When my classmate Abbie Spica and I were told we would be transcribing two pages of a medieval manuscript for an assignment in our History of the Book class, the task seemed almost comical in its impossibility. When Professor Noonan brought in a full goatskin, bottles of oak gall ink, and goose feather quills to class, however, we knew she was serious.
Crowded around a table in the Rare Book Room of the Cushwa-Leighton Library at Saint Mary’s College, our class was presented with three medieval manuscripts. In turn, we stepped up to the relics so that we might briefly explore their pages. A quiver of anticipation ran through me as I leafed carefully through the quires of ancient skin. They felt rough and smelled vaguely of dust and decay; against my fingertips they were frighteningly delicate, yet durable. I marveled at the patterns, insensible to my untrained eye, written across the pages in handmade ink, pausing to wonder at the tiny holes, eaten through by bookworms (which I didn’t know actually existed before this class), and felt a sense of profound privilege to be handling something so old.
Abbie and I partnered up for this assignment. We chose St. Mary’s College MS 3, a Book of Hours created around Amiens, France between 1450- 1478. The Féron family of Haut Picardie owned it initially. Later, it ended up with the Grisel family, who owned it until 1586. A Book of Hours is something that would have been precious to a household or institution, and handled daily by laypeople. I was drawn to a beautifully illustrated and illuminated page, the beginning of a chapter, judging by the large initial, complete with rubrication and tiny, nearly microscopic detail. I looked up at Abbie, an expression of wide-eyed admiration still lingering, and murmured, “I want to be a crazy person and do this page.” Despite the intricacy of the folio, the blankness of its corresponding page, and the time commitment neither of us felt we had room for, Abbie agreed to the challenge.
We split up the work according to our talents. Having some training in art, I took up the task of illustrating. Being analytical in mind and capable of producing impeccable handwriting, Abbie chose to line and rule the pages and work with the calligraphy. Abbie knew a small amount of Latin, but not enough to make sense of the words written down; I could not even decipher the handwriting, let alone the language. Devoid of meaning, the words were reduced to lines and strokes and flourishes. Abbie did not try to piece letters together into a sensible word; she just followed the information her eye gathered about the lines, and worked from there. It is difficult to say, in the end, whether the absence of meaning made her challenge more difficult or not.
The task of illustrating seemed enormously risky. I stared down at the blank piece of animal skin, shot through with blue veins (meaning the animal wasn’t bled properly, a phrase that makes me cringe) and felt my anxiety mounting. I didn’t want to waste this material; it felt too precious. “I’m sorry, Mr. Sheep,” I said as I dipped my goose feather in the ink, reflecting on how often scribes had to rely on the bodies of animals. I guess the best thing I can do is make something from your sacrifice, I thought. My vegetarian sentiments aside, I finally worked up the nerve to press the tip of my quill to the parchment. Once I made that first line, things became easier— therapeutic even, as I let myself sink into the work.
We made plenty of mistakes. Because I had, in my eagerness to begin the project, illustrated the background before Abbie added text, she was forced to work around the images in a way that limited her ability to correct errors. This caused some of our text to appear crowded. We also erred in making the first line of script black rather than rubricated, and thus had to go in later with red acrylic and paint over the letters. This was, Professor Noonan informed us, accurate to how a true scribe might have corrected such an error. Other mistakes occurred along the way, including smudged red ink, failed erasures using sandpaper, and slightly off-kilter illustrations. Minim confusion, Abbie confessed, was also something she struggled with. Nevertheless, we pulled through and found that, as a whole, the process was enjoyable for both of us.
When we had finished with the essential lettering and illustrations, we decided to add a few flourishes. Abbie re-created a hole on the blank left page using an X-acto knife and sandpaper, smoothing it down to make it as realistic as possible. I added color to the edges of the folios, to give our fresh parchment a more “aged” look, and imitated ink stains and blemishes on the surface of the original. These were added mostly for aesthetic purposes, rather than accuracy— so that our finished product was more of an adaptation of our chosen folios rather than a true reproduction.
We had created a work of art.
Written by Dalanie Beach
Edited by Abbie Spica
St. Mary’s College
Þenn Arþour bifore þe hiȝ dece þat auenture byholdez,
And rekenly hym reuerenced, for rad was he neuer,
And sayde, ‘Wyȝe, welcum iwys to þis place, [folio 94v]
Þe hede of þis ostel Arthour I hat;
Liȝt luflych adoun and lenge, I þe praye,
And quat-so þy wylle is we schal wyt after.’
