Current Essays

Big Beo Daddy Does Gangstawulf On:2009-04-17 04:15:59

There is a frantic fascination now-a-days with translations of that great Old English poem Beowulf, from the poetical transmogrification into the Oirish of Heaneywulf by Seamus Heaney, through to more ; even more ; and to absolutely totally ; weird translations to film.

All of these suffer (apart from the usual intractability of poetry to translation, and a good deal of the fact of the perps more-or-less not having the faintest idea what the Hell the thing's about) an overwhelming problem: how, in the name of all that's Holy, do you start the damn thing? And I don't just mean the first section or sentence, I mean the first word. You see, one of the hardest things to translate in the whole three thousand plus lines of the thing is the first word.


'Hwæt!' it goes just like that, and while on the surface it's merely the modern word 'What?' (with the 'W' and the 'H' reversed and an 'E' inserted just because it's an olde worde and olde wordes get extra 'E's to ease their retirement---as a sort of Old Age Pension for words): it is far, far more than just that (or rather than just 'what'). It's often, as the OED tells me, "Used to introduce or call attention to a statement: Lo; now; well." and then marks it obsolete.
It has indeed been translated by all of those, and by the Heaneywulf's "So...", and by so much crazier things.
One of the problems with the translation is that everyone who's ever tried to perform or recite the poem knows to their very bones that that "Hwæt!" should be said resoundingly, throat-clearingly:
in a way that, appropriately enough for an elegiac poem, parts of which are sure to bring forth tears from the heardrest heorte1, .. is a way that leaves several of the closer members of the audience wiping their eyes. [Hwwwt!]
I care about such things, and part of that caring is my membership of ANSAX-L an internet mailing list run largely by and for academics in the field. I (for obvious reasons) don't post that much, but I've been lurking there, passive, for ages---joining so long ago that it's at least since the time when kids were studying William the Bastard and his unsporting behaviour at the battle of Hastings in Modern History.

The actives on that list care about such things too (probably even more than I do) and Lo! (not to mention Now! Well! and So...) they recently got onto the subject of just that translation of The Word, via a rather funny review of yet another of those weird early mediæval movies, which then in l'esprit de l'académie rapidly metamorphosed into; first a gangsterised mob-speak translation of the opening in what was called an imaginary translation
"Hey, shut the @#$! up.
"I don't gotta tell YOU about the Spear-Danes,
"they kicked some serious @&# back in the old days,
"the toughest crew in the Five Families.
"Sammy "The Shield" Scefino, see, he muscled in..."2
and so forth.
Which is really great, though I suppose you do need to actually know the original to get it!
Then came the inevitable discussion (remember this is a list of academics) including a short discursion into the metrical qualities (or lack thereof) of "@#$!"3

Then someone produced a gangsta version
"Yo! Ev’rybody know    ‘bout the long ago
"And the King of pop—how he got the drop
"On all the chumps    and their posse punks..."4
at which point I thought well and good but not quite the best part of the poem for a gangster translation let alone a gangsta one. For that you need one of the fights...
Dude called Grendel     thought he was a Vandle
Burst through the do's     shoutin' "Run yo' ho's!"
Grabbed some sukka,     'n' et the Muh' Fukka
Blood like a river,      as he chomped down on his liver
Et his feet     like they wus some sorta treat
Grabbed this other dude,     what was sleepin' in the nude
But the tables were turned     and that Grendel he got burned
'Cause Beowulf weren't a-sleepin',     that cold dude was a-peepin'
Then they did some harm,     'n' Grendel never did find his arm.
Now THAT's a gangsta Beowulf!

And that's 'Hwæt' for now
Richard Howland-Bolton


1 OE hardest heart q.v. Maldon ll.312-3

"Hiġe sceal þē heardra,     heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre     þē ūre mæġen lȳtlað."


2 Roy Liuzza ANSAX-L  Mar 23, 2009

3 George Clark ANSAX-L  Mar 25, 2009

4 Gary Bodie ANSAX-L  Mar 26, 2009

<-- Go Back

Home | Essays | Notes | Gallery | Miscellany | Contact

ÐISCLAIMER - I claim ðis!

All contents including writing, cartooning, music, and photography unless otherwise specified are
copyright © 1965-2023 and Richard Howland-Bolton. All Rights Reserved.
All logos and trademarks on this site are property of their respective owners.
Web work* by
*as distinct from Wetwork