This interview was conducted by DoubleSpeak staff and Professor Taije Silverman.
DoubleSpeak The first question for today is: What got you interested in translation, and how do you see this influencing your work as a writer?
Maria Dahvana Headley: Well, I came about this through a sort of backward path. I wrote a novel based on Beowulf, which is called The Mere Wife, set in contemporary America from the POV of the female characters. When The Mere Wife was about to come out, I gave a reading from it at a conference. In the Q&A, I was talking about all the translations I read, specifically Tolkien’s translation, and said, “Oh, you know, some of them were really sexist. They make Grendel’s mother into an emphatic, unmistakable monster.” And, someone in the audience raised their hand and said, “When is your translation coming out? You’re obviously doing one.” And, I said, “I’m not doing that.” And, then I thought about it for a few days and thought, “Well, maybe.”
Tolkien’s translation uses a lot of language that is archaic, but I thought while reading it, this is a “bro” story, a story in which there’s tons of masculine bragging. I saw a path to use a lot of contemporary language alongside the archaic. When I sold this translation, I said to my editor, “I want to translate Beowulf. I know that’s crazy, but I want to do it. I’ll translate the first word, the legendary hwæt, which is often translated as ‘hark’ or ‘lo’ or Seamus Heaney’s legendary ‘so,’ as ‘bro’ and use that to lead us to a POV for opening the story.” In terms of getting the floor and establishing a character perspective within the material through translation, I thought that “bro” was a way to do that.
DS: That’s very cool. I think I’m really fascinated by the opening with the word “bro” and also the idea that you mentioned in your introduction, which is the mixing of archaic words and new words as if dropping fossils next to newborns. I really loved this metaphor and the idea of putting words together that seem to come from different historical periods but make sense to us with a sense of universality and timelessness. Can you tell us more about that?
MDH: Yeah, I did that consciously. I wanted to give us a tour through 1300 years of the English language. Old English evolved into contemporary English, but not always in the ways that we would think. It’s a really interesting trove, and it has words that have transformed almost perfectly into their contemporary equivalents and words that are really different. So, I wanted to use this translation to think about storytelling through history and the ways in which we communicate idioms and communicate references to historical events in order to create understanding across cultures.
There’s a way to do this translation entirely in contemporary slang, like a translation of the twenty-first century, but the twenty-first century is a compendium of everything that came before it. That’s something that’s always been really meaningful to me when thinking about history, especially the history of power structures and unfair status grabs. I think we tend to be like, “No, we’re just free-standing here in our time.” We don’t want to think about what our history has created for us.
So, I wanted to think about the history of poetic language and storytelling, which is also why I use some obscenity in the poem. Of course, obscenity isn’t a modern invention. It’s been around the whole time that humans have been around. In my opinion, most of the time, obscenity is really direct poetic language because it’s not used literally. If we’re saying “fuck,” we usually don’t mean what that literally means. It’s a perfect example of a word that holds within it some interesting baggage and that holds within it a deeper well of accrued meaning. That’s why I used it here.
DS: I was struck by what you mentioned about how Beowulf, even though it is like an imagined story, is sometimes viewed as a historical text to a certain extent. What do you think about Beowulf’s relationship to history, and how does the historicization of Beowulf impact our view of its function and cultural role?
MDH: Well, it’s interesting because, just a few weeks ago, the legendary-in-a-bad-way Rudy Giuliani referred to Game of Thrones as a documentary. The whole thing reflects a fairly typical confusion between poetic material and actuality, and the idea that poetic material, which is heightened and in this case fully inflated with dragons, can be used to justify real-world questionable acts. “I’m allowed to call for trial by combat because in this documentary I saw, Game of Thrones, it happened that way.” Beowulf is also really relevant to those events of January 6th at the Capitol, in terms of people appropriating what they saw to be a historically-documented version of white nationalist success. That’s a misread — it’s not the case with this material at all.
So, misreading poetic material as history while simultaneously neglecting the actual history is problematic. I also think that poetic material is really relevant. It is our emotional history. It tells us about desire and about yearning for a way to engage with status. In the case of monster-fighting mythology, if you fight a monster, you can acquire power that you wouldn’t otherwise have built. We have that in our culture already, of course. We have the idea of the bootstrap narrative, where you come from nothing and no one and become the king of the country. People even employ that sort of mythological language to speak about themselves. Trump does it all the time. He speaks about himself as a hero who came from no one, nobody, and nothing — all of which is a big lie. He came from money, privilege, and power via his father. But he uses the American Dream mythology to describe his own imaginary folkloric narrative, erasing the patriarchal structure that he’s massively benefiting from. I think about using these kinds of materials — i.e. thousand-year-old poetry — to point out that “legendary” language has frequently been created to support existing power structures. We can see the same power language in Beowulf that we see today.