‘Nay, as help me,’ quoþ þe haþel, ‘he þat on hyȝe syttes,
To wone any quyle in þis won, hit watz not myn ernde;
Bot for þe los of þe, lede, is lyft vp so hyȝe,
And þy burȝ and þy burnes best ar holden,
Stifest vnder stel-gere on stedes to ryde,
Þe wyȝtest and þe worþyest of þe worldes kynde,
Preue for to play wyth in oþer pure laykez,
And here is kydde cortaysye, as I haf herd carp,
And þat hatz wayned me hider, iwyis, at þis tyme.
Ȝe may be seker bi þis braunch þat I bere here
Þat I passe as in pes, and no plyȝt seche;
For had I founded in fere in feȝtyng wyse,
I haue a hauberghe at home and a helme boþe,
A schelde and a scharp spere, schinande bryȝt,
Ande oþer weppenes to welde, I wene wel, als;
Bot for I wolde no were, my wedez ar softer.
Bot if þou be so bold as alle burnez tellen,
Þou wyl grant me godly þe gomen þat I ask bi ryȝt.’ Arthour con onsware, And sayd, ‘Sir cortays knyȝt, If þou craue batayl bare, Here faylez þou not to fyȝt.’
Then Arthur, before the high dais, that adventure/strange happening beheld
And courteously greeted him, for afraid was he never,
And said: “Knight, welcome indeed to this place.
The head of this hostel, Arthur I am called.
Dismount graciously down and stay, I pray thee,
And what your will is, we shall learn after.”
“Nay, so help me,” said the knight, “He that on high sits,
To dwell any while in this abode was not my errand;
But for the renown of thee, Prince, is lifted up so high
And your castle and your knights are held [to be] best,
Stiffest/Strongest under steel-gear on steeds to ride,
The strongest and the worthiest of the world’s offspring,
Valiant to play with in other noble games,
And here is shown that courtesy, as I have heard mention of–
And that has brought me here, certainly, at this time
You may be safe by this branch that I bear here
That I pass as in peace and seek no plight;
For had I set out in company in a fighting fashion,
I have a hauberk [plate of armor] at home and a helmet both,
A shield and a sharp spear, shining bright,
And other weapons to wield, I know [they are] good, also;
But for I don’t want there to be, my clothing is gentler.
But if thou would be so bold as all men say [you are],
Thou will grant me goodly the game that I ask By right.” Arthur did answer And said: “Sir courteous knight, If thou crave bare battle, Here you will not fail to fight.”
The Gawain-poet takes on the Arthurian and the alliterative traditions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as is aptly demonstrated in this passage from lines 250-278. In this scene, Arthur addresses the mysterious Green Knight who appears at the entrance to his hall. The poet begins the passage, noting “þat auenture” standing before Arthur’s court (1.250). This adventure, or marvel, alludes to the same “meruayle þat he he myȝt trawe, / Of alderes, of armes, of oþer auenturus” that Arthur seeks earlier before being seated for dinner (1.94-95). Arthur’s request for a tale of adventure is a traditional aspect of Arthurian literature. In this poem, however, it is revealed as a potentially childish request, as the poet takes on the tradition, exaggerating the adventure to one more dangerous and real than Arthur would perhaps have originally desired.
The poet is also successful in portraying the noble courtesy that was traditional behavior for knights. Line 251 emphasizes this type of courtly behavior, utilizing alliteration of three words, as was custom in the alliterative tradition of the time: “And rekenly hym reuerenced, for rad was he neuer.” Arthur applies this same type of courtesy to the green guest, welcoming him, “Wyȝe, welcum iwys to þis place. /…/ Liȝt luflych adoun and lenge, I þe praye” (1.252-254). The alliterated words (wyȝe, welcum, iwys, and liȝt, luflych, lenge) emphasize the chivalric greeting given to the Green Knight, likely because of the high quality materials he wears, described in an earlier passage.
It is important to note that by addressing the Green Knight in a chivalric manner, Arthur employs the formal and respectful “þe” (1.253), in comparison to the Green Knight’s disrespectful use of “þou” (1.272). This foreshadows the sinister intentions of the Green Knight, corresponding with the likewise dual-natured description of his appearance in previous passages: the knight is ominously giant and green, but outfitted like a noble knight and is therefore difficult to define as specifically “good” or “bad.” The Gawain-poet hints at the Green Knight’s deceptive character a second time in this same passage, when the knight says Arthur’s court is “Preue for to play wyth in oþer pure laykez,” alluding to the subsequent beheading game, as “oþer pure laykez” indicates games rather than jousting (1.262). The Green Knight’s cunning deception can be seen as the Green Knight’s “oþer weppenes to welde” (1.270). The poet draws attention to these lines in the notable occurrence of translinear alliteration. Lines 270 and 271 both alliterate on long vowel sounds that begin with “w”: “Ande oþer weppenes to welde, I wene wel, als; / Bot for I wolde no were, my wedez ar softer.” The poet’s emphasis on these lines indicate to the reader that the Green Knight’s focus on appearance of clothing as indicative of his nature is important—should the knights trust that the Green Knight’s clothing and appearance can guarantee his real intent? Yet again, the poet serves at a critic of the court, suggesting a childish gullibility within it.
