pages



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Hugo Award Finalist
Longlisted for the National Translation Award in Poetry
Winner of the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award

Nearly twenty years after Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf—and fifty years after the translation that continues to torment high-school students around the world—there is a radical new verse translation of the epic poem by Maria Dahvana Headley, which brings to light elements that have never before been translated into English, re-contextualizing the binary narrative of monsters and heroes into a tale in which the two categories often entwine, justice is rarely served, and dragons live among us.

A man seeks to prove himself as a hero. A monster seeks silence in his territory. A warrior seeks to avenge her murdered son. A dragon ends it all. The familiar elements of the epic poem are seen with a novelist’s eye toward gender, genre, and history—Beowulf has always been a tale of entitlement and encroachment, powerful men seeking to become more powerful, and one woman seeking justice for her child, but this version brings new context to an old story. While crafting her contemporary adaptation of Beowulf, Headley unearthed significant shifts lost over centuries of translation.


Praise for Beowulf: A New Translation

"Headley’s version is more of a rewriting than a true translation, re-envisaging the poem for the modern reader rather than transmitting it line for line. It is brash and belligerent, lunatic and invigorating, with passages of sublime poetry punctuated by obscenities and social-media shorthand . . . Not everyone will admire all the linguistic and stylistic choices she has made; that crunching noise in the background is the sound of her predecessors rolling in their burial ships . . . But the over-all effect is as if Headley, like the warrior queen she admired as a child, were storming the dusty halls of the library, upending the crowded shelf of Beowulf translations to make room for something completely new."—Ruth Franklin, The New Yorker

"Maria Dahvana Headley's decision to make Beowulf a bro puts his macho bluster in a whole new light."—Andrea Kannapell, The New York Times

"Beowulf is an ancient tale of men battling monsters, but Headley has made it wholly modern, with language as piercing and relevant as Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN. With scintillating inversions and her use of au courant idiom—the poem begins with the word 'Bro!' and Queen Wealhtheow is 'hashtag: blessed'—Headley asks one to consider not only present conflicts in light of those of the past, but also the line between human and inhuman, power and powerlessness, and the very nature of moral transformation, the 'suspicion that at any moment a person might shift from hero into howling wretch.' The women of Beowulf have often been sidelined. Not so here."—Danielle Trussoni, The New York Times Book Review

“The first thing I need to tell you is that you have to read it now. No, I don’t care if you’ve read Beowulf (the original) before. No, I don't care if you loved it/hated it, if it traumatized you, if it ruined and/or energized the English language for you, or ruined you for translations or whatever. I don't care what you think of when you think of Beowulf in any of its hundreds of other translations because this—this—version, Headley’s version, is an entirely different thing. It is its own thing . . . Headley has made it modern, not in form or style or content, but in temperament . . . Headley’s Beowulf is a big release—discussed, debated, talked about (as it should be) because it has everything: Love, sex, murder, magic, dungeons, dragons, giants, monsters . . . Headley's version (translation? transcription?) is just as real and twice as vital right now as any other. It sings straight through, the alliteration and temper of it invigorating (as it should be) and roaring (as it should be), like Beowulf, introducing himself to Hrothgar . . . It rolls. It demands to be spoken, to be shouted and spat. To be taught as the thing that it is—the Marvel movie of its time . . . I always liked Beowulf a little for what it was: history, foundational myth, epic poem of swords and dragons, source material for paintings on the sides of vans. But Maria Headley’s Beowulf I love for exactly what it is: a psychotic song of gold and blood, stylish as hell, nasty and brutish and funny all at once, mad and bad and sad and alive now in a way that these words simply haven't been for more than a thousand years.”—Jason Sheehan, NPR

"[Headley's] narrator's tone is light and suspenseful, resembling nothing so much as a man telling a long but compelling story in a bar. That comparison isn't accidental . . . [Headley's] Beowulf is a tragicomic epic about the things men do to impress one another. It's as fierce an examination of masculine weakness as The Mere Wife was of feminine strength."—Jo Livingstone, The Poetry Foundation

"Of the four translations I’ve read, Headley’s is the most readable and engaging. She combines a modern poetry style with some of the hallmarks of Old English poetry, and the words practically sing off the page . . . Headley’s translation shows why it’s vital to have women and people from diverse backgrounds translate texts. If you haven’t read Beowulf before, start with Headley’s version, and if you have read Beowulf before, then it’s time to read it again."—Margaret Kingsbury, Buzzfeed

“Fidelity and accuracy are all well and good but a true translation must speak to the reader. It must connect in a way that sparks a dialogue not only with their intellectual curiosity but with the tingling life fluttering within their bone-house, to borrow a much-loved Old English kenning. And it is precisely this deeply exciting conversation—between translator and reader, between the Old English epic and the twenty-first century moment—that Maria Dahvana Headley’s radical verse translation of Beowulf achieves so brilliantly . . . [T]here is precise scholarship at work here, and a deep and fundamental understanding of the language and style of the original poem—but Headley’s translation also injects new life into the epic for the twenty-first century reader . . . The story of Beowulf that emerges in this new translation is one that not only speaks to us . . . but demands loudly to be heard in our twenty-first-century moment. And what captivating shout it is, bro!"—Laura Varnam, History Today