I think about how, in our time, everyone stands on a little virtual soapbox, giving their own, often highly poetry-infused versions of events, going “I’m the hero.” We have an entire society of “heroes,” all at odds, because the reality is that you can’t be a hero professionally for your whole life. A hero can only exist in a moment, in an action. I think that the notion of heroism is just a question of whether you’re trying to do it because of the status and the legacy and wanting a statue made of you. Part of what I think people raging over the knocking down of statues has been is people imagining their own legacy status signifiers being knocked down. So, it’s that performing “heroic” acts for your own status, or it’s something else, changing the world in discrete moments and then going about your business, not expecting there to be a poem or a Game of Thrones–style ”documentary” that you starred in. I can think of a lot of people who’ve been heroic but weren’t seen as heroes in their lifetime, like Shirley Chisholm. There should be an epic poem about Shirley Chisholm.
DS: Something that you said really stood out to me. I’ve been taking a course about memorialization and how we as humans respond to tragedy or important events. We can either sanctify it by building memorials or statues or we can ignore it. I think you mentioned the tearing down of statues since we’re recognizing that these people were flawed and had their own personal histories. How do you see literature or the translation of these huge texts as part of that memorialization process…of how we remember the past and, in a sense, how we remember the present?
MDH: Beowulf is one of those “it’s lasted this long” kind of stories. I think that the history of the way we’ve depicted power is really relevant to the way that we continue to depict power relationships. We look to the past for guidance, sure, but it’s our responsibility to look more deeply than we often have. The only way to change the nature of these depictions is to understand and analyze where we started. Change isn’t always predictable, but by and large, it comes from the critical mass of years of re-analysis and hard work done by people with passion. I think these texts are important, and I think it’s important to transgress against the unspoken rules of “dignified” and inaccessible translation for important texts. I think it’s also crucial to expand the definition of important. I did it this way because I thought this text was right for a contemporary translation that pointed out tropes of toxic masculinity, as well as pointing out the translation history of minimizing and monsterizing marginalized characters. I could do a translation like this partially because I came from outside of academia. I wasn’t under the thumb of anyone who could tell me I wasn’t allowed to do it like this, that I’d be breaking unbreakable rules of tradition. When it was about to come out, there were a few days where I was like, “Oh, no, it’s going to be so bad.” But, instead, many people in the world of medieval literature were ready for this kind of translation. It’s just all part of a big collective project of looking at what’s important and also acknowledging that there are always more perspectives than the ones that have been analyzed. And, thinking about gaps, particularly in the old texts, is a useful thing, in terms of bringing them into the present. Some of the work I want to be doing with a translation like this one is filling in the assumed gaps, the subtext, things that would’ve been conveyed in tone, and in knowing gestures by a scop performing it, and also filling in the places where the knowledge of the past has been erased. I’m always looking to help create deeper understanding across generations, cultures, and histories.
DS: I think you mentioned in the introduction that it’s like retelling stories with the full spectrum of humanity; I really loved the way you phrased that because this isn’t the last translation of Beowulf to exist. It’s a part of this huge narrative. Just speaking on the translation process in general, what is that like for you? How do you interact with the original text? You’ve created lots of interesting images, especially with the cowboy poets. How did this all come about and how does it work for you?
MDH: Well, the way that I did this translation is that I did a lot of research over the course of The Mere Wife. I did my own literal translation line by line with the assistance of a pile of scholarship as well as nearly two hundred years worth of translations, seeing what a variety of people have thought about this material, and then I converted the literal chunks into the poetic voice that I used in this translation. I was translating myself, essentially, into meter, rhyme, and alliterative rhythm. I wasn’t sure throughout the early part of doing this if I wanted to replicate the old English meter. It doesn’t work with contemporary English in the way that you want it to work. So, I went through it, really grooming it for intelligibility, story, and POV. I created the personality of the narrator, which comes from suggestions in the text. I was interested in the kind of person that would do that in a kind of a bro tall-tale register. Some people think that this was an oral performance that was transcribed with consistent recaps that happen throughout the story. I decided to put the translation in the oral storytelling register, rather than in the register of the highbrow written word, which is often how it is translated. Miz Cracker, a drag queen who studied Old English, read the first chunk of this Beowulf in a group reading and said that it reminded her of drag storytelling, standing on a table, trying to get a room full of drunk people to pay attention.
