The Magazine

The Green Quest

In 'brilliant' translation.

Mar 17, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 26 • By ELI LEHRER
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With the bouncy rhythm of alliterative Middle English poetry, this passage--describing Gawain's adventures on his way to visit the castle--achieves a plethora of poetic effects that a literal translation can't necessarily convey. The repeated "w" and hard "b" sounds create an animalistic, onomatopoetic sound evoking the beasts Gawain fought and the perils he encountered. It's an effect that works much better in the lilting, musical rhythm of Middle English than in modern English. It's not a coincidence that two of the best efforts at modern English alliterative poetry--Dana Gioia's Nosferatu and Richard Wilbur's On Freedom's Ground--were actually written with musical accompaniment in mind.

Simon Armitage, a younger British poet who shows a strong taste for the lyric in his own work, has embarked on an audacious effort in this new translation. For those interested in pure philology, the shockingly bright green scholarly edition of J.R.R. Tolkien, E.V. Gordon, and Norman Davis is, and will remain, the standard version. But Armitage has done something different: He has engaged in a deeply romantic effort to capture the spirit, feel, and music the Pearl Poet intended without lapsing into an entirely free translation. He succeeds.

Taking the passage quoted earlier, Armitage translates it this way:

Here he scrapes with serpents and snarling wolves,

Here he tangles with wodwos causing trouble in the crags,

Or with bulls and bears and the odd wild boar

Hard on his heels through the highlands come the giants.

Armitage takes some liberties. The word "wormes" probably refers to "dragons" rather than serpents, but using "dragons" would have destroyed the alliteration. And most translators have guessed that "wodwos" refers to "wild men." (Since the word appears nowhere else in the corpus of Middle English literature, leaving it untranslated is perfectly defensible.) Finally, the phrase "hard on his heels" likely adds a bit more urgency than the Pearl Poet's plain language intended, yet still conveys the feeling of the Middle English verse. But these minor nitpicks aren't really the point: Read aloud, the passage sounds a good deal like Middle English verse, and successfully captures the music of the original.

Now and then Armitage's poetic license gets the best of him: Distinctly un-Middle English terms like "spinal cord" (when it's not really implied by the original) and "bivouacs" (to create an alliteration) creep into the text here and there. But these are minor gripes. Simon Armitage's translation is a brilliant achievement, and truly captures the spirit of the original.

Eli Lehrer is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.