Maria Dahwana Headley's new, modern translation of Beowulf renders it accessible and deeply human

Maria Dahwana Headley, wrestling "a living text in a dead language". Picture: Supplied

Maria Dahwana Headley, wrestling "a living text in a dead language". Picture: Supplied

  • Beowulf, translated by Maria Dahwana Headley. Scribe, $27.99.

For zip, fizz and bite - all non-"literary" qualities - this new translation of the oldest book in English is hard to beat.

Headley's interpretation of Beowulf has been contentious for all the wrong reasons. She certainly uses slang, with a particular fondness for "bro", but with "bling", "swole" and "hashtag" proudly featured as well. She includes plenty of swear words, just conventional ones with none inserted gratuitously. Headley also strains alliteration to the limit, "froth-fanged foulness" and "sludge-stranded" among my favourites.

Nonetheless, Headley's attempts to transmute this "tapestry of terror threaded with triumph" into hip modern lingo actually works. Having discerned the point "where mind and metre could merge", Headley makes Beowulf accessible, troubled and deeply human. Headley has wrestled with "a living text in a dead language", worrying throughout about "how to use modern English to convey things inexpressible in it".

Those last two quotes are taken from a 27-page introduction to Beowulf's 3182 lines. Headley wears her scholarship with a difference, even as she confides to the reader her worries about capturing "an intricate treatise on morality, masculinity, flexibility and failure". Those four nouns, by the way, radically under-estimate the emotional power and narrative range in this saga.

The froth-fanged frothing of Old English purists is easily imagined. Some academics insist on teaching Beowulf in its unintelligible original form. Imagine trying to engage a student with the beauty of literature while instructing them to wade through "hwaet" (the word here rendered as "bro") "fyrenoearfe" and "lofdaenyum" - and that is only the first page. On her first page, by contrast, Headley describes things as "bootstrapped" and "bonfiring".

Other critics will stick loyally to their preferred translation, as I did with Seamus Heaney's (1999), until reading this one. Others still will object to the use of current colloquialisms. That line of argument would rule out any up-dating of Jane Austen's timeless wisdom (goodbye Clueless) or any staging of Shakespeare in modern dress.

After all, Headley's translation is an innovation, not a travesty; she remains true to the texture and spirit of the original. Headley's work is not, for instance, comparable with casting a white man as Othello or a decisive manager as Hamlet. Earlier Headley published a riff on Beowulf in the form of a novel about a war veteran with PTSD, but here Beowulf remains set in his own time, trusting its rituals, believing its myths, fearing its God. A dumbed-down depiction of that world is ready to hand in burlesque form in either Games of Thrones or Bernard Cornwell's interminable chronicles of Uthred of Bettanburg.

Objecting to Headley's new, modern reading of a text more than a millennium old might be analogous to carping about the wondrous contemporary language which pervades the King James Bible. The authors of that Bible might well agree with Headley's observation that "I let the poem's story lead me to its style". Both sets of authors might endorse Heaney's remark in his own introduction to Beowulf, that a great work of literature "lives in its own continuous present".

We should be drawn back to Beowulf himself, "the strongest and the boldest, and the bravest and the best". Here is a hero "excelling in impossibility" as he ventures forth to kill a monster, that monster's mother, then a dragon. For Headley, Beowulf is "ready to rumble, pissed now". Nonetheless, he rides his luck, relying on his strong grip, a borrowed sword and a helper with a working weapon.

This warrior is not Achilles (unequalled in martial skill), Ulysses (too cunning and clever for his foes) or Aeneas (loyal and competent if a bit dull). Headley's Beowulf is quite human in scale and spirit both. While his mates are haplessly "scythed from swordsmen into skeletons" or skulk away in fear, Beowulf's own demons seem to lie within.

The founder of the Salvation Army reckoned that the Devil had all the best tunes. In this book, Beowulf's adversaries enjoy all the best prose. Some monsters are caught "tunnelling with tooth and tusk". Grendel's mother arrives for battle, "carried on a wave of wrath". Owls hunt mice by "mist-diving", then "grist-grinding". Headley's dragon puts to shame all those humdrum fire-breathers in Westeros.

As modern renditions of classic texts, Robert Fagles' translations of Homer upstage the competition. We might, however, wish that Headley would now turn her attention to the Trojan war, a tale as "bloody and juicy" as her Beowulf. Headley's "word-whipping" would galvanise Achilles into tempestuous passion.

Hector would rightly become a rival more worthy than any dragon. As for lustful Helen, a feminist construction awaits.

This story A new and deeply human Beowulf first appeared on The Canberra Times.