Marie Borroff handles this passage well in her translation, maintaining most key aspects of the passage’s stylistic nuances. There are, however, significant alterations that sacrifice some of the poem’s integrity. Perhaps most significantly, her translation foregoes much of the allusions to the malevolent character of the Green Knight. Most obviously, this is lost where Borroff replaces both the words “þe” and “þou” with the umbrella-word, “you.” Any nuance in tone is erased with this replacement, resulting in a much more deferential Green Knight. The Green Knight’s previously discussed use of “ȝou” to address Arthur reveals the costume nature of his attire, as his language here disagrees with the noble appearance of his attire. A true knight would be required to behave and speak in the same chivalric fashion Arthur displays.
Her choice of “you” is problematic in another instance in the passage, when Arthur returns the favor to the Green Knight, addressing him, “If þou craue batayl bare, / Here faylez þou not to fyȝt” (277-278). Arthur addresses the Green Knight with a reciprocating “þou” twice within the wheel structure; evidently the poet wants to draw attention to this change in language coming from Arthur. Borroff misses this emphasis on his change in tone when she uses the less nuanced “you,” writing “If contest here you crave, / You shall not fail to fight.” It is, however, important to note that there aren’t many modern equivalents for Borroff to choose from in terms of polite and impolite forms of “you,” so her loss can easily be attributed not to any oversight on her part, but to a true lack of modern equivalent English to select from.
Borroff further fails in her portrayal of the Green Knight when she substitutes words and phrases so as to maintain the alliterative pattern of her translation. She translates “Preue for to play wyth in oþer pure laykez” (1.262) to “And peerless to prove in passages of arms.” While her translation succeeds in maintaining the rhythmic and alliterative integrity of the original, the meaning is twisted in such a way that it loses its original allusion to the beheading game (oþer pure laykez). Yet again, the Green Knight is portrayed without key allusions to his deception, losing the poetic nuance of foreshadowing.
This occurs again in line 266: “Þat I passe as in pes and no plyȝt seche.” Borroff’s translation, “That I pass here in peace, and would part friends,” again prioritizes the alliterative style over meaning, and the Green Knight becomes the friendly giant, wishing to befriend the court before him. He assures them that his bearing of a traditional Christmas branch indicates his desire for peace, as was custom at the time. This is certainly not the case, as he, in reality, wishes to deceive and test them. The original verse is much more ambiguous, for it is unclear as to whose plight he does not seek—probably, he seeks no plight for himself and merely allows the possibility that there be none for the other knights, should they, of course, pass his test. This is yet another key example of the Green Knight waving the falsity of his appearance in the naïve court’s faces; he almost mocks the act of bearing a branch to represent peace and toying with the youthful naïveté of Arthur’s court. These nuances are all sacrificed in Borroff’s representation of the Green Knight, yielding the loss of poetic foreshadowing and poetic critique within the poem.
The poet’s role as a potential critic of the court is made less pronounced in line 250 of Borroff’s translation, where she omits the word “auenture,” choosing “entrance” instead. This decision erases the implication that Arthur’s previously desired tale of marvel and adventure has been presented through the arrival of the Green Knight. The irony of the entire matter is lost and the poet loses one of his key criticisms. It is perhaps fitting, given her failure to portray the Green Knight’s allusions to his dangerous intentions, that she fail to present him as Arthur’s “auenture” to begin with. This alteration, along with many others, is very slight but also very pronounced when closer readings of the original text lend to truly wonderful poetic devices and subtleties that the translation simply lacks. The greatest attributes of the Gawain-poet are his nuanced and intricate style, playing performer, insider, and critic for and of the court, all at once. Borrof’s choices may have reflected ones necessary to best reproduce the poem in its stylistic character with a meaning as close to the original as possible, but her selections reveal the impossibility of doing so while maintaining the original’s subtle and well-crafted overtones.
Til the knight came himself, urging on his horse,
Saw him wait at bay, beside his men.
He dismounts beautifully, leaves his horse,
Draws out a bright sword and strides forth powerfully.
Goes swiftly through the ford where the fierce one waits.
The wild animal was aware of the man with the weapon in hand,
The hair raised up on end; he snorted so fiercely
That the many feared for the knight, lest the worst befall him.
The boar charges straight at the man,
That the man and the boar were both in a heap
In the strongest current of the water. The other had the worst,
For the man marks him well, as they first met,
Firmly sets the blade exactly in the hollow at the base of the throat,
Struck him up to the hilt, that the heart breaks apart
And snarling he yielded to him and was carried downstream Quite quickly. A hundred hounds seized him, That fiercely biting him; The men brought him to the bank And the dogs condemn him to death.
