This Slate piece * quotes Heaney on why he used “So,...”
Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with ‘lo’, ‘hark’, ‘behold’, ‘attend’ and – more colloquially – ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, ‘so’ it was:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.”
But Walkden doesn’t agree:
Walkden indicates that he thinks that Heaney’s translation is close—he calls it a “substantial achievement” but “ultimately misleading… Like the others, he had no reason to doubt the accepted scholarship on the meaning of the word, so he translated it – brilliantly – with ‘So.’ But that translation now has to be rethought.”
The author of the Slate piece (Claire Kelley) wrote to “...Stephen Mitchell, translator of classics like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, and The Iliad, to find out what he thinks of the new developments. He offered this note:”
Not being a linguist, I’m not qualified to give an opinion. But if Dr. Walkden is correct, his understanding would indeed make a subtle but appreciable difference in how a translator deals with the line. I took a few minutes to try it out, and came up with this:
How mighty the Danes were in days gone by
we have heard, and their heroes, the ancient kings:
what prodigious deeds those princes performed!
For purely romantic and chauvinistic reasons, I prefer Heaney.
*sorry, it was recommended by John Dickerson at Slate. It is a Melville House piece.