Although Seamus Heaney and R. M. Liuzza have both translated the literary work Beowulf from Old English text, subtle differences appear throughout their works that reveal the unique perspectives held by each author. When one compares the different translations, it becomes apparent that although Liuzza and Heaney¹s translations closely resemble each other, slight disparities exist that define the specific focus and purpose of each author.
The most glaring difference between Liuzza and Heaney’s works is in their writing styles. Heaney’s translation is a somewhat more modern approach to the story. While this makes the book more attractive to the first time reader, as it is easier to understand, translating the text into more contemporary language removes some of the richness of the story line. For example, lines 3069-3075 in Heaney¹s text are as follows: “The high-born chiefs who had buried the treasure/ declared it until doomsday so accursed/ that whoever robbed it would be guilty of wrong/ and grimly punished for their transgression,/ hasped in hell-bonds in heathen shrines./Yet Beowulf¹s gaze at the old treasure/ when he first saw it had not been selfish.” The lines flow smoothly enough, and the meaning is quite clear, but Liuzza¹s version is much fuller in thought: “since until doomsday mighty princes had deeply/ pronounced, when they placed it there, that the man who plundered that place would be/ harried by hostile demons, fast in hellish bonds,/ grievously tortured, guilty of sins,/ unless the Owner¹s grace had earlier/ more readily favoured the eager one for gold.” (3069-3075) Liuzza¹s translation offers the most colourful description of the punishment that awaits those who would dare raid the dragon¹s treasure. Curiously, Heaney mentions that Beowulf had not been selfish when he laid eyes on the gold, yet Liuzza makes no mention of Beowulf at all in the same passage. This seems to be a thoughtless error on Heaney¹s part, for the Old English text beside his translation makes no mention of Biowulfe- the Old English word for Beowulf- in the corresponding section. This apparent oversight detracts from the authenticity of Heaney¹s work.
Although the writer who composed Beowulf was presumably a Christian, the warriors in the tale are not. Heaney’s version seems to reflect more of a Christian element than Liuzza’s does. For example, in line 3109, Heaney writes that Beowulf “will lodge for a long time in the care of the Almighty.” Liuzza states that Beowulf will “long rest in the keeping of the Ruler”. The difference between the words “Almighty” and “Ruler” may seem trivial, but this discrepancy reveals much about the Christian element involved in each translation. An almighty has “supreme power [and is] all-powerful”(Avis et al, 32), whereas a ruler is simply “a person who rules”(Avis et al, 982). In this context, the Almighty could easily be seen as the omnipotent Christian God, and the Ruler could be seen as any one of a multitude of lesser gods or deities.
Another example of Christian overtones in Heaney¹s work appears in line 3123: “under the God-cursed roof; one raised a lighted torch…” Liuzza translates the same passage as “under that evil roof, one of the brave warriors bore in his hands a flaming torch.” Again, the difference between “evil” and “God-cursed” appears negligible. However, an object, person, or place has the capacity to be evil without any divine intervention. It is not unlikely that pagans would have proclaimed something evil. To be God-cursed means that God had direct involvement in a situation. It is safe to assume that the God in Heaney¹s work is the Christian God, as the “g” is capitalised. If the cave were god-cursed, it could be hexed by any pagan god; God-cursed implies that the Christian God had a direct hand in the matter.
The heightened sense of Christianity in Heaney¹s work adds to its overall accuracy as a translation, for, as already mentioned, the warriors that the original poet wrote about were not Christians, but the writer was. As a Christian, he indeed would think that a dragon¹s lair is not only “evil”, but also “God-cursed”. He also would think that after death, one¹s soul resides in the care of an “Almighty” God, not in the presence of a mere “Ruler”. Liuzza¹s work takes the position of the warriors themselves, and disregards the original author¹s religious intentions.
Another topic that Liuzza and Heaney seem to differ on is the theme of bravery in Beowulf. While bravery is revered in both translations, it is of greater importance to Liuzza. In Beowulf’s burial scene alone, he mentions bravery in two instances, while the same references to bravery are simply omitted in Heaney¹s version. According to Liuzza, Wiglaf was “one of the brave warriors”(3124) who entered the dragon¹s cave. In Heaney¹s version, Wiglaf was simply “the eighth of their number”(3124). Later, Liuzza writes that the warriors “built the beacon/ of that battle-brave one” (3159-3160), while Heaney writes that the beacon “was their hero¹s memorial” (3160). It is clear that either Heaney does not value bravery as much as Liuzza does, or he merely perceives that the original author did not place a very significant emphasis on bravery. Unless one studies Old English, it is impossible to determine who has translated Beowulf most accurately
Liuzza and Heaney¹s translations differ on a more superficial level too. Liuzza has included many footnotes, including them on most of his pages. Heaney, on the other hand, has only added minimal notes in the margins. It appears as though Liuzza has researched his topic more thoroughly than Heaney. This could be for a number of reasons. Heaney may feel that he did such a great job of translating the Old English text into modern language that only minimal notes are needed. He may assume that most readers are familiar with other translations of Beowulf, so no further explanations are necessary. Most likely, however, is that Heaney simply did not have the same interest in the story as did Liuzza. Liuzza is a university professor, and chose to translate Beowulf before he had secured a publisher. Heaney, on the other hand, only translated Beowulf because Norton Publishing commissioned him to, as they wanted to have a version of the story that was able to compete with other translations, and Heaney, a well-known Irish poet, would help them realise this goal (Howe). This is not to say that Heaney¹s work is by any means inferior to Liuzza¹s; in fact, his work is very readable and the addition of the original Old English text undoubtedly pleases many students and scholars alike. He simply did not have the same personal interest or motivation to translate Beowulf as Liuzza did.
While these differences in translation and form exist, both Liuzza and Heaney convey the tale of Beowulf in a quite similar manner. The focus on the warrior culture does not falter, and, with the exception of minor changes in detail and diction, the events surrounding Beowulf¹s burial are identical. Heaney¹s translation seems to be more appropriate for readers attempting to simply read the story of Beowulf in an easy to understand format, while those who want a more in-depth study, complete with comprehensive footnotes and appendices, would be better of to review Liuzza¹s version. With either choice, the reader will essentially experience the same story of Nordic heroism and encounter the warrior culture of the ancient Geats.
Avis, Walter S., et al. Gage Canadian Dictionary. Gage Publishing Limited: Toronto, 1983. 32, 982.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2000. 205-213.
Howe, Nicholas. http://www.thenewrepublic.com/022800/howe022800.html. 2000. Retrieved from the World Wide Web Feb 11, 2002.
Liuzza, R.M. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Broadview Literary Texts: Peterborough: 2000. 147-150.