Til the knyȜt com hymself, kachande his blonk,
SyȜ hym byde at þe bay, his burnez bysyde.
He lyȜtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour,
Braydez out a bryȜt bront and brigly forth strydez.
Foundez fast þurȜ þe forth þer þe felle bydez..
þe wylde watz war of þe wyȜe with weppen in honde,
Hef hyȜly þe here; so hetterly he fnast
þat fele ferde for þe freke, lest felle hym þe worre.
þe swyn settez hym out on þe segge euen,
þat þe burne and þe bor were boþe vpon hepez
In þe wyȜtest of þe water. Þe worre hade þat oþer,
For þe mon merkkez hym wel, as þay mette fyrst,
Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen,
Hit hym vp to þe hult. Þat þe hert schyndered
And he Ȝarrande hym Ȝelde and Ȝedoun þe water Ful tyt. A hundreth houndez hym hent, þat bremely con hym bite; Burnez him broȜt to bent And doggez to dethe endite.
This section of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is from the second hunting scene. These action packed scenes of the men hunting various animals are interjected by scenes of Bertilak’s wife trying to seduce Sir Gawain in his bed each morning. Here we have interesting interplay between two different kinds of aggressors. It presents two manifestations of the passions of raw human nature, the sexual and the violent, while showing their overlap. On the one hand, we have the male aggressors hunting deer and boars for sport, and then we have the female sexual aggressor who is performing her husband’s wishes as she tries to seduce Gawain. The fast-paced violent action of the hunting scenes makes the scenes with Bertilak’s wife all the more intense and intimate. Bertilak also seems to be channeling his sexual energy and frustrations about his quest into the hunt. In the original text, through the vivid imagery and the fact that Bertilak has an audience of men who are holding their breath as he attacks the boar, the reader gets a real sense of the drama of the scene.
Formally, there is a lot going on in this section of the poem which is true of Gawain as a whole; some elements include effective imagery, intentional alliteration, and allusions to elsewhere in the text. The most important part of this passage for me is how the Gawain-poet elicits visceral reactions through vivid sensual imagery. The reader can see the violent battle between the knight and the boar, experience the fear of both opponents, feel the anxiety rolling off the watching men, and, in the last line, the reader is repulsed and oddly satisfied by the final depiction of the dogs ending the boar. I will look into a few of these images in greater detail in comparison with Marie Borroff’s translation later in this blog post. As is the case throughout the entire poem, alliteration plays a huge part in conveying tone and meaning—and this section is no exception. One of my favorite instances of this occurs at line 1594, which reads, “Hit hym vp to þe hult. Þat þe hert schyndered.” With this forceful repetition of the “h” sound, the reader can almost hear the exhalation or gasp of the boar as Gawain strikes him. This also shows how reading the poem aloud can emphasize this effect of the words. Another interesting aspect to the Gawain-poet is that he cleverly foreshadows and references other moments in the story throughout the entire poem. In line 1593, the Gawain poet writes “Set sadly þe scharp in þe slot euen.” The careful aim and powerful movement of Bertilak in this line recalls the how Gawain beheads the Green Knight at the beginning of the poem.
Overall, in comparing my translation with Marie Borroff’s, I noticed that there are fewer words in her modernized text. In this way, she still makes the encounter seem dramatic, but it is more about the conflict of the generic “Man versus Beast,” rather than the specific knight and boar. If we directly translate the passage, we get Bertilak’s own sense of urgency and the more visceral descriptions of the boar’s death. In this way, the Gawain-poet’s text is more immediate, intense, and personal. By looking at some of the problematic passages I found in the Borroff translation, I will show how her attempt for lyrical and relatable poetic language precludes the reader from gaining a true sense of the poem.
For example, in line 1593, Borroff translates the phrase “Slips in the blade,” while I translated “Firmly sets the blade.” The effect of Borroff’s is to make it sound like Bertilak slipped the blade easily and even gently into the boar’s neck, like sticking a knife in pudding. In my translation, you see how Bertilak has to use force and precision as he makes the killing blow. It gives him greater agency and power, and seems like a more triumphant moment.
Then in line 1595, we see the aftermath of the boar’s shattered heart. Borroff translates the phrase, “he falls in his fury,” while I said “and snarling he yielded.” Borroff’s phrasing recalls the language of epic poetry, with heaven and hell imagery as he falls dramatically. In my more direct translation, the boar’s death is much more rooted in reality. You understand the feeling that the boar is unwillingly yielding to the knight’s wishes. The knight is, once again, more of an active agent inflicting powerful force on the boar, forcing the boar to give in. This boar is violently aggressive and protests vocally until the end.
