Feeling the “Burne” of Bertilak in “Sir Gawain,” by Claire McCarthy

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.

My Translation

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.

Poetic analysis

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.

Boroff translation

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.

Alliteration

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.

Bertilak’s manliness should not be overlooked.

Archaic language

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.

Creative license

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.

“He get us…”: A Revelatory Instance of Wordplay in “Pearl,” by Matthew McMahon

My translation of  Pearl (section XX, lines 1201-13):

“To please the Prince and straighten sight,
It is very easy to the good Christian.
For I have found Him, both day and night
A God, a Lord, a friend most fine.
On this hill I felt this rite
For pity of my pearl divine;
And unto God I committed with might
In Christ’s dear blessing and mine,
That in the form of bread and wine
The priest shows us every day.
He grants us to be His homely hine
And precious Pearl to Him as she may.
Amen.”

Original Text:

“To pay þe Prince oþer sete saȝte
Hit is ful eþe to þe god Krystyin;
For I haf founden hym, boþe day and naȝte,
A God, a Lorde, a frende ful fyin.
Ouer þis hyul þis lote I laȝte,
For pyty of my perle enclyin,
And syþen to God I hit bytaȝte
In Krysteȝ dere blessyng and myn,
Þat in þe forme of bred and wyn
Þe preste vus scheweȝ vch a daye.
He gef vus to be his homly hyne
Ande precious perleȝ vnto his pay.
Amen.”

In the final stanza of Pearl, the unknown poet must not only continue to employ all of the restrictions set up by the form he employs throughout the poem, but must also effectively conclude and tie together the poem in its entirety. As such, the overall successfulness of this passage, on its own and in the context of Pearl as a whole, is remarkable. The poet retains the rhyme scheme, stanza structure, and mood, all while injecting some extremely important—and telling—bits of information through wordplay and repetition.

When considering the conclusion to Pearl, the reader will undoubtedly ask a version of this question: “Has the narrator learned and progressed from this experience?” It is easy to respond both “yes” and “no.” Yes, because the narrator, in his own words, has “bytaghte / In Krystes dere blessyng” (XX.1207-8). Altenatively, “no,” because just moments before the conclusion he is “kaste of kythes that lastes aye” (XX.1198). As a result of these conflicting positions occurring only ten lines apart, deeper analysis is required to answer this loaded question.

Luckily, the poet inserts clues into the end of this final stanza to help his audience understand where he might stand on the issue of the narrator’s growth. The first comes in the form of a weighted bit of wordplay in lines 1211 and 1212, “He gef uus to be His homly hyne / And precious perles unto His pay.” Here, “gef” can mean “gives,” “grants,” or “bequeaths.” While all conveying similar ideas, the slight differences showcase the amount of clarity the narrator has to his and Pearl’s existences. In the first sense of “gef,” the narrator expresses the seemingly arbitrary “give and take” nature of the Lord. Much like in the beginning of the poem, this is the narrator’s non-understanding of the situation and his distress over his daughter being taken from him. This would suggest that he has not progressed.

However, the second two of the aforementioned three meanings of “gef” insinuate that the narrator has in fact developed beyond the poem’s onset as a result of his spiritual experience and verbiage. In his understanding that the Lord “grants” the people on earth to serve him, the narrator shows that he realizes the honor and importance of living in God’s grace. It transforms the previous “give and take” nature, first assumed to be the narrator’s outlook, into a nature of allowance. God allows the narrator to make the profound sacrifice of letting go of his daughter, and the narrator, after an understandable period of grieving, ultimately comes away as thankful.

This also plays through the “bequeath” meaning of “gef;” this language connotes a transferal of ownership. As such, a “bequeath” reading illustrates that the narrator has acceptingly given his daughter over to God. With these readings illuminating the levels of understanding the narrator develops over the course of the poem, it is evident that he has learned from the endeavors across Pearl.

The narrator and his dream representation of his daughter Pearl, at the climax of the poem
The narrator and his dream representation of his daughter Pearl, at the climax of the poem.

