The poem came to me a few years ago when most of the world was being told that a barbarous and threatening evil lived in a terrible place, a dangerous desert in the Middle East. It had come to our home and murdered many of our people. The monsters needed to be caught and stopped. There was an unknown thing and we had quickly turned to rhetoric to characterize it along with all other things hateful. We were in some way in the midst of a translation of something for which few us had idiomatic knowledge.
I had two texts at the time: one frequently used transcription of the original edited by Frederick Klaeber, the other a popular verse translation by renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney. The former contains a glossary from which my fellow students and I were to find the paths to our respective translations. The glosses provided strove to educate, and as a recent manuscript of the newest edition has said, “intended no just to give Modern English equivalents but to gloss the components of words and to indicate etymological connections. In compounded words, [for example], very often an effort is made first to gloss the elements literally or to point to a modern reflex, and only after to suggest a more precise semantic equivalent.” (“Glossary” Klaeber). The latter, Heaney’s, is a beautiful rendition in Hiberno-English and provided an example of a well-formed translation. In many ways it was refreshing; no one had before begun to quietly and powerfully just the word “So” (1) at first line, or had put sentences like “That was one good king” (11), more clearly. Yet it contained a translation of Grendel, the first enemy that the Beowulf fights, which I have come to learn is not altogether supportable.