Another problem for Borroff is her attempt to recreate an alliterative structure. Sometimes she does a nice job with either repeating the same consonant from the original text or choosing a sound with a similar effect, but she is not always that successful. In line 1583, the Middle English reads “He lyȜtes luflych adoun, leuez his corsour.” Instead of writing alliteratively, Borroff tries to retain the language of the Gawain poet by translating, “Lightly he leaps down, leaves his courser.” Because of this, Borroff alienates the modern reader by using an unfamiliar word for horse without even using it for her own alliterative purposes. Then, in line 1596 the Gawain-poet writes, “A hundreth houndez hym hent.” Borroff translates the line, “Hounds hasten by the score.” She has the repetition of the “h” in the two first words, but the latter half of the line completely lacks any alliteration. To her credit, Borroff keeps relatively the same number of syllables and captures the fast pace of the moment in the story. She does not, however, maintain the original effect of the alliteration. In the original, there is a gasping quality of the “h” which makes you hear the hounds pant as they sprint to the kill.
Lastly, in line 1600, Borroff says, “And dogs pronounce him dead.” The verb choice makes it seem like the dogs ran over to the boar and listened for his failed heartbeat. It completely removes any sense of aggression and action. I, however, chose to phrase it with “and the dogs condemn him to death.” This infuses power in the dog’s instinctual action as well as a sort of dark primal form of justice to the text.
In general, the Borroff translation is softened, with language that is trying to be poetic and flow smoothly, but unfortunately it simply softens the visceral effect of the poem. As is so often the trouble with translation, we have to make choices for what we can keep from an original text. We have to pick and choose certain elements: the original meaning of the words, the formal structure, or the tone- to name a few. Unfortunately, as Billy Murray demonstrates while gallivanting around Toyko with a young Scarlett Johansson, some things are just Lost in Translation.
The following is taken from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as Gawain and the Green Knight honor their agreement set a year prior.
Original Text, lines 2309-2329
He lyftes lyȝtly his lome, and let hit doun fayre  ( vs: He gathered the grim axe and guided it well)
With þe barbe of þe bitte bi þe bare nek;
Þaȝ he homered heterly, hurt hym no more
Bot snyrt hym on þat on syde, þat seuered þe hyde.
Þe scharp schrank to þe flesche þurȝ þe schyre grece, 
Þat þe schene blod ouer his schulderes schot to þe erþe;
And quen þe burne seȝ þe blode blenk on þe snawe,
He sprit forth spenne-fote more þen a spere lenþe,
Hent heterly his helme, and on his hed cast, 
Schot with his schulderez his fayre schelde vnder,
Braydez out a bryȝt sworde, and bremely he spekez–
Neuer syn þat he watz burne borne of his moder
Watz he neuer in þis worlde wyȝe half so blyþe– 
‘Blynne, burne, of þy bur, bede me no mo!
I haf a stroke in þis sted withoute stryf hent,
And if þow rechez me any mo, I redyly schal quyte,
And ȝelde ȝederly aȝayn–and þerto ȝe tryst–  and foo. Bot on stroke here me fallez– Þe couenaunt schop ryȝt so, Fermed in Arþurez hallez– And þerfore, hende, now hoo!’ 
My Modern Translation
He lifts lightly his axe, and let it down fair
With the barbe of the blade by the bare neck.
Though he hammered heartily, hurt him no more
But save a cut to the side that severed the hide.
The sharp sank into the flesh parting the white flesh,
That the sheen of blood over his shoulders shot to the earth.
And when he saw the blood blank on the snow,
He jumped forth with feet together more than the length of a spear,
Grabbing heartily his helmet and putting it on,
Covering with his shoulders his fair shield behind,
Brandished a bright sword and fiercely he spoke—
Never since he was born of his mother
Was he never in this world half so happy–
‘Happily put away your sword, bid me no more!
I have a stroke in this stead without receiving strife
And if you reach me any more, I readily shall repay
And I say quickly again—and thereto the trust— and wickedly. But one strike here falls on me– The covenant stops correctly so That was formed in Arthur’s halls– And therefore, noble, now stop!
This passage signifies a release from the bounds of duty and agreement. With it comes a physical element—the cutting of Gawain’s neck to bear testament to his encounter and compliance. This sign also marks a transition in the passage, as Gawain understands the significance of the bloody visual. In Marie Borroff’s translation, however, Gawain’s injury is described in more muted language, and as a result, transfers less weight to Sir Gawain’s courageous rebuke.
