Many of you have probably heard the news: there's a new Beowulf in town. What do I think? I think it's better than Heaney's. Let me repeat that: I think this version is better than the one by the Nobel laureate. I'll explain.
As far as I'm concerned, there are two kinds of Beowulf out there. On the one hand you have hyper-accurate scholarly translations and editions. Of these the generally accepted king is the one that has come to bear the name of its originator: Klaeber's Beowulf, which I believe is now in its fourth edition. There are others, more or less useful for other specific purposes. I prefer Liuzza's
The other type are the poetic translations. These aren't ever going to be accurate enough for scholarship, but have other merits, chief among which is their ability to convey (if done well) something of the artistry of the original that escapes prose translations.
For this type judging the best edition is a matter of taste -- who can say what makes a poem more amenable to one person than another. Each poet -- for this type of translation requires a poet -- makes choices. What meaning will be sacrificed in order to meet the requirements of meter, alliteration, etc.? To be sure, even prose translators must make some of these decisions, but for the poet there are many many more.
Meyer's poem, for me, captures something visceral about the original that escapes even the best prose editions. It occupies a peculiar meeting place between the wild lunacy of Ginsberg's "Howl", the impassioned restraint of one of Thomas's villanelles, and the original "Geat epic" in Old English. It also, in its formatting, captures something of the performance, of the way we think perhaps it would have been, could have been performed in Old English. Look:
Especially for the last part of the passage, some comparison is in order.
Then as dawn brightened and the day broke
Grendel's powers of destruction were plain:
their wassail was over, they wept to heaven
and mourned under morning...
The Old English:
Ða wæs on uhtan mid ær-dæge
Grendles guð-cræft gumum undyrne;
þa wæs æfter wiste wop up ahafen,
micel morgen-sweg. (ll.126-129a)
And Liuzza's prose:
When in the dim twilight just before dawn
Grendel's warfare was made known to men,
then lamentation was lifted up after the feasting,
a great morning-sound...
Of course Liuzza's is the most accurate rendition, followed by Heaney, and at a distance Meyer -- but which do I *like* better? Which do you? Heaney is trying to straddle the line, I think, between accuracy and artistry, and I think Meyer has somewhat heroically decided to throw his hands in the air. He's given up the cause of literal accuracy and gone for something else, accuracy of the soul maybe. In the end, it's all up to a matter of taste, but in my opinion, we don't need another accurate translation. We have those.
Meyer's version fills another need.
(1) It has been pointed out to me that Liuzza's translation, though it stresses accuracy over many formal concerns (like alliteration) is in fact a verse translation with an admittedly quiet four-stress line and medial pause.