Over Christmas, while taking a break from alle the mete and the mirthe that men couthe avyse, I started reading Simon Armitage’s new translation of Sir Gawain the Green Knight. The introduction led me to anticipate a bold, original poem. “This is not an exercise in linguistic forensics or medieval history,” Armitage warns his reader, insisting that “the intention has always been to produce a living, inclusive, and readable piece of work in its own right.” The poet spends four pages explaining his decision to imitate the alliteration of the Middle English original, as if it’s to be the sole conservative impulse in a translation that will otherwise astonish the reader with its rampant modernity.
At least one reviewer likewise suggested that Armitage was up to something wild. “His vernacular translation isn’t literal,” wrote Edward Hirsch in The New York Times. “[S]ometimes he alliterates different letters, sometimes he foreshortens the number of alliterations in a line, sometimes he changes lines altogether and so forth—but his imitation is rich and various and recreates the gnarled verbal texture of the Middle English original, which is presented in a parallel text.”
Not all reviews have been so positive. The Independent declared that “[t]here are some excellent hunting scenes towards the end, which Armitage rises to with great verve and agility. But there are also many moments of slackness, when the translation seems to have gone off the boil; when it feels dutiful, even throwaway.” Writing in The Guardian, Kevin Crossley-Holland remarked that in Armitage’s Gawain, “one has the sense of a wonderfully talented and versatile poet trying rather too hard.” And a Kansas City Star reviewer conceded the need for a new colloquial translation but ruefully concluded that Armitage “indulges in slanginess at the expense of decorum.”
Strangely, reviewers have neglected to mention Armitage’s most inexplicable choice. The 101 stanzas of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight vary in length, but alliteration on stressed syllables consistently unites the first and second halves of each line. Calling alliteration “the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads,” Armitage reproduces this basic structural device, a difficult trick in modern English. But no one, not even Armitage, mentions that this new translation only partially preserves the form of the original.
Each stanza of the Middle English poem ends with a five-line “bob and wheel.” Unlike the bulk of each stanza, the bob and wheel rhymes: a short line (the “bob”) is followed by four longer lines (the “wheel”) in accordance with the rhyme scheme A-B-A-B-A. Armitage admits that “[i]n the ‘bob and wheel’ sections where meter and rhyme also enter the equation, further deviations are inevitable”—but take a look at what Armitage considers mere “deviation.”
Here’s the original “bob and wheel” from lines 102-106:
Therfore of face so fere
He stightles stif in stalle;
Ful yep in that Nw Yere
Much mirte he mas with alle.
Here’s Armitage’s rendering:
With features proud and fine
he stood there tall and straight,
a king at Christmastime
amid great merriment.
Here are lines 198-202 in the original:
He loked as layt so lyght,
So sayd al that hym syye;
Hit semed as no mon myght
Under his dynttes dryye.
Again, here’s Armitage:
A look of lightning flashed
from somewhere in his soul.
The force of that man’s fist
would be a thunderbolt.
In Armitage’s translation, the bob and wheel sometimes rhymes perfectly, in keeping with the original. But occasionally, only two of the lines actually rhyme. And frequently, randomly—and to me, inexplicably—Armitage gives us a bob and wheel like the examples above, translated verses that completely ignore the tightly packed rhyme of the original.
I’m not sure why Armitage would faithfully reproduce the alliteration of his source text, reworking entire passages to coax his own rum, ram, ruf reluctantly into place, but choose to ignore one of the poem’s most memorable formal devices. Translating a Middle English original that both rhymes and alliterates is enormously frustrating, but even for the greenest of poets, it’s hardly impossible. Perhaps these omissions comprise the “moments of slackness” cited by The Independent, but what a peculiar translation we get as a result: one that’s beholden to form almost all the time, except when it isn’t. Armitage’s troubles can teach a new poet one difficult truth: if you’re going to translate a medieval work, you’d better commit to a form.
By contrast, consider a project by Adam Golaski. Yesterday, thanks to Brandon at Point of Know Return, I discovered Golaski’s Green, an oddball translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that’s now being serialized by the Web journal Open Letters. (The first selection is published here; the second is here.)
Reminiscent of Tom Lehrer’s reworking of “Clementine” by “one of our modern ‘cool school’ of composers,” Green will baffle anyone who doesn’t know the original—but its first stanza reveals a translator who’s made a firm choice about form:
Since ceased th’siege + assault upon Troye,
bones brok’nd brittled t’bronz’nd ashes,
that soldier who trod treason o’er th’plots’v
his enemies was tried f’r treachery tho
agile Ennias, of th’truest on Earth, of high kind,
haunted by shade Dido, was worth th’wonder
wealth’v all th’west isles——
From rich milk’v wolf-mother Romulus
rose Rome’nd’n its captured riches Romulus was
swath’d. W/ arrogance he built his name
upon a hill + took Palatine t’Romulus t’Rome——
Tirius traveled t’Tuscany he built beginnings,
Langaberde’n Lombardy left us houses,
+ far o’er th’French floods Felix Brutus
on many full banks built Bretayn + sits
where war’nd wreck’nd wonder
by surprise has went therein,
+ oft both bliss’nd blunder
fool hope shifted t’sin.
Although I can’t quite tell if Golaski is serious, or if his style is sustainable, Green is a pleasure to read aloud, a weird, silly, gimmicky jumble that makes Christopher Logue’s retelling of Homer seem timid by comparison. Golaski toys with the notion of literal pronunciation; he acknowledges that he’s dabbling, at more than one level, in abbreviation; and he engages with the sound of the original poem, often regardless of anything else, riding recklessly into the open field even as Armitage lingers politely alone at the tree line.
Golaski’s rendering will never make it into the Norton Anthology, and I’d only use Green in the classroom if I wanted my students to hate me, but its weirdness demands that a reader react. With a medieval romance as rich as Gawain, “the work of a sly, sensuous, genial writer…who loved his fellow humans for their strengths, their weaknesses, their sheer complexity,” getting a rise out of readers is certainly someplace to start. Having focused on diction while skimping on form, Armitage failed to engage me. More true to a poem both strange and humane, Golaski at least made me laugh.