In its original form, the passage is immediately characterized by the alliteration seen throughout the entirety of the work. While alliteration serves many purposes, its use within this passage is primarily to direct momentum and illustrate power. In the first line, the text reads, “He lyftes lyȝtly his lome, and let hit doun fayre” (2309). Immediately a sense of fluidity and elegance surrounds the Green Knight as he lifts his axe. This is due solely to the softness of the “l” sounds that fill the line, as repetition of these words creates a rolling sensation, providing an audible momentum to match the motion of the axe. The next line serves as stark contrast, since words such as “barbe”, and “bitte” (2310) have closed sounds that oppose the open fluidity of the line before it. As such, the first two lines together bear opposite tonal qualities and hint at broader significance. The parity of openness and closure fit both with the theme of execution—as one’s life is ended, and with the termination of Gawain’s covenant—as his contract is closed. These two possibilities are inherently at odds with each other. This is fitting, as in many ways, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale of opposites; chivalry and courtesy, loyalty and preservation, and desire and chastity are but a few pairs of conflicting forces that come to define the work. Within the sonic contrast in the first two lines, the poet embeds the struggle between Gawain and The Green Knight within the thematic structure of direct opposition.
The Green Knight is dominant in the beginning of this passage. However, the distribution of power quickly shifts when Gawain sees his own blood splatter on the snow. To mark this transition, the poet begins the line with “and,” a word that has little sonic magnitude, making the word to a neutral marker. Both lines before this begin with “Þe” and “Þat” (2313,2314), while the two lines following begin with “He” and “Hent” (2315, 2316), respectively, and thus serves to further isolate this transitional line. Upon seeing the blood, Gawain realizes his pact is fulfilled and is thus placed on even ground with the Green Knight. The poet gives him an increasing amount of power as he speaks out against the knight. “Braydez out a bryȝt sworde, and bremely he spekez” (2319), writes the poet, mimicking the “b sound” that defined the action of the axe only moments before. This is further compounded in Gawain’s language, as he commands, “Blynne, burne, of þy bur, bede me no mo!” (2322). In total transition, and demonstrated through alliteration, the power held by the Green Knight now lies in the armored hands of Gawain.
This transition of power and tonal clash, while still present in the Borroff translation, is not as stylistically developed. In place of soft “l” sounds, Marie Borroff opts for a line filled with “g” words that are more reconcilable with the “b” sounds that follow. Furthermore, Gawain’s moment of realization is softened in Borroff’s translation. The vivid—and grotesque—desription of bloodshed is greatly diminished in the translation, and as a result the moment of freedom, and thus the lynchpin on which power swings is transitively cast into shadow. What should be translated as a “stream” of blood “[shooting] to earth,” is written as a “little blood lightly leapt to earth” (2314). Such a softening of language mutes the gravity of the situation, thus undermining the theme of Gawain’s inescapable mortality that runs throughout the work. As such, Gawain’s transition into a bold figure is dramatically lessened in Marie Borroff’s translation and does not allow him to fully embrace the knightly values of courage and bravery.
In this post, I will translate and explore the description of Gawain’s entrance into Bertilak’s castle in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” including how descriptions foreshadow future events of the poem and the nuances of the poet’s wordplay. Examples from this same selection will be used to illustrate my critique of three facets of Marie Boroff’s well-known translation of the poem, and further discuss the question of what constitutes a modern translation.
Lines 842-861 of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”
Gawayn glyȝt on þe gome þat godly hym gret,
And þuȝt hit a bolde burne þat þe burȝ aȝte,
A hoge haþel for þe nonez, and of hyghe eldee;
Brode, bryȝt, watz his berde, and al beuer-hwed,
Sturne, stif on þe stryþþe on stalworth schonkez,
Felle face as þe fyre, and fre of hys speche;
And wel hym semed, for soþe, as þe segge þuȝt,
To lede a lortschyp in lee of leudez ful gode.
Þe lorde hym charred to a chambre, and chefly cumaundez
To delyuer hym a leude, hym loȝly to serue;
And þere were boun at his bode burnez innoȝe,
Þat broȝt hym to a bryȝt boure, þer beddyng watz noble,
Of cortynes of clene sylk wyth cler golde hemmez,
And couertorez ful curious with comlych panez
Of bryȝt blaunner aboue, enbrawded bisydez,
Rudelez rennande on ropez, red golde ryngez,
Tapitez tyȝt to þe woȝe of tuly and tars,
And vnder fete, on þe flet, of folȝande sute.
Þer he watz dispoyled, wyth spechez of myerþe,
Þe burn of his bruny and of his bryȝt wedez.
Gawain looked at the man that graciously greeted him,
And it seemed to him that a bold knight owned the castle,
A great knight indeed, and of a prime age;
Wide, beautiful was his beard, and all beaver-colored,
Powerful, firm was his stance on immovable legs,
His face as fierce as fire, and noble in his speech;
And it certainly suited him, indeed, as the knight seemed,
To hold a lordship in a castle full of good knights.