"'Bro!' With that declaration Maria Dahvana Headley’s radical translation of Beowulf sets out to make you look again at the Norse epic. Headley’s version has the brio of someone grandstanding at a bar, thrilling the audience with tales wild and tall. Raids on Old English and contemporary 'word hoards' provide a distinct vocabulary, where warriors become 'made men,' 'smoking guns' are found among the swords, and even a 'hashtag: blessed' appears. Allied to a cunning ear for alliteration, this makes for a text of rollicking, restless verve. The masculine boasting, besting and butchering are duly in place, but Headley adds a sharp focus on the actions and motivations of the female characters. If you’ve ever struggled with the poem, this is the retelling for you, its ferocious clarity turning Beowulf into a Hollywood superhero: 'Your body’s made of steel, your mind mercury, / your tongue gold.'"—Rishi Dastidar, The Guardian

“In the prologue to her translation of Beowulf, Maria Dahvana Headley observes that it is ‘both pleasurable and desirable to read more than one translation of this poem, because when it comes to translating Beowulf, there is no sacred clarity’ . . . I have to say that I couldn’t agree more . . . Much like The Mere Wife, her superb feminist retelling of the same poem, Headley’s translation emphasizes some of the things these periods have in common and their consequences: toxic masculinity, mob mentality, colonization, demonization, misogyny, war . . . Translating Beowulf is a significant challenge and fresh offerings do not come around too often. Two such accomplished contributions in the same, rather dismal year is a gift—one that will help to make this important poem accessible to a new generation of readers.”—Hetta Howes, The Times Literary Supplement

“Beauty and horror abound; the pulsating rhythm of Headley’s translation is (as it should be) much more like performance poetry than the rich, gliding cadences of Heaney’s version . . . Headley’s Beowulf demands to be read in one sitting . . . Barreling along at breakneck speed, pulsing and breathless with excitement, it’s an outstanding poetic feat. Yet it also repays a quieter rereading, with time to savor this extraordinary, alien world. Amid the jeweled surfaces and golden gleaming treasures, the blood and guts, there are wonderful, lyrical descriptions: of the utter glorious strangeness of the dragon (‘a whipping wraith,/a coil convulsing overhead, fangs, claws and scales’), of the mere of frost and fire, and of slender, birdlike ships gliding across the ocean. It’s an astonishing world, and Headley offers us a uniquely powerful way into it.”—Literary Review

"Joy. That is the primary emotion I felt as I was reading Maria Dahvana Headley’s new translation of Beowulf. That’s not an emotion I normally associate with Beowulf, a 1,000+year-old, brooding, elegiac poem, written in a language that can barely be recognized as English, about men and monsters that is obsessed with how one should be remembered after one’s death. Don’t get me wrong. I love Beowulf. It is perhaps my favorite work of literature, but it is not a poem that tends to bring a smile to one’s face. Yet, Headley’s translation did that all the while I was reading it . . . I cannot recommend this translation more highly. It is accessible to the reader who has never encountered Beowulf before, yet it intrigues and challenges those who study the poem professionally. Nothing in it lessens the beauty or power of the original Old English, which is still there, along with the other more 'faithful' translations, for those who want to tackle it. I can only hope that this translation not only attracts a new cohort of readers to one of the gems of English literature, but allows those already familiar with the poem to see new ways that it connects to the twenty-first century."—Dave Wilton, author of Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends

"An iconic work of early English literature comes in for up-to-the-minute treatment . . . From the very opening of the poem—'Bro!' in the place of the sturdy Saxon exhortation 'Hwaet'—you know this isn't your grandpappy's version of Beowulf . . . Headley's language and pacing keep perfect track with the events she describes . . . [giving] the 3,182-line text immediacy without surrendering a bit of its grand poetry . . . Her version is altogether brilliant."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


My love affair with Beowulf began with Grendel’s mother, the moment I encountered her in an illustrated compendium of monsters,1 a slithery greenish entity standing naked in a swamp, knife in hand. I was about...

About the author

Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and editor. Her books include the novels The Mere Wife, Magonia, Aerie, and Queen of Kings, and the memoir The Year of Yes. With Kat Howard, she is the author of The End of the Sentence, and with Neil Gaiman, she is the coeditor of Unnatural Creatures. Her stories have been short-listed for the Shirley Jackson, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and her work has been supported by the MacDowell Colony and by Arte Studio Ginestrelle, where the first draft of Beowulf was written. She was raised with a wolf and a pack of sled dogs in the high desert of rural Idaho and now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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