I was also going for a story that entwined the last line with the next line, so I did rhymes and alliterations that jumped from line to line, and sometimes callbacks, so that you can remember what happened ten lines ago. I did a lot of things in service of keeping the story moving, so that reading it aloud would be as fun or more fun than reading it on the page. I wanted it to be something that you could imagine being performed, a story about something complicated that happened a long time ago, but relevant to our time. I tried my best to make these ancient kings feel like people we know.
DS: Yeah, I think the storytelling process and translating yourself into it is something that I think will help me a lot. I was thinking of translating some Ancient Chinese poems but kind of like the old English poems, the rhythm is really strict and I find it hard to express them in coherent English sentences. Just as a wrap-up question, do you have any advice for us at DoubleSpeak or to other students or new translators?
Taije Silverman: Just to add to your question, when you were talking about why you decided to translate this in the first place, you mentioned these two women who said, “You should translate this.” And DoubleSpeak is run by women and non-binary people and mostly people of color from all over the world. It is not a male power. So just like piggybacking on that, how did you find your company? How did you know that those women were your women and that you should listen to them, and how did you get them to speak to you like that?
MDH: So, advice-wise, it’s all entwined with the concept that people will constantly try to tell you what you’re not allowed to do. My policy has pretty much always been to do it anyway. Years ago, I was trying to create a project where thirty-seven female and non-binary playwrights wrote new versions of all of Shakespeare’s plays. This was in 2009, and I was a little early. Theaters said, “Well, what if they aren’t good?” There was an attitude in some places that felt like, “This is Shakespeare. It’s too precious to be touched by your potentially dirty fingers.” And I’m like, Shakespeare isn’t God. No one is erasing Shakespeare by interpreting his work and adapting it into new art for new times. All that is happening is that more art is being made. I think, for people who are not cis, straight, white men, the world doesn’t tell you that you’re allowed to do your work. But yeah, no one typically gives you permission. No one tells you that you can do it, not usually — so at the beginning, anyway, you have to start giving yourself permission to transgress, to believe in the validity of your perspective, to do your own best and most difficult work. So, I think that just doing the challenging transgressive work yourself and by doing that, getting a sense of what you’re capable of, is the best advice that I can give.
And then, in contrast to that story, relatedly and luckily, there were several women who helped me realize I could and should do this translation. Two of the women who were judging the World Fantasy Awards, Betsy Mitchell and Elizabeth Engstom, gave me the idea to do this. I was a finalist for the award, and they came to my reading because they’d liked my story. From it, I guess, they had a sense that I could do this work. It hadn’t occurred to me to do this translation, even though I was just about to publish a novel all about Beowulf. I still thought I couldn’t do a translation because I didn’t have a PhD, and I wasn’t Seamus Heaney. But, soon after that, I took the idea of the translation to a writing retreat with a bunch of women writers, and all of them were like, “You have to do it now.” Once I started thinking about the ways that restrictions had been imposed on women, but also, and with increasing severity, on BIPOC and LGBTQ translators, I started thinking, “I’m going to stick my foot in that door and keep it there and see how many other people I can let in.” It’s part of my goal to help people realize that they can go through the same door that I went through.
TS: Has your rage changed?
MDH: Initially, the rage that helped me become a writer was a sputtering rage. Now, my rage goes into my work, which is pretty satisfying. I feel like I can be part of the tradition of storytelling and changing the world in this way.
I’ve also been changed by having a baby who’s a year-and-a-half old. I started talking loudly about doing the work of changing the world with a story while I was pregnant with him and while he was a newborn. Having a small child changes things, but it also brings different perspectives. Having my child as I was deep in working on the Beowulf poem brought a totally different perspective to the translation. I was deep in the idea of Grendel’s mother, grieving the potential loss of a child, and that’s a big part of what this poem is about. I got a new window into it. So, the things that I lost in terms of my ability to just write all day, I gained in my ability to see through the eyes of the mothers in the Beowulf story.