The lord took him to a room, and promptly commences,
To assign him a man to humbly serve him;
And there were ready at his bidding many men
That brought him to a beautiful bedroom, where the bedding was noble,
With bed-curtains of fine silk with lovely gold hems,
And exquisite coverlets with beautiful edging,
Of beautiful fur around it, embroidered at the sides,
Curtains sliding on ropes, guided by gold rings,
Tapestries hung on the wall made of red silk and silk of Tharsia,
And underfoot, on the floor, rugs of a similar kind,
There he was stripped, with conversations of merriment,
The man, of his mail-chain and of his shining armour.
To begin, the imagery used to describe Bertilak loosely associates him with the Green Knight and also panders to Gawain’s idealistic notion of knighthood. Firstly, the poet describes Bertilak in terms of features that have been associated with the Green Knight in Fitt I: an impressive, distinctively colored beard (“brode,” and “beuer-hwed,” line 845), and his “stalworth schonkez,” (line 846). By implicitly making these comparisons, the poet is hinting at the revelation that Bertilak is the Green Knight. He is also toying with the theme of deception by magic that weaves in and out of the poem.
Further, the imagery of the castle reflects the poet’s familiarity with courtly life. He goes into detail of what would be at a castle, but the descriptions of the bed-curtains and tapestries are not described in terms of colors or specific designs, but rather as “bryȝt,” or “clene,” (lines 854, 855, 857). “Bryȝt” can mean bright, shining, or beautiful. The one color that is invoked is “golde,” (line 854). Instead of being able to picture exactly what these fabrics look like, the reader is given heavenly or magical imagery of pure light and shininess to imagine. Thus, the effect is again a hint of what the castle will turn out to be: a disguised destination, a place of magic, and ultimately, with the temptation scenes, a distraction for Gawain from his quest for perfect knighthood.
Another crucial poetic element to this selection is its wordplay. In lines 850 and 851, Bertilak leads Gawain to a “chambre” and “cumaundez/To delyuer hym a leude.” In this instance, “cumaundez” means to “commence to assign him a man,” but it also has the connotation of “to command,” suggesting that Bertilak is controlling Gawain without him even realizing it. Another example comes in line 861, when the servants strip Gawain of his “bruny and of his bryȝt wedez.” “Wedez” can mean “clothes” or “armour.” Thus, through the mere act of undressing him, the servants are actually making him vulnerable, removing the veneer of his “knighthood” on which he so heavily relies to reveal who his true, flesh and blood moral character is underneath.
In this selection, the words that are obviously missing from lines imply a deeper level of meaning as well. In line 847, “Felle face as þe fyre,” does not tell the reader to whom the poet is referring. He should be referring to Bertilak’s face, but as he has not yet revealed himself as the Green Knight, that attribution is noticeably absent. Another example of an omission is in line 859. The phrase “on þe flet, of folȝande sute” is missing the word for what is on the floor: tapestries or rugs. I like to think of this as a foreshadowing for the surprises in store for Gawain: having the rug pulled out beneath him, so to speak.
Finally, these elements of imagery, wordplay, and omission, in addition to the actions of Bertilak all support the larger “too good to be true” theme of the poem. All of the games Gawain engages in (the beheading game, the exchange of winnings, etc.) seem to be easy at face value. However, the elements of magic in addition to Gawain’s debilitating perfectionism are always working against him to turn the games on their heads.
Critique of Marie Boroff
I will use Boroff’s translation of the same passage to illustrate her treatment of the original alliteration, use of archaic language, and creative license in terms of word choice, omissions, and additions.
Gawain gazed on the host that greeted him there,
And a lusty fellow he looked, the lord of that place:
A man of massive mold, and of middle age;
Broad, bright was his beard, of a beaver’s hue,
Strong, steady his stance, upon stalwart shanks,
His face fierce as fire, fair spoken withal,
And well suited he seemed in Sir Gawain’s sight
To be a master of men in a mighty keep.
They pass into a parlor, where promptly the host
Has a servant assigned him to see to his needs,
And there came upon his call many courteous folk
That brought him to a bower where bedding was noble,
With heavy silk hangings hemmed in all gold,
Coverlets and counterpanes curiously wrought,
A canopy over the couch, clad in fur,
Curtains running on cords, caught to gold rings,
Woven rugs on the walls of eastern work,
And the floor, under foot, well furnished with the same.
With light talk and laughter they loosed from him then
His war dress of weight and his worthy clothes.
