I own what might perhaps be called a Beowulf bore's collection of different versions. I should say at this stage that I am far from being a scholar of Old English. I can pick out words and phrases, and understand how the language was structured, but I cannot claim to be highly qualified to comment on the accuracy of any translation!
William Morris's version has a feel I like, but there are parts where he seems to translate things differently to all the other versions I've read, so it sits uneasily. It has the advantage of being available for free.
Michael Alexander's version is my personal favourite. My copy is dog-eared, heavily overwritten with my own notes and much repaired. I love the feel and tone of it. The alliterative structure Alexander has produced, to me, really drives home the idea that Beowulf was written to be read aloud, recited in front of enthusiastic listeners, rather than pondered over in a quiet corner.
Marc Hudson makes no attempt to create alliteration, but his version is light, accessible and accompanied by a thorough, thought-provoking commentary.
John McNamara's verse translation is unfortunate in that it came out in 2005. By then I was firmly wedded to Alexander's version, but I would recommend McNamara's version without hesitation to any new buyer/reader. The poem text is excellent and benefits from a fantastic set of supporting notes and commentary.
Never have I seen
a greater earl on the earth than one of you,
a man in his war-gear. He is no hall-retainer,
ennobled with weapons, unless his looks belie him,
given his peerless form.
The champion of warriors, the chief of the nobles,
ordered a wondrous war-shield to be made for him,
entirely of iron, since he knew for certain
that a wooden shield could provide no protection,
when fire attacked wood.
The other figure here was sold with the Aelle/Beowulf as a banner-bearer. He gets elevated to the status of a real character: Wiglaf.
This was Wiglaf, Weoxstan's son,
well-loved shieldman, a Scylfing prince
of the stock of Alfhere;
Wiglaf is the only man among the Geats with the courage to stand with Beowulf when he fights the dragon. All the other members of Beowulf's hearthguard, the toughest of the tough, turn tail and run, and only Wiglaf remains, striking the blow that gives Beowulf the chance to make a killing stroke against the worm.
Here are the two, together, ready to take on anything that threatens the land of the Geats. I put these two on 1p coins as bases, rather than the 2p's I normally use for characters, with the plan that they could be sabot'ed onto a single base as a unit in a game (sort of "kill one, you still have a king" idea).
They killed the enemy, extinguished its life;
by their courage, the kinsmen, acting as one,
worked its doom. So should men do when there is need.
Of course, it wouldn't be complete without a couple of shots of the heroes confronting the dragon, so here goes:
Merry Meet Again!