What Seamus Heaney Did to Beowulf : An Essay on Translation and Transmutation of English Identity
Sandra M. Hordis
In 1999, critics, scholars and classrooms were introduced to Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf: A New Translation, and found themselves struck with the difficulty of criticizing the poet’s translation of one of the classics of English literature. As Tom Shippey wrote in his review for the Times Literary Supplement,
Seamus Heaney is a Nobel Prize-winner; his translation of the poem was commissioned for and is going straight into The Norton Anthology of English Literature; set for virtually every introductory course in English on the North American continent [. . .] and he is a Northern Irish Catholic, one of the excluded, a poet in internal exile. All this, within the power poker of American academe, gives him something like a straight flush, ace high; to which any reviewer must feel he can oppose no more than two pairs, and aces and eights at that [. . .]. Like it or not, Heaney’s Beowulf is the poem now. (9-10).
Shippey’s hesitations concerning his evaluation of Heaney’s translation of the Beowulf text reflect a similar notion proposed by John Niles in 1993, before Heaney had published; he writes that the Beowulf poem lends itself to the artistic sentiments of modern translators, and that we as the audience—for modern academic audiences are more likely to read translations of Beowulf in their classes—are in some ways “at the mercy of translators” and their desires for their texts (Niles 858).