Considering the loaded meaning behind this solitary word in the original version, while Marie Borroff’s translation often excels structurally, the demands of alternative Middle English definitions make Pearl difficult to translate completely. Take Borroff’s translation of lines 1211 and 1212: “O may we serve Him well, and shine / As precious pearls to His content.” Though the clear metaphorical use of “pearls” and her adherence to the key phrases of the original come through strongly, gone is the weight of the epiphany-like “He gef us to be His…” However, as the difficulty of the original’s style is so demanding, it is a compromise that, likely, had to be made.

In translating, Borroff could have either tried to mirror the original poem’s style or shoot for exact accuracy in meaning—it probably is impossible to replicate both together, and any attempt would likely come up short on both ends. Therefore, critiquing Borroff’s translations should be done with the guidelines of the original’s form in mind. As the translator lays out in her introduction, “One of the most striking and significant aspects of the poem is its conformity to an all-encompassing and highly elaborate design.” Her adherence to the complete concatenation (“Pearl, that a prince is well content,” “As precious pearls to His content”—the first and final lines of the poem), using alliteration in moments of heightened drama (“His gifts gush forth like a spring in spate” (XI.1)), and unwavering rhyme scheme is remarkable:

Flash in winter form frosty space;
For every one was a gem to praise,
A sapphire or emerald opulent
That seemed to set the pool ablaze,
So brilliant their embellishment. (II.116-120)

This strict design, as Borroff refers to it, is the most important part of the poem; to honor it as closely as possible is necessary in a modern English translation, especially if this might be the only way in which some readers could be exposed to it.

For the most part, by conforming to the original Pearl’s design, Borroff retains much of the experience of reading Pearl in Middle English. The ababababbcbc rhyme scheme and alliterative passages convey the fairytale-like flow. The employment of the linking words and phrases matches the spiritual overtones of not only the poem’s plot, but also its style. The repetition, along with the poem’s ending in “Amen” imply that the poem is meant to be a prayer, read over and over. For example, the concatenation that occurs between the last line and the first line tie the poem together into a potentially never-ending circular narrative. By keeping this in, Borroff portrays much more than she would have if she attempted to only translate for as much accuracy as possible with each individual word. Instead, Borroff’s translation focuses on aesthetic accuracy and presents much more of Pearl’s most significant qualities.

Missing the “Spot”: Borroff’s Oversights in the First Stanza in Pearl, by Elizabeth Miggins

Original:

Perle plesaunte, to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere:
Out of oryent, I hardyly saye,
Ne proued I neuer her precios pere.
So rounde, so reken in vche araye,
So smal, so smoþe her sydez were;
Queresoeuer I jugged gemmez gaye
I sette her singeley in synglure.
Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere;
Þurȝ gresse to ground hit fro me yot.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of þat pryuy perle withouten spot.

Translation:

A pearl lovely and pleasing to a prince
To purely enclose in gold so clear:
Out of Orient, I hardily say
Proved I never her precious pair.
So round, so noble in each setting,
So slender, so smooth her sides were;
Wherever I judged splendid jewels
I set her singly in uniqueness.
Alas! I lost her in one garden;
Through the grass to the ground it slipped from me.
I pined, grievously wounded of distance from my beloved
Of that privy pearl without spot.

The first stanza of any poem functions as the foundation for the key themes that a poet then explores and expands upon throughout the remainder of the text. In the case of Pearl, within twelve lines, the poet alludes to Catholicism, creates layered language with literal and figurative meaning, and establishes an active first person narrator. All three topics serve as the basis of understanding the poem, and the reader can only comprehend their importance because the poet emphasizes them at the beginning. However, in Marie Borroff’s translation, her word choice removes the most important aspects of the opening stanza, and so one cannot trace these overarching themes.

Borroff actively eliminates the first person narrator in the opening section of the poem, and by doing so she removes the individualized nature of the Dreamer’s journey. In lines three and four, the original poet wrote, “Out of orient, I hardyly saye,/ Ne proued I neuer her precious pere.” Instead, Boroff translates the line as, “Boldly I say, all Orient/ Brought forth none precious like to her.” She places the motivation of the action behind the personified “Orient.” The original stated that the “I” never “proued” or proved a match as precious as his pearl. In the translated version, the reader does not understand the narrator, but in the original the Dreamer clearly performs the action.

