By Hana Videen
Hwæt we Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
These are the first three lines of Beowulf, the longest surviving and today’s best-known poem of Old English literature. Translated into modern English, they read something like this:
Hwæt we have heard about the glory of the Spear-Danes’ great kings in days gone by, how those noble men performed brave deeds.
But what is that first word, the one that would eventually become modern English ‘what’?
Hwæt is a pronoun that appears some 5,800 times (along with pronoun hwa) across extant Old English literature. Print out the Toronto Dictionary of Old English’s ‘hwā, hwæt’ entry and you’ll have a whopping 136 pages of various forms and usages.
Sometimes hwæt appears in contexts that are fairly straightforward to translate. It can be used to mean ‘what’, ‘who’, ‘how, ‘how many’, etc. Some examples sentences are:
- Hwæt sceal ic singan? (What shall I sing?)
- Hwæt yfeles dyde he? (What evil did he do?)
- Hwæt þyncþ þe þæt þu sy? (Who do you think you are?)
Other times, though, we get lines like Hwæt we Gardena that have translators arguing for centuries over the best terminology. The earliest translations of Beowulf tended to use archaic-sounding, attention-grabbing language: ‘Lo!’ (Kemble, 1837) and ‘What ho!’ (Earle, 1892). More modern-sounding word choices appeared in the 1960s, like ‘Hear me!’ (Burton Raffel, 1963) and ‘Listen! (Kevin Crossley-Holland, 1968). In 1966 E. Talbot Donaldson ditched the exclamation point (which is a modern editorial convention) with his translation ‘Yes’. Michael Swanton also omitted this artificial punctuation mark with his ‘Indeed’ in 1978.
In the introduction to his best-selling Beowulf translation of 1999, Seamus Heaney explains that he wanted to move away from more conventional, archaic literary renderings of hwæt, translations like ‘Lo’, ‘Hark’, ‘Behold’ and ‘Attend’. He chose ‘So’ because it was something he could hear spoken in the voices of his family members – ‘Hiberno-English Scullion-speak’. This simple ‘So’, Heaney says, ‘obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention’.
But George Walkden does not think that hwæt was as interruptive in nature as translators like Heaney seem to think. In his article ‘The status of hwæt in Old English’ (2013), Walkden argues that the word is not just an interjection and should not be written with an exclamation point. He bases his conclusions on a study of over 140 clauses with hwæt from poetry and prose. Here are some of the problems Walkden cites for hwæt as interjection:
- Metrically speaking, hwæt is usually unstressed – not what you’d expect for an attention-grabbing word.
- No punctuation is ever found between hwæt and the following clause.
- An early medieval grammarian did not classify hwæt as an interjection.
- Hwæt is not always used to initiate speech.
- Clauses preceded by hwæt go with subordinate clauses, not with main clauses.
How does Walkden translate the first line of Beowulf? ‘How we have heard of the might of the kings…’ is what he suggests in an interview for The Independent. In this interview he points out that audiences back in the day were perhaps ‘better behaved than we thought’ – a scop (poet) need not begin an epic tale with ‘Oi you, listen to this!’
So what have translators done since Walkden’s 2013 study? Stephen Mitchell takes Walkden’s article into account in his 2017 edition of Beowulf. Usually modern editors put some kind of punctuation between hwæt and we – either an exclamation point or a comma – which emphasises the role of hwæt as interjection. Mitchell leaves out the punctuation, writing ‘Hwæt we’ and citing Walkden’s work.
But not everyone feels the need to alter hwæt’s traditional attention-grabbing role. In her 2020 feminist translation of Beowulf, Maria Dahvana Headley begins the poem with ‘Bro!’ Headley points out that the tone of ‘Bro!’ can indicate whether someone is friend or foe, but it’s also a way of satirizing ‘a certain form of inflated, overconfident, aggressive male behavior’. Headley’s use of ‘bro’ throughout her translation reminds us ‘the ways that men can afford (or deny) one another power and safety by using coded language, and erase women from power structures by speaking collegially only to other men’.
Yet another translation of hwæt appears in ‘Beowulf’ By All: Community Translation and Workbook, edited by Jean Abbott, Elaine Treharne and Mateusz Fafinski in 2021. In this edition the poem is translated by over 200 different contributors, each of whom covers a section of several lines. The first 15½ lines are translated by Tarren Andrews and the Flathead Indian Reservation, and here hwæt is rendered ‘Heyla!’ Andrews says that ‘heyla’ is a kind of colloquial word used in many reservation communities to call people to attention, or a strong vocal reaction to something that someone has said (similar to ‘skoden’ and ‘stoodis’).
Every translator brings a new perspective to this poem, whether drawing on imagined archaisms or painstaking grammatical analysis, on family history and traditions or modern power structures. And it all begins with hwæt.
Hana Videen has been hoarding Old English words since 2013, when she began tweeting one a day. She holds a PhD in English from King’s College London, and is now a writer and blogger based in Toronto. Her book The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English was published by Profile (2021) and Princeton University Press (2022). You can get the Old English word of the day on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, visit oldenglishwordhord.com, or download the free iOS Old English Wordhord app. Hana also writes Wordhord Wednesday posts on Patreon.