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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "A Somewhere Being Remembered" Unheroicly, 8 Feb 2013
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This review is from: Beowulf: A New Translation (Paperback)
Heaney's translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem `Beowulf' was the Whitbread Book of the Year for 1999. I came to the book recently and belatedly, having never read any other version.

I came to `Beowulf' more with the eye of an historian than a literary critic, for any study of Anglo-Saxon history or archaeology is imbued at some point with the aura of `Beowulf', the Anglo-Saxon author writing, as Heaney says, "from his perspective as an Englishman looking back at places and legends that his ancestors knew before they made their migration from continental Europe to their new home."

Yet, like `The Iliad' or `Macbeth' (both of which I love), on the page `Beowulf' is not actually great literature relative to, say, the contemporary novels of John Banville or Julian Barnes. But, then, not one of these three works was meant to be read; rather, they were meant to be told.

So, as with Homer and Shakespeare, `Beowulf' did indeed come alive when I imagined the story being told to me aloud (in this instance by someone sounding very similar to Anglo-Saxon historian Michael Wood). `Beowulf' is an oral epic rather than a literary classic. (And this may also be why watching the recent film version directed by Robert Zemeckis was an even better experience than reading it.) Only when imagining the story being told to me aloud, could I conceive of `Beowulf' as - in Heaney's words - "not just metrical narrative full of anthropological interest and typical heroic-age motifs ... [but also] ... poetry of a high order."

Although written as a poem, Heaney's interpretation was read by me as a nicely-balanced prose interpretation but one devoid on many pages, I'm afraid to say, of poetic inspiration. There are flashes of genius, such as Hrothgar declaring, "I who am telling you have wintered into wisdom", or enemies with their "hate-honed swords." "Tail-turners", yes; but I'm not sure of such clumsy choices as "battle-dodgers."

Reading Heaney's version, and only then reading his perceptive twenty-page introduction, I would never have guessed that the words were those of a Nobel-prizewinning author; that is until I reached about halfway through the introduction, when Heaney turns personal and talks of his own linguistic heritage as a route into `Beowulf'.

Here he manages to describe the indescribable (or what I thought was so). At university, "The Irish/English duality, the Celtic/Saxon antithesis were momentarily collapsed and in the resulting etymological eddy a gleam of recognition flashed through the synapses and I glimpsed an elsewhere of potential that seemed at the same time to be a somewhere being remembered." He goes on to explain his method of translation, what he calls finding "the tuning fork that will give you the note and pitch for the overall music of the work." So, rather than an "archaic literary" approach, he plumped for "forthright delivery".

But for the writer Justin Hill, who chose `Beowulf' as his `Book of a Lifetime' for the `Independent' newspaper, Heaney's version "delighted me with its differences" and he gives examples. Hill was brought up on what Heaney refers to as the "archaic literary" approach that produced "A foam-throated seafarer on the ocean's swell", where Heaney himself has "A lapped prow loping over currents." But something deep inside tells me that the former is more apt in conveying the heroic intent of the work.

In conclusion, I think I may have read the wrong version of `Beowulf'.

The text is helpfully accompanied by marginal glosses.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 28 Feb 2013 23:02:38 GMT
Have you tried reading any other translations of the text since?

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Mar 2013 17:56:59 GMT
Sorry, no.

In reply to an earlier post on 20 Feb 2014 22:15:14 GMT
S. Fischer says:
Heany's translation is very far removed from the original text. As long as a reader just wants an easy read with the basics of the story, that will be okay, I guess. Personally, I am not the least happy with the liberties he took with the original. I've been looking for something better, and the edition with the translation by Chickering (printed side by side with the Old English original) seems to be pretty good. It definitely gets the beginning right, in contrast to Heany and several other translators.
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Nicholas Casley

Location: Plymouth, Devon, UK

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