The individual Dreamer falls asleep by the river. From Cotton Nero A.x.

Borroff continues to diminish the important individualized nature of the Dreamer when she says, “Ever my mind was bound and bent/To set her apart without a peer.” (7-8). The original poet says, “Queresoeuer I jugged gemmez gaye/I sette her singeley in synglure.” The “I” executes the actions, as he is the one who “jugged” and “sette.” On the other hand, Boroff does not include the word “I.” Remvoing the power of the first person narrator shifts the power dynamic of the poem. Even when Boroff maintains the “I,” she structures the sentence in order to stress the direct object instead. For example “I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daugenere” (11), or what could be translated as I pined, grievously wounded of distance from my beloved, becomes “Now, lovesick, the heavy loss I bear” (11). The “heavy loss” acts the focus of the line, and the reader fails to notice the “I” between the powerful words of “loss” and “bear. Since the poem focuses on one man’s individual religious journey, to diminish his role is to lessen the impact of the poem.

At the opening of the Pearl, the speaker does not immediately declare who or what this pearl may be. It functions both literally as an object and also as a representation of someone. The reader understands the metaphoric meaning of the pearl because of the poet’s use of courtly language. He describes it as “So rounde, so reken in vche araye,/So small, so smoþe her sydez were” (5-6). The Dreamer characterizes the literal pearl as “round” and “smooth,” but allegorically these descriptions draw upon what Andrew and Waldron call “stock epithets used in courtly literature to describe beautiful women” (53). The poet continues to use this literal and figurative language up until he explicitly labels the maiden with the pearl: “Oh perle,” quoþ I, “in perlez pyȝt,/Art þou my perle þat I haf playned,/Regretted by myn one on nyȝte? (241-243). Even though the reader easily figures out that the pearl functions as a metaphor of some unidentified character, the poet specifically uses images that keep the reader guessing about whether or not this pearl is literal as the poet also describes an actual object.

An image of Courtly Love

Borroff translates some of the first stanza lines as “So comely in every ornament,/So slender her sides, so smooth they were” (5-6). She removes the mystery of the pearl by translating “round” and “reken” as “comely.” The word comely typically describes a woman, not a pearl and so Borroff eliminates the layer of allegory of the metaphorical depiction of the maiden. Her translation forces us to understand the pearl as a woman, not as a literal object. However, the reader must also understand the pearl literally, as it functions religiously. The poet alludes to the “pearl of great price” in the Gospel of Matthew. By focusing only on the courtly description of the Pearl, Borroff fails to convey the multiple allegorical meanings of its presence.

Throughout Pearl, the poet alludes to Christianity and to the Bible, especially once the Maiden enters the story. Eventually, the Maiden brings the Dreamer to see the heavenly Jerusalem and explains salvation to her father. Yet, the poet stresses the importance of religion with the very first stanza. The poet states,“Allas! I leste hyr in on erbere” (9), meaning that he lost her in a garden. While gardens could function as a symbol for love and romance, medieval authors also associated them with the sacred. The image of the garden harkens back to the story of creation and the earthly paradise. Therefore, “erbere” represents a literal garden, a place of romance, but most importantly the Garden of Eden. Borroff translates that line as, “In a garden of herbs I lost my dear” (9), which is a correct paraphrase. However, by choosing a translation with the phrase “of herbs,” Borroff implies that this garden is literal and so she fails to convey the religious allegorical level of the garden.

The Dreamer sees the Maiden, his daughter, in heavenly Jerusalem. From Cotton Nero A.x.

The poet continues to allude to Christianity with the line, “I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere” (11). Andrew and Waldon state, “The whole line is perhaps reminiscent of the phrase quia amore langueo (‘for I am sick for love’). The Song of Songs, from which this phrase comes (2:5, 5:7-8) was interpreted spiritually as the soul’s longing for Christ” (54). While the poet created the phrase “luf-daungere,” he connects the connotation of his idiom with words in the Bible. On the other hand, Borroff fails to express the religious connotation with her translation: “Now, lovesick, the heavy loss I bear” (11). While the Dreamer does bear his loss, Borroff’s translation focuses too heavily on the loss itself, rather than on the emotion of longing. “Lovesick” does not effectively signify the spiritual importance of his deep desire to be reunited with the pearl.

