Review of Beowulf: A Verse Translation, Andrew Carnabuci

This review was first published on Reedsy Discovery.

Taking on a text which has been translated again and again for centuries is no mean feat; especially when walking in the footsteps of a scholar like Tolkein. But, Carnabuci’s translation, I believe, successfully bridges the gap between early, Latinised translations of Beowulf and Heaney’s somewhat prosaic version of the Anglo-Saxon legend. 

As a classicist myself, the epic tales from Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and the first Greek authors of codex, have shaped my understanding of early storytelling and its transition from oral tradition to the written word. Carnabuci’s preface, however, challenges this view as it is, quite rightly, acknowleding only some of the Western storytelling tradition. Carnabuci, with sharp wit and a clear love for the craft, breaks down how Beowulf should be read as far removed from the epic poetry borne out of Ancient Greece and then assimilated into Latin culture. 

Beowulf, an alliterative piece, is archaic and Germanic, and Carnabuci’s detailed exploration of the choices they made in translating this poem anew, is fascinating. The preface reveals the startling beauty of language and how it has been used to respond to and process the world around the storyteller. 

And then, there is the translation itself. It is the great story we all know but Carnabuci has brought a freshness to the tale. For me, Heaney’s translation has always been too prosaic and blunt; he prioritised accessibility over the nameless poet’s craft. While earlier translations are steeped in a culture not belonging to the original poet. This translation felt raw, a close reflection of the original. 

Carnabuci hoped this translation would be earthy and capture the Anglo-Saxon tradition and I truly felt immersed in this world. The attempt to match the alliterative nature of Beowulf was impressive too and showcased Carnabuci’s talent as translator and poet. 

In short, this new translation will remind readers of the joy of taking something known and reevaluating it once more; not to bend it to our modern view but in fact to reclaim its truth and present the modern reader with a raw and honest translation of a legend which has irrevocably shaped storytelling.

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