In The Guardian, Simon Armitage discusses his new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Naturally, to the trained medievalist the poem is perfectly readable in its original form; no translation necessary. And even for the non-specialist, certain lines, such as “Bot Arthure wolde not ete til al were served”, present little problem, especially when placed within the context of the narrative. Conversely, lines such as “Forthi, iwysse, bi zowre wylle, wende me bihoues” are incomprehensible to the general reader. But it is the lines that fall somewhere between those extremes – the majority of lines, in fact – which fascinate the most. They seem to make sense, though not quite. To the untrained eye, it is as if the poem is lying beneath a thin coat of ice, tantalisingly near yet frustratingly blurred. To a contemporary poet, one interested in narrative and form, and to a northerner who not only recognises plenty of the poem’s dialect but detects an echo of his own speech rhythms within the original, the urge to blow a little warm breath across that layer of frosting eventually proved irresistible.

I’m not quite sure why he felt he needed to see the original manuscript in the British Library or to witness the actual gralloching of a deer (though I do love the word, which I wrote about here), but the sample at the end of the article is appealing, and I like his daring—he’s not afraid to toss in “never mind being minus his head!”

For a very different perspective, this time from the point of view of the translatee, see Thomas Bernhard’s remarks in a 1986 interview; asked “What happens to your books in other countries,” he responds:

Doesn’t interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It’s a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don’t. If they have awful covers then they’re just annoying. And you flip through and that’s it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!

(Via wood s lot.)


  1. I’m not quite sure why he felt he needed to see the original manuscript in the British Library
    Neither am I, but by Jove, I understand the urge. And at least we got a great story out of it.

  2. In contrast with Bernhard’s opinion of translations, many writers who are capable of writing in more than one language prefer someone else to do their translations. They have more confidence in a professional translator than in themselves to express their own ideas, once written down, in another language.
    I might have read that in Eco’s “On Translation”, but even if I didn’t, it’s a wonderful book on the subject.

  3. Paul,
    alas, I don’t remember a work of Eco’s by that name. Could you by any chance be referring to the one published under the English title “Mouse and Rat”?

  4. BBC Radio 4 – – is broadcasting today Thursday Dec. 21 at 1415
    gmt Sir Ian McKellen reading the new Simon Armitage translation of Gawain.
    You should be able to hear it with “Listen Live” or later (within 7 days) via the “Listen Again” feature, both on the top right-hand side of the Radio 4 webpage.

  5. Lines 224, 225 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
    ……. ‘Wher is’, he sayd,
    ‘The gouernour of this gyng? ….
    W.S.Merwin’s translation gives, very weakly, I think:
    …… “Where,” he asked, “is
    The head of this gathering? ….
    Clearly the translator is unaware that to this day “governor” and “gang” are standard thieves’ cant in the UK. “Boss” would have been a better translation for the USA, perhaps.

  6. Forthi, iwysse, bi zowre wylle, wende me bihoues

    Bah, “zowre” is a very confusing substitute for “ȝowre.” The line means “For this reason, indeed, by your will/wish, it behooves me to go.”

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    Why not “I definitely ought to go, if you don’t mind”. I have thought this many times, but never said it.

  8. An excellent modernization!

  9. You could say it in Middle English, and see what happens.

Speak Your Mind