Meghan Purvis introduces her bold new translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, out now from Penned in the Margins. I was in my third year of university when the professor of my History of the English Language class stood up at the front of the lecture hall and recited the opening of English’s first […]
I was in my third year of university when the professor of my History of the English Language class stood up at the front of the lecture hall and recited the opening of English’s first epic poem. The hair on the back of my neck stood up —
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Not because of the language, although Old English does beat out a rhythm that makes one’s hands itch for a pair of oars. Not because of the story — although, having read Seamus Heaney’s translation the year before, I was aware of the power of this story of a hero’s journey to do battle with something that changes them forever. It was because the class was taught by Professor Jennifer Bryan, and it was the first time I’d heard Old English spoken by a woman.
Seamus Heaney poses with a replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet
There were, of course, women already working with Old English and Old Norse: Marijane Osborn in America, Heather O’Donoghue in the United Kingdom, and others. But to a young woman still in university — even a good university, even one that often paid particular attention to under-represented voices — the idea that Beowulf was a story I could tell was a new horizon beckoning.
I realised later that Beowulf tends to attract translators who do not have their papers in order. Edwin Morgan was Scottish; Kevin Crossley-Holland discovered Anglo-Saxon literature after failing his first exams at Oxford; Heaney famously put a bawn, a symbol of Anglo-Irish oppression, into his rendering. My translation comes from writing as a woman — usually destined to pour mead and wait for the family feud to erupt — and as an American. We have, all of us, snuck up to this poem while the gatekeepers were otherwise occupied. None of us came to this by birthright.
And in doing this we follow our source material entirely. Scyld Scefing was a foundling who rose to become a legendary king. Beowulf was never meant to rule: he fell into it by outliving everyone else in line for the throne. The world of the poem is populated by people meant for other things, and who wanted something different. They went looking, and found lives marked out by a beating poetic line. But they, the characters, and we, the translators, also brought things with us in our boats: a way of thinking about a building with sentry towers, a name of a Norse god, a sympathy for the women left to ferry pitchers.
Angelina Jolie plays Grendel’s mother in the 2007 film version of Beowulf
My translation does some things with Beowulf that differ dramatically from the source text, most particularly in my approach to the structure: I have split the poem up into a collection-length series of poems that tell the story. By doing so, my translation makes space for the many voices within Beowulf that are often drowned out by a single narrator describing a single hero. This story is about Beowulf, yes; but it is also about the narrator of the poem, and about Modthryth and Hildeburh, about Grendel’s mother, forever nameless. I have not given her a name, but I have given her and others more of a presence and, occasionally, a voice in the poem. Some people will say the shifts in focus and form I have made mean that this is not a translation. But my approach, like every approach to Beowulf, is still real; each is just as accurate as another, because translation happens in the space between, in what is passed over and what is held up to the light. Professor Bryan may have been telling a slightly different slant, but I listened, and now, over ten years later, I am telling my story of Beowulf.
I can’t tell you what you will find in this poem. I can tell you what I’ve seen: boats splitting water, an arm underneath an ashen shield, something stirring in the night. All of it is true. But what you will hear — what Beowulf will show you, will lean to whisper in your ear — is something belonging only to you. Listen. You haven’t heard this one before.
Beowulf is a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation, and selections from it won the Times Stephen Spender Prize for Translation.