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Translation and relevance: To bro or not to bro?

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

How does one translate a word that has no definite modern equivalent? I am referring to the Hwaet that begins the epic, Old English poem Beowulf. Hwaet is a call to attention, a sit down, be still, quiet and listen. It signals that the story teller is about to begin. Tolkein preferred the formal (and maybe rather Victorian?) sounding 'Lo'; Heaney an Irish lilting 'So'. Are both of these too gentle to grab the listener's attention? Are they too dated for 21st century ears? Well, how about the most recent translation of Hwaet by Maria Dahvana Headley - 'Bro!'?

To be honest, the few students I have run this past have responded with (perhaps predictable) cringing. It feels too much like someone trying to be one of the 'yoofs'. As teachers, we are all too aware of how to instantly loose all credibility (admittedly low in the first place) in the classroom by attempting such linguistic tactics as these. And yet...

And yet it is attention grabbing, exactly as Hwaet was intended. A literal translation is near impossible so, why not try something new? Likewise Headley's reinterpretation of Grendel's mother which has potential to trouble some of the purists for its feminist perspective. But surely there is room for one more interpretation of this epic poem?

Perhaps the most challenging problem of the headline catching use of 'bro' is that it potentially distracts the conversation away from the rest of the translation which is intelligent and informed, rooted in literary and historical research. At times the language is breathtakingly beautiful, take for example, the wistfulness of the line which follows the controversial opening 'Tell me we still know how to speak of kings!'

On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine a text as old as this, even Beowulf, generating headlines and discussions without some controversy and, for that, this reader is thankful, since it has indeed introduced a new generation of readers to the lost world of Beowulf (and Grendel's mother!).

Maria Dahvana Headley: Beowulf, A New Translation, is published in paperback by Scribe Publications, London, 2021.

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