Marie Borroff attempts to balance creating a translation, maintaining alliteration, and conveying meaning throughout her translation of Pearl. While I believe her work efficiently communicates the literal text, levels of deeper understand and allegory become lost in translation. A reader can only understand these important themes by returning to the original text, and placing the poem in its context.

Works Cited

Andrew, Malcolm, and Ronald Waldron. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Exeter: U of Exeter, 2007. Print.

Borroff, Marie. The Gawain Poet: Complete Works: Patience, Cleanness, Pearl, Saint Erkenwald, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

Examining The Violence and Victory in “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight,” by Sarah Dieckman

Original text, lines 1319-1339

And ay þe lorde of þe londe is lent on his gamnez,
To hunt in holtez and heþe at hyndez barayne
Such a sowme he þer slow bi þat þe sunne heldet;
Of does and of oþer dere, to deme were wonder.
Þenne fersly þay flokked in, folk, at þe laste,
And quykly of þe quelled dere a querré þay maked.
Gedered þe grattest of gres þat þer were
And didden hem derely vndo as þe dede askez.
Serched hem at þe assay summe þat þer were;
Two fyngeres þay fonde of þe fowlest of alle.
Syþen þay slyt þe slot, sesed þe erber,
Schaued wyth a scharp knyf, and þe schyre knitten.
Syþen rytte þay þe foure lymmes and rent of þe hyde;
Þen brek þay þe balé,þe bowelez out token,
Lystily for laucyng þe lere of þe knot.
Þay gryped to þe gargulun and graþely departed
Þe wesaunt fro þe wynt-hole and walt out þe guttez.
Þen scher þay out þe schulderez with her scharp knyuez,
Haled hem by a lyttel hole to haue hole sydes;
Siþen britned þay þe brest and brayden hit in twynne.
And eft at þe gargulum bigynez on þenne, […]

My Translation of lines 1319-1339

And always the lord of the land is away at his sport,
Hunting the barren hinds in the woods and heath;
He killed there such a quantity by the time the sun fell,
Of does and of other deer, it was wonderful to assess.
Then spiritedly the people assembled at last,
And quickly made a heap of game from the killed deer.
The nobles went there with many men,
Gathered the fattest that there were,
And had them gracefully cut open in the prescribed manner.
Some who were there examined them at the ‘assay;’
They found two fingers’ breadth of flesh on the poorest of them all.
Then they slit the hollow at the base of the throat,
Took hold of the gullet, scraped it with a sharp knife and tied up the flesh.
Then they slit along the four legs, and stripped off the hide;
They opened up the belly, drew the bowels,
Carefully to avoid undoing the ligature of the knot.
They seized the throat and properly separated
The gullet from the wind-pipe and tossed out the guts.
Then they cut out the shoulder-joints with their sharp knives,
Drawing them through a small hole so as to keep the sides intact.
Then they cut open the breast and divided it in two.

Part III of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight details scenes between Gawain and the Lady of Lord Bertilak alongside scenes of Lord Bertilak and his men hunting in the woods. The Pearl-Poet juxtaposes the slower bedroom scenes, which focus on conversation over action, with the violent, aggressive hunting carried out by the Lord and his men. I chose to focus on the deer hunting passage to examine the intimacy it possesses, question why the poet chose to speak of the hunt with such candor and detail, and determine why his explicit explanations are powerful and necessary in the poem. In lines 1319 to 1339, the lord engages in the hunt itself, returns with several other individuals to the castle, and begins to dismember the multiple carcasses they accumulated on their journey. The blunt, vivid manner in which the poet discusses the deer is unsettling, yet intriguing for readers. Vocabulary such as “slit,” “stripped,” and “seized” is dramatic and gory. The poet does not attempt to soften his speech because it is not his mission to coddle or to comfort readers. These and other uses of this visceral language force readers to visualize the carnage and does not give them an opportunity to look away.

