That One Time I Was Wrong

A few weeks ago, I was struggling with a paper I needed to write for my course on Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. We’re reading his translation as well as the original in Old English, and critiques of and essays about both poems, plus many of Heaney’s other poems. The assignment was to respond to two critiques of Heaney’s translation. I had done the reading well in advance of the due date, and I had poked at several angles for the paper. Some were too big, some were too small, and none were just right. Many led me off on tangents unrelated to the assignment. I thought about the form and style of the critiques based on a course I took last year, and I thought about the overarching themes and motifs in Beowulf. None of this was what I’d been asked to write about.

The weekend before the paper was due, I was sitting at the desk where I study and staring yet again at the outline, the quotes and notes, and the thousand-word shitty draft that I could not bring together in any kind of cohesive way. I erased all previous highlighting in the PDFs I was using for research and started again. I reread critique one. I reread critique two. I used color-coded highlighting for three arguments I might pursue. I made my friends listen to my troubles in person and via text. I looked up the quoted lines in each from Heaney’s Beowulf; I looked up those same lines in the original and did my own translations.

Here, I thought, was where I had struck gold. I found a passage where everyone for a century has translated one word – wrece – as “avenge.” Heaney. Tolkien. Headley. Howe. Even the Beowulf by All translation had “avenge” in this spot. But I had cracked this whole scholarship thing wide open. This word could also mean “sing, recite, utter.”

Here is the passage (lines 1384-1385) in Heaney’s translation: “It is always better/to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.” Or for the J. R. R. fans: “Better it is for every man that he should avenge his friend than he should much lament.”

Just before Beowulf says this to Hrothgar, there’s a triumphant party scene where the deeds and exploits and, yes, vengeances of other kings were sung or recited or uttered by an entertainer in the great hall. But that night, more woe came to Hrothgar in the form of Grendel’s mother, who killed his friend. Beowulf is basically telling the king to get mad rather than be sad.

But, I thought, if that wrece meant “sing” instead, it would change the tone of this advice entirely. It would remove vengeance from it. I wanted it to read: “It is better for every man that he sings of his friend than he mourns for many.” I looked up wrecan in three dictionaries, and “avenge” usually comes later in the list of definitions than “utter, recite.”

I was fired up about this. I made my very convincing case to my husband on the afternoon dog walk (the dog was less convinced; she’s been present for every class this semester and therefore is quite knowledgeable). Beowulf in my interpretation was saying that it was better to sing songs in remembrance of one dead friend than to let a whole army go after Grendel’s mother. He may have even meant that Hrothgar should sing songs of Beowulf himself should he die, since he was going to go after Grendel’s mother alone. After all, Beowulf and Hrothgar had just heard a performer recounting the deeds of other kings. Sing of me like that, Beowulf must be saying.

This still wasn’t on topic for the paper I was assigned to write, but it was going to blow the doors off the Beowulfian world. I was ready to write to my professor. I was going to take on more than a hundred years of scholarship with my individual brilliance.

When I got home from walking the dog, I looked again at my notes. And I saw where I was very plainly incorrect. In the original, it says he his freond wrece. In the grammar of Old English, freond is the direct object of wrece, and it’s in the accusative case. So whatever wrece means, that verb is directly happening to that freond. You can avenge a friend. You cannot sing a friend. You can only sing about or of a friend, and that’s an indirect object, which means a different grammatical case in Old English. It would be dative, and it would be spelled with an extra e at the end: freonde. And though the entertainer did indeed sing of others’ deeds in the previous scene, those deeds hinged on vengeance. The Beowulf poet knew what they were doing.

I caught my error before emailing my professor and alerting the media. But I wasn’t deflated; I was actually pretty happy. I had spent a couple of hours going down this dead end, but I learned a lot about translating Old English. I had reached a new benchmark in my study of the language, one where I was confident enough to assert my own translation and knowledgeable enough to find that translation’s major flaw.