Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review of Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney

The New York Times bestseller, Beowulf:  A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney (bilingual edition), was published in the year 2000 by W. W. Norton & Company.  The book includes an invaluable introduction by the author.  The translation is presented side-by-side with the old English original.

I recently tried my hand at translating poetry (from modern Spanish into modern English).  Such an undertaking presents interesting and difficult challenges.  It is not (or should not be) enough simply to literally translate the words.  The translation must capture the spirit of the poem and, just as important, the feel, the rhythm, and the music of the poem.

Seamus Heaney does a marvelous job of it in his translation of Beowulf, the oldest known poem in the English language.  His use of alliteration, and his strategic choice of words--some of them archaic but still recognizable--really make the ancient epic sing.  And the introduction, while perhaps a bit too scholarly at times, as well as his helpful marginal notes, enhances the experience by aiding the reader in understanding the action.

On another personal note, my poem "Lord Kenton and the Dragon" echoes the last part of the Beowulf saga.  I did not realize that I had done this until I read Mr. Heaney's translation, having only been familiar with the first part of the tale when Beowulf fights Grendel.  But perhaps, subconsciously, deep in my poet bones, the spirit of the unknown composer of the story of the Prince of Geats was there as I wrote the sad ballad of the last battle of Lord Kenton, the heroic paladin from the world of Eretz.  Perhaps the spirit of that first English poet resides in every composer of English poetry.

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