The power and pure, physical strength of the noblemen is evident throughout this passage, as they swiftly kill hundreds of deer, animals that often represent innocence. This sport was not merely a simple pastime, but was a source of pride and prestige for these men. According to the book, hunting skills were praised because individuals viewed them as aristocratic accomplishments. These skills displayed a man’s ability to master that which was below him and to do so with ease. Here, the male dominates the doe. Back in the bedroom, it is the woman who acts as the female aggressor and assumes power over Gawain, the male. Much of the poem discusses who has the power or opportunity to act and how they choose to wield that power. Here is no exception. The stanza’s repetitive structure emphasizes that it is the men that possess control over the animal, as nearly every line begins with “they” and proceeds to detail how they cut or sliced the deer lying before them. The process may seem monotonous, but each individual cut and chop is just as significant and horrific as the first.

In addition to examining my personal translation, I also read Marie Borroff’s translation of the text. While some of her version was true to the original text, parts were problematic, as they eliminated much of the brutality and streamlined the harsher vocabulary to produce a more pleasing end result. From the beginning, her translation fails to include the same information present in the poet’s text. While my translation reads, “And always the lord of the land is away at his sport,” hers reads, “And the lord of the land rides late and long.” Though Borroff succeeds in maintaining the alliteration in her version, she does not indicate that the lord is engaging in his sport, nor does she specify the normalcy of this action. My translation highlights the fact that this behavior is routine for the lord, while Borroff’s gives the lord little ownership of the game. His passion for and time given to this game is significant and explains why the poet chooses to explore the event in detail rather than sum up all that occurs in a few lines. This hunt has meant and continues to mean something to the lord, so therefore it should mean something to us reading, and we should have the opportunity to fully experience his journey alongside him. Simplifying the line and maintaining the original structure should not be done at the expense of the poem’s actual content.

In line 1329, a slight vocabulary change is not only inaccurate in tone, but it is also not faithful to the meaning found in the medieval text. Rather than referring to the deer as the “poorest of them all,” Borroff states that the men began to cut open the “leanest.” If an animal is lean, then it is healthy. Poor does not equal healthy. The “poorest of them all” could indicate that the animal looked sickly, small, or it may address the animal as a victim. The leanest may instead look visually appealing to the hunters. This animal is the poorest, as it is the primary animal to suffer under the knives of the men. Referring to the animal as poor acknowledges its existence, gives it agency, and offers sympathy. Calling it lean merely remarks on its size and stature. These two words are not synonymous, so the intent of the poet is not evident here in Borroff’s work.

A discrepancy in line 1332 is also worth noting. While my translation reads that the number of does and deer “was wonderful to assess,” Borroff states that the amount of animals “would dizzy one’s wits.” The first indicates that the sheer amount of deer that the men collected should inspire awe. It remarks on those given the opportunity and, ultimately, the gift of witnessing this in person. Borroff’s, however, comments on the magnitude of the number, but not on the majestic or inspiring qualities it possesses. Just as Borroff failed to capture the lord’s relationship with the sport, she does not portray the same feeling of merriment my translation does. While this detail may not have severe consequences for the poet’s intent or meaning of the section as a whole, it is important to describe the scene to the best of one’s ability and to attest to the positive energy that clearly filled the room, no matter how violent the acts they soon commit.

Borroff’s oversimplification occurs again several lines later when the men return to the castle to take apart the deer carcasses. Line 1330 in my translation reads: “Then they slit the hollow at the base of the throat,” while Borroff’s line is, “Then they split the slot open and searched out the paunch.” Again, Borroff includes alliteration in the line, but differing from the other line, she decided to keep a Middle English term in her translation rather than adapt the text for a Modern English reader. She keeps “slot” rather than changing to “base at the hollow of the throat.” The term “slot” is vague and offers little description of where the men are now cutting into the deer. The “base at the hollow of the throat” is more explicit and emphasizes the vulnerability of this animal. It conveys the intimacy of this moment between man and beast. The phrase “split the slot” over “slit the hollow” sounds especially safe, as though she is hoping to shield readers from the piercing and stabbing, even though these actions are natural and what must happen to complete the hunting process. Borroff also speaks of an incorrect body part in this particular line by stating they look at the “paunch”, or abdomen, rather than the “gullet,” meaning esophagus. It is confusing why she chose to skip to another body part altogether when the poet purposefully dedicates a generous amount of time to the throat as it is one of the weakest and most exposed parts of any creature. The dominance of the males over the susceptible deer should be blatant and overdrawn, not watered down by a translation that sometimes chooses to merely include the main idea without delving into excessive detail.

