Stephen Mitchell, Translator

I loved Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Gilgamesh, so I was eager to get my hands on his Beowulf. I wasn’t disappointed.

The edition looks and feels quite lovely. The pages alternate between the Old English on one page and the translation on the facing page. It has been years since I took a seminar in graduate school where we were required to read and understand Beowulf in the original Old English. Although my inexorable trudge toward middle age has long since caused me to lose that skill, I did appreciate seeing the Old English once again and delighted in recognizing a few words.

Mitchell’s introduction situates Beowulf in its historical, social, and cultural context. He discusses the poem’s authorship, the discovery of the manuscript, and evidence of Christianity and of pagan practices in the poem’s content. Mitchell also articulates the rules he has tried to adhere to in performing his translation.

This brings us to the actual poem. The language is very accessible while maintaining the dignity and stature of the original. It is clear, rigorous, and lucid without deteriorating into modernisms that would destroy the effect. The diction, word order, and rhythm of the lines immerse us in the poem’s energy and robustness in such a way that we never lose sight of the fact we are reading a very old text. Mitchell captures the tone and language of the culture that gave rise to the poem with its masculinist emphasis on the warrior code, the heroic boast, the importance of avenging one’s kinsman, and the qualities that make for good leadership.

Invariably, the translation of a work will bear the mark of the translator, causing one translation to differ in varying degrees from another. But with each translation, we are offered the opportunity to see the work in a slightly different light, from a slightly different lens. Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Beowulf offers us that opportunity. He breathes new life into a very old poem while adhering faithfully to the original in spirit, tone, and content. He makes the old new again. And for that I am truly appreciative.

Highly recommended.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review