The Last Words of Beowulf: An Analysis of Verse Translations by Donaldson, Liuzza, and Heaney

Every act of translation is simultaneously an act of interpretation. With regard to Beowulf’s last scene and final words to the young warrior Wiglaf, an analysis of three translations of the poem, by E. Talbot Donaldson, R.M. Liuzza, and Seamus Heavey, demonstrates this general principle. Each version of the passage between lines 2799 and 2820 offers a reading of the underlying ambiguity between Christian and pagan worldviews that is one of the core tensions within Beowulf as a whole. The intersection between the concepts of predestination and individual agency both within and between these worldviews shifts substantially between these translations.

While a significant governing force in all three passages, Beowulf’s struggle against fate is deemed most futile in the interpretations of Heaney and Liuzza. In the beginning of this passage, following his fight with the dragon and consequent fatal wounding, Beowulf is foremost concerned with securing a leader for his people, through the young thane Wiglaf, and in constructing a physical legacy through the “barrow” monument overlooking the sea. While the notion of a monument constructed to aide those traveling by sea is a noble endeavor, the use of the word “barrow” denoting a...

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