Line 1323 contains a seemingly minor vocabulary change, but one that interestingly represents Borroff’s translation as a whole. My translation reads: “Then spiritedly the people assembled at last,” while hers reads, “then they trooped in together in triumph at last.” Borroff retains the alliteration with small articles in between the “t” words, and the line actually resembles the sound it describes: trotting horses. While this is fine work by Borroff, she changes “spiritedly” to “in triumph” in her translation, which I find troublesome because “triumph” emphasizes a definite win over someone or something lesser. While the hunters did triumph over the deer, the poet does not emphasize this point until later when he begins to detail the cutting and slicing of the deer. Before the first deer is selected, the men are spirited and seem celebratory, but their great triumph is not made entirely obvious. Throughout Borroff’s translation, she chooses to compromise some of the vocabulary in order to keep the lines alliterative; however, the hunters’ success should be made evident through the total control they soon demonstrate over the animals, not by the manner in which they return to the castle.

It is a testament to the poet’s superior talent and skill that Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is still read and translated by students and professionals alike. While overall Marie Borroff offers a detailed, authentic translation of the poet’s text, she at times chooses to connect with modern English readers rather than capturing the poem’s true essence that the author so greatly executed. She sometimes chose to focus on rhythm rather than gauging the appropriate tone and opted to soften her language to erase some of the overwhelming violence prevalent in the text. However, modern readers are not or should not be as sensitive as she believes them to be. Rather, she should highlight the terror in the poem because no one can totally escape from or should be ignorant to the unpleasant aspects of life, whether real or imaginary.

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Lost in Translation: The Thrill of the Hunt, by Casey O’Donnell

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The original text of lines 1330-1358 of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” beside my translation of those lines.

The medieval epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Gawain) offers a number of plots and subplots designed to garner the interest of the poet’s 14th century English audience. Yet, while such medieval happenings may have kept Gawain’s original audiences on the edge of their seats, the average 21st century student of literature is likely far less familiar with or interested in the ritual demands of courtly life. One such example of this disconnect can be found in lines 1330-1358 of Gawain, where the poet provides a thoroughly descriptive account of the ritualistic butchering of slaughtered deer, an important symbol of sophistication and skill for a medieval audience. In an attempt to appeal to modern readers, Marie Borroff’s translation of this passage focuses less on its original physicality and detail and fixates more singularly on recreating a medieval poetic style.

A medieval deer hunt from the 14th century manuscript “Livre de la chasse” by Gaston Phoebus.

The Gawain-poet employs alliteration, an essential element of medieval English poetry, frequently throughout this passage, but Borroff’s attempts to insert it into her translation often sacrifice the detailed imagery of the original poem. The first line of this passage (line 1330), reads “Syþen þay slyt þe slot,” which translates literally to “Then they slit the hollow at the base of the throat.” Borroff translates the line as “Then they slit the slot open.” Borroff’s word choice maintains the “sl” and hard “t” sounds, the slit/slot word play, and the “s” alliteration of the original poem, all important elements of the line. However, her translation also ignores the more accurate details of the poet’s account. “Slot,” unlike “throat,” is ambiguous in this context, giving the reader no real, concrete notion of the first step in the flaying ritual. Borroff makes a similar decision in line 1331, where she translates “Schaued wyth a scharp knife, and þe schyre knitten” (“Scraped with a sharp knife, and tied the white flesh”) as “Trimmed it with trencher-knives and tied it up tight.” Like the original, the translation alliterates in this line. However, Borroff’s alliteration seems forced and makes the line sound more like a nursery rhyme than an exhibition of skilled butchery.

