Undergrad Wednesdays – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Lines 37-59)

[This post, part of an effort to merge our undergraduate and graduate blogs, was written in response to an essay prompt for Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's undergraduate course on "Chaucer's Biggest Rivals: The Alliterative Poets." It comes from the former "Medieval Undergraduate Research" website.]

My Translation:

This King lived at Camelot during Christmas
With many gracious lords, leaders of the best–
All the righteous brothers gathered at the Round Table–
With rich revelry and reckless mirth.
There men tourneyed many times and often,
These noble knights jousted gallantly,
Then carried on to the court, to make ring-dances;
For there the feast was held for fifteen days,
With all the food and the mirth that men could imagine:
Such clamour and glorious glee to hear,
There they dined upon day, danced on nights –
All was happiness there in halls and chambers
With lords and ladies, as it delighted them.
With all the wellbeing of the world they lived there together,
The most well-known knights on earth
And the loveliest ladies that have ever lived,
And he the comeliest king, that held court;
For all the fair folk were in their prime,
On earth,
The happiest under heaven,
King an honest man of will –
There was no greater group to name
As those here on the hill.

Knights at the Round Table

In this passage, the glitz and glamour of King Arthur’s court is beautifully described. The poet’s use of imagery in this passage is consistent with the rest of the poem. Through detailed description of the actions of the people of the court, the poet is able to paint a vivid image of what it must have been like if any one had been able to catch a glimpse of the lifestyle of the court during that time.

Along with his unique ability to create imagery for the reader, the poet was also part of a literary movement during the late-fourteenth century most commonly known as the alliterative revival. The poet’s use of alliteration can be seen throughout the poem. Although often compared to Chaucer’s style, the Gawain-poet’s use of alliteration is different because it enables the reader to imagine as if he or she was actually a participant of the story. Chaucer preferred to keep a narratorial distance from what he was describing while the poet makes it possible for the audience to become involved in what is seen by an observer within the actual text. This ties back to the poet’s ability to create vivid images.

There is always difficulty in capturing all the purposes of a poem when it is being translated, and although Marie Boroff’s translation is considered one of the best, there are still instances when her translation loses certain aspects of the original passage.

What makes King Arthur an interesting character in this poem is how he only plays a minor role, making appearances at the beginning and end, and yet the poet spends a great deal of time devoted to describing King Arthur and his court. King Arthur and Camelot were greatly influential in early medieval romances, representing a group of chivalrous men who were not stained by the corruption affecting real kings and courts at that time. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Arthur’s court serves as a happy safe haven for knights like Gawain. As part of the dedication to describing King Arthur’s court, the poet wrote, “With mony luflych lorde, ledez of þe best” (38). Borroff’s translation is, “Many good knights and gay his guests were there.” Although the literal meaning is not lost in the translation, the nobility and courtliness of these knights being lords and leaders is lost. Borroff’s translation dilutes the greatness of these men. Another example of this in the passage is when Borroff translates the original poet’s “With alle þe mete and þe mirþe þat men couþe avyse:” (45) to “With all the meat and the mirth that men could devise.” Although this is essentially the literal translation of the original text, describing a feast as meat in modern English leads to the description losing all of the elaborate glamour and luxury and making it very aggressively concrete.

There were also moments when Borroff’s translation was too literal, not taking into account how modern English has led to different understandings of certain terms and phrases. The original poet wrote, “Justed ful jolilé  þise gentyle knig3tes,” (42) and Borroff translated this as “Joined there in jousting these gentle knights.” Although this closely follows what the original poet had written, in a modern day translation, “gentle knights” is somewhat of an oxymoron, especially when these knights are jousting, which is not considered a gentle activity.

Borroff’s maintenance of alliteration in her translation at times also affects the deeper understanding behind certain lines. For example, the original poet had written “For al watz þis fayre folk in her first age/On sille.” (54-55). In trying to keep the alliteration as well as the most literal translation possible, Borroff wrote “For all this fair folk in their first age were still.” This part of describing King Arthur’s court is putting emphasis on how all the members of the court were in their prime at this time, filled with life and youth. By maintaining that the knights and ladies of the court were in their first age, Borroff’s translation of them being in their prime is lost in modern English. Another example of Borroff’s translation leading to more confusion from the perspective of a modern English reader is when she translates the original poet’s “With all  þe wele of  þe worlde  þay woned  þer samen” (50) as “In peerless pleasures passed they their days.” Peerless pleasure is not a common term used today and brings forth more negative connotations of aimless pleasure, which was most likely not the poet’s intention in describing how the court spent their time.

Overall, although Marie Borroff is an incredibly gifted poet who has made a very successful translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Poet, after a careful analysis of both passages and comparing the two, it is only made more clear that nothing could ever be compared to the original text.

Audrey Vu
University of Notre Dame

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

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

Undergrad Wednesdays – War and Tests of Will

[This post, part of an effort to merge our undergraduate and graduate blogs, was written in response to an essay prompt for Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's undergraduate course on "Chaucer's Biggest Rivals: The Alliterative Poets." It comes from the former "Medieval Undergraduate Research" website.]

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Lines 279-300
“Nay, frayst I no fyȝt, in fayth I þe telle;
Hit arn aboute on þis bench bot berdlez chylder.
If I were hasped in armes on a heȝe stede,
Here is no mon me to mach, for myȝtez so wayke.
Forþy I craue in þis court a Crystemas gomen,
For hit is Ȝol and Nwe Ȝer, and here ar ȝep mony.
If any so hardy in þis hous holdez hymseluen,
Be so bolde in his blod, brayn in hys hede,
Þat dar stifly strike a strok for anoþer,
I schal gif hym of my gyft þys giserne ryche,
Þis ax, þat is heué innogh, to hondele as hym lykes,
And I schal bide þe fyrst bur as bare as I sitte.
If any freke be so felle to fonde þat I telle,
Lepe lyȝtly me to, and lach þis weppen–
I quit-clayme hit for euer, kepe hit as his auen–
And I schal stonde hym a strok, stif on þis flet,
Ellez þou wyl diȝt me þe dom to dele hym an oþer
And ȝet gif hym respite,
A twelmonyth and a day.
Now hyȝe, and let se tite
Dar any herinne oȝt say.”

My Translation:
“Nay, I do not seek to fight, in truth I tell you;
There are about on these benches only beardless children.
Were I in full arms on a high steed,
There is nobody here to match me, for their powers are so weak.
Therefore, I ask for a Christmas game in this court,
For it is Yule and New Year, and there are many brisk youths.
If anyone in this house considers himself so bold,
Be so bold in his blood, so mad in his head,
That dares to fearlessly exchange one strike for another,
I shall give him as my gift this battle axe,
This ax, that is heavy enough, to handle as he likes,
And I shall bide the first blow as I sit without armor.
If any man be so bold as to try what I propose,
Leap swiftly to me, and grab hold of this weapon,
I renounce it forever, let him keep it as his own,
And I shall stand and take a stroke from him, unflinching on the floor,
Provided that he will give me the right to deal him another
In my turn,
And yet give him respite,
Twelve months and a day.
Now hasten, and let me quickly see
If anyone dare to take up the game.”

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x; f.90/94v.

King Arthur’s laughter danced through his great hall, infusing all the knights and ladies with such mirth, before a giant of a green man and his steed burst through the doors. He wore neither a helmet nor hauberk, and his gaze was so lightning sharp it seemed as if no man could survive his glances. This Green Knight then began to speak: “The praise of you, prince, is puffed up so high, / And your court and your company are counted the best” (Borroff 258-9). He proceeds by presenting a challenge to King Arthur’s Round Table, asking not for a fight, but rather for a