The most prominent of these qualities in the selection is Boroff’s treatment of alliteration. While it supports the general use of alliteration in the poem, it does not adhere to its specific function within lines. In line 843, Boroff maintains a three-part alliteration in the line, but it is “L” alliteration of “lusty,” “looked,” and “lord” as opposed to “B” alliteration of “bolde,” “burne,” and “burȝ.” This raises the question of whether including any alliteration in a modern translation serves an equivalent meaning to the original alliteration. It will also inform the reader of the broader question of the translator’s definition of and purpose of a modern translation.
In this example, changing the emphasized letter changes the reading of the line and of the selection as a whole. In a phonetic sense, the “B” sound at the beginning of a word is more forceful than “L.” By omitting the “B” sound, Boroff reduces the “force” of the man that is characterized in the poetic device of alliteration.
Furthermore, this “force” of Bertilak is illustrated in the strength of the words selected for the original alliteration. Definitions of the Middle English word “bolde” include “bold,” “daring”, and “valiant.” The next alliterative word is “burne,” which can mean “man” or “knight.” Because the man has not done anything particularly “valiant” yet, the reader can infer that Gawain feels there is something bold or heroic about him because the poet is also associating him with the knight. Finally, “burȝ,” is further associated with the power of owning a castle, being a knight, etc. The words used in the poet’s alliteration build on each other to characterize Bertilak.
Thus, alliteration is stronger when the sound supports the character that the poet is creating throughout the poem. In contrast, Boroff’s line combines the weak “L” sound, the odd characterization of Bertilak as “lusty,” and the passivity of “looked” versus the power associated with “burȝ” in the original text. These words do not support each other; as a result, the translation weakens the device of alliteration.
Boroff’s use of non-modern language evokes the question of purpose in a modern translation. Is the main purpose to provide the most accurate translation of the original text or to capture the spirit of the text and make it as easy as possible for a modern audience to understand?
In general, Boroff’s translation leans toward the latter. This is not necessarily a wrong interpretation, but it makes occasional archaic phrases stand out all the more. For example, line 846 refers to Bertilak’s “stalwart shanks” in the Boroff translation. This is the closest modern word to word translation of the original, “stalworth schonkez.” The word “shanks” also shows up earlier in Boroff’s translation in line 431 (“stiff shanks”). However, the word “shanks” is more appropriate for a cut of meat than a human set of legs to a modern reader. It is a textbook example of the closest translation to a Middle English word not capturing the spirit of the text in this day.
If Boroff is indeed trying to make Gawain approachable to the modern reader, one more question follows: Is it possible to make a truly modern translation of a story with archaic settings, characters, and plot lines? One choice Boroff made in the selection is the phrase “mighty keep” (line 849). Not only is the phrase archaic, it also deviates from the poet’s original meaning. This phrase means “charge” or “control,” rather than the original text’s “lee” which means “shelter” or “castle.” Castle would have been much easier for a modern reader to understand and closer to the text’s original meaning. In this case, “charge” does have a more universal meaning, but if one undermines the castles in Gawain, what are next? The knights? The poem needs to maintain its identity as an Arthurian tale, so the castles should stay.
At times, Boroff’s creative attempts to modernize the piece endanger the continuity of the story. For example, she refers to the “parlor” that Bertilak and Gawain “pass into” (line 850). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Anglo-Norman French origins of the word “parlur” meant simply “place for speaking” to Middle English speakers. The original text uses “chambre,” so one commends Boroff for using a French word and maintaining all of those associations. However, parlors have an entirely different connotation to a modern reader, and is not consistent with a tale about knights and castles.
Seeing as the poet did it himself at times, it seems appropriate to analyze where Boroff omits words entirely in her translation. In the selection, she omits “godly,” meaning “courteously” or “graciously” (line 842). This contributes to her deviating characterization of Bertilak, as previously discussed. If Gawain does not see him as a gracious host, he loses the associations of knightliness and goodness, and also loses his personal connection to this “bolde” or “heroic” knight, Bertilak.
Oddly enough, an example of Boroff adding words back in leads the reader to line 852, in which Boroff refers to the “many courteous folk” who do Bertilak’s bidding. The original texts only says there are “burnez innoȝe,” or “many men.” Ironically, she adds back in the very word she omitted ten lines ago! It seems strange that she would attribute courtesy to the servants of Bertilak’s castle, who hold little role in the poem, instead of to Bertilak. In all of these small tweaks, Boroff is essentially recasting Bertilak as the villain to Gawain as the hero, which is inconsistent with Gawain’s true admiration for the man.
In conclusion, Boroff’s treatment of the original alliteration, omissions, and additions re-characterize a main character in Gawain as a “lusty” villain. Her use of archaic language and creative license in terms of more modern word choices make her modern translation less consistent and hard to categorize as a purely text-based, or modern read. Only the nuances of associative imagery, shiny distractions for Gawain and the reader, and the wordplay of the original text can fully capture the “burne” that is Bertilak and his role in Gawain’s journey.