Borroff’s translation of line 1331 is significant for another reason as well. She opts not to translate “schyre,” or “white flesh,” so as to allow her to more easily maintain alliteration in the line. This word, however, hearkens back to an important passage earlier in the poem, in which Gawain beheads the Green Knight. In this earlier passage, the word “schyire” (an alternative form of “schyre,” line 425) describes the bare neck of the Green Knight into which Gawain drives the axe. This word repetition draws a key parallel between Bertilak (the lead figure of this hunt) and the Green Knight, important foreshadowing for the later revelation that the two are the same person. “Schyre” appears once more in line 2313 of the poem in order to describe the “white flesh” of Gawain’s neck as it is struck by the Green Knight’s axe. The use of this word in all three of these contexts highlights the gaming nature of the three situations, drawing a near-comedic link between the entertainment purposes of the beheading scenes and the hunt. It also links all three events to the great test of Gawain’s character that frames the poem. By neglecting “schyre” entirely, Borroff excludes these important connections in the poem. However, her translation does faithfully carry over some of the other words shared by the three scenes, such as “sharp” (“scharp”), dividing or cutting (“schyndered,” “sunder,” “seuered”), head (“hede”), neck (“halce”), and others.

A depiction of the ritual flaying of captured deer from the 14th century manuscript “Livre de la chasse” by Gaston Phoebus.

Borroff also attempts to convey the medieval background of the poem by employing intentionally archaic language. In the passage, she translates the word “wesaunt” (which means “gullet”) as “weasand” (1336), “chyne” (“backbone”) as “chine” (1354), and “corbeles fee” (“raven’s fee”) as “Corbie’s bone” (1355). The choice of “chine” is especially questionable, as Borroff could have selected “spine” and both expanded her chosen alliteration and conveyed the line’s meaning more clearly. To Borroff’s credit, however, the poem’s original terminology in these cases may have been rather archaic for medieval audiences as well. Both “chyne” and “corbeles fee” come from Old French, and while “wesaunt” comes from Old English, it exhibits a notable French influence. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, French became the language of the English aristocracy, and the use of archaic French terms in this passage hints at the elite standing and high education of the poet’s intended audience. Thus, this passage raises important questions regarding the role of the translator. Should Borroff have chosen clear, more easily understandable synonyms in her translation? Or was she correct in maintaining the original, elitist vocabulary of the original passage, entirely understandable only to those intimately familiar with hunting culture?

One area in which Borroff’s translation of this passage succeeds is in her treatment of the bob and wheel in lines 1348-1352. In Gawain, the bob and wheel form the final five lines of each stanza, obey a strict ababa rhyme scheme, and often relay the major events of the poem. These lines in the original poem are masterfully lyrical through a successful combination of end rhyme, internal rhyme, alliteration, and rhythm. Although her translation does not fully capture this lyricism, Borroff provides a relatively faithful translation of these lines and captures the rhyme scheme very well. Furthermore, she abandons the strict attention to alliteration that she displays in the rest of the passage, focusing more intently on the imagery and rhyme of the lines. This shift in focus from strictly medieval styles and language to a faithful depiction of minute details allows Borroff to accurately portray the lyrical impact of these lines in the original poem.

Although Borroff’s translation seems to make only minor alterations to the original Gawain poem, her choices reflect a difference in focus between a medieval audience and the modern reader. In particular, her translation of lines 1330-1358 attempts to convey the “feel” of medieval poetry by fixating on alliteration and archaic language. However, this sacrifices the detailed imagery of the flaying scene, an important and entertaining ritual in medieval courts. By excising these details, Borroff’s translation removes some of the thrill of the hunt for modern audiences.

References

Borroff, Marie. The Gawain Poet : Complete Works : Patience, Cleanness, Pearl, Saint Erkenwald, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2011. Print.

Hunting the Roebuck, Gaston Phoebus, Le Livre de la chasse, in French, France, Paris, ca. 1407, The Morgan Library & Museum; MS M.1044 (fol. 64). Bequest of Clara S. Peck, 1983. Image courtesy of Faksimile Verlag Luzern.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Eds. J.R.R. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon. Oxford University Press, 1968. Print.

The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript. Eds. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron. Liverpool University Press, 2007. Print.

Undoing and Breaking Up a Hart, Gaston Phoebus, Le Livre de la chasse, in French, France, Paris, ca. 1407, The Morgan Library & Museum; MS M.1044 (fol. 64). Bequest of Clara S. Peck, 1983. Image courtesy of Faksimile Verlag Luzern.