The Corner

Culture

Beowulf, Bro

Beowulf begins with the Old English word Hwaet, traditionally translated as “Behold” or “Lo.” But that comes across as a bit archaic de nos jours. How to freshen up this text a little? Make it resound to the contemporary ear? Seamus Heaney went with, “So” in his translation. How about “Listen”? Or “Hey”? Still not zingy enough. The latest translator starts the poem with, “Bro . . . ”

That’s Maria Dahvana Headley’s take, and it launches the epic “like a ping pong ball bouncing into a red Solo cup,” according to Irina Dumitrescu in the New York Review of Books. There is something strangely admirable about attempting to bro-ify high culture; chasing today’s tastes may come across as shallow and vapid, but at least someone is thinking about how to keep a thousand-year-old text alive in a culture that barely remembers the 1940s. Headley revels in today’s slang, writing that “Beowulf gave zero sh**s,” having him say “lemme be clear” and describing him as so admirable that Hrothgar’s man “unexpectedly stanned” for him.

Amusing, but still: “Bro” ventures further than I would into brainless vernacular. “Bro” may be the single dumbest greeting in the language.