Battling grief with Beowulf

Beowulf is a cold substitute for a warm woman, the warm woman being my wife, who is now a non-being in the cold black void of death.

To try and stop from going insane and/or shooting myself, I am currently seeking refuge in literature — the classics, from Beowulf to War and Peace.

Tonight it’s Beowulf, an anonymous epic poem of 3,182 lines about a Scandinavian hero prince that was written sometime between the years 650 and 990.

What interests me is the difference in translations. English translations of any foreign language work are an almost impossible endeavor, particularly one written in Anglo-Saxon or Old English.

Beowulf has been much translated, but take the latest highly lauded translation in 2000 by Irish writer and poet Seamus Heaney, which was on the New York Times best-seller list.

Here is his version of Beowulf’s battle with the dragon (lines 2688 to 2693):

Then the bane of that people, the fire-breathing dragon,

was mad to attack for a third time.

When a chance came, he caught the hero

in a rush of flame and clamped sharp fangs

into his neck. Beowulf’s body

ran wet with his life-blood: it came welling out.

Compare that to the 1963 translation by Burton Raffel:

Then the monster charged again, vomiting

Fire, wild with pain, rushed out

Fierce and dreadful, its fear forgotten.

Watching for its chance it drove its tusks

Into Beowulf’s neck; he staggered, the blood

Came flooding forth, fell like rain.

To me, the Raffel translation (in a handy Signet Classic pocket book that actually does fit in your pocket) is more dramatic and superior to the overly praised version by Heaney (a larger, clumsier Norton paperback.)

Anyway, that’s tonight’s excursion into the escapism of literary distraction. I hope you found it interesting. Comments most welcome.

William Michelmore


 

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