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I read "Beowulf," the exciting poem, written in old English sometime around the eighth century by an unknown poet, and since translated by quite a few brave souls, notably the poet Seamus Heaney, whose verse translation came out in 1999 and has been widely praised. I've read the Heaney version and I own the book and it's wonderful.

But I was in the mood to read the story again and happened to have on hand a different, earlier translation, by Burton Raffel. It is more subdued than Heaney's and less visceral.

If you look at the translations side by side, you can see how difficult the translation task is and how much leeway a translator has.

Here's the Heaney version of the first few lines:

"So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by

And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

We have heard of those prince’s heroic campaigns."

And here is the Raffel version:

"Hear me! We've heard of Danish heroes,

Ancient kings and the glory they cut

For themselves, swinging mighty swords!"

If you haven't read "Beowulf," it's a fantastic story. And if you like Seamus Heaney, you have to read this, which is perhaps his crowning achievement.

The other great thing to read is "Grendel," by John Gardner, published in 1971, which is the story told in novel form from the monster's point of view. It, too, is a thrilling read.


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