Musing on Beowulf: Hwæt!
For some reason articles about new translations of Beowulf tend to be fascinated on how they translate the first word of the poem: Hwæt. Literally, it means “what” and for the poem it is used by the teller to bring attention. This has given rise to a variety of attention getting words used for the translation. A few translations of Hwæt! from my bookshelf: Ay! Lo! Hail! Listen! So. Others I’ve seen: Hark! Behold! Attend!
Out of them, that “So” stands out as being rather subdued in comparison. That’s Seamus Heaney. It seems like when I bring up Beowulf to people, if they know anything about it at all to begin with, it’s usually Heaney’s version they’ve read. I don’t know the numbers but just based on that I assume his translation is currently the most popular or well known. Which is both great and also not so great. I think any positive attention Beowulf gets is good and Heaney’s version seemed to rouse up a good deal of interest among the public. All good. The part I don’t like though is that his translation tends to leave the original in favor of flavor, and by his own admission he leaves some Anglo-Saxon words in favor of what he calls “Hiberno-English Scullionspeak”. For what it’s worth his translation is an enjoyable read, so long as you understand it’s less Beowulf and more Heaneywulf.
Now maybe it was inevitable without Heaney’s contribution, but I think it’s fair to say that his pulling away from the strange and/or plain Anglo-Saxonisms into his more familiar and colorful Irish opened the door for some rather heinous abuses. I don’t want to put this at his feet but it seems after Heaney’s translation we begin to see people looking at Beowulf not for what it brings to them, but what they can twist it into for their own purposes. Beowulf becomes just like every other modern re-interpretation which usually results in an ugly step-sister’s fat foot being forced into a glass slipper. You can see this starkly in Maria Dahvana Headley’s new version where “Hwaet!” becomes “Bro!” FWING! That was the sound of the glass slipper being fwinged across the room.
I read somewhere that J.R.R. Tolkien, as he began one of his lectures on Beowulf, entered the classroom and roared out a resounding “HWÆT!” which silenced the classroom immediately, half the room believing he yelled “QUIET!”, the other half stunned at the shout from the otherwise soft spoken and hard-to-understand professor. He then proceeded to recite the tale. In Old English. Not many of his students understood, but they felt it. I would have killed to have been there. It would have been a sight. It would have been a sound. I have no idea how modern day professors teach Beowulf today but I’ll hazard a bet that somewhere, in some school I can’t afford to attend, some professor lady with half bangs has approached the podium, adjusted her ironic glasses, and killed a thousand would-be-lovers of Beowulf with a snarled whisper, “Bro.”
For me, pile on the otherness, the high strangeness, the hearty oldfangled words and phrases of my ancestors. I want to go to Beowulf in his own world and time, or as close as I can. I hope some day some clever fellow will attempt a translation that retains many of the Old English words and spellings, giving us just enough to get by on. A type of “shadow” translation—something similar to what Paul Kingsnorth did in his book The Wake—combining old and new words and spellings to enhance the strangeness and aid us in getting that much closer to the world of Beowulf.
In that translation the first word would simply be “Hwæt!”
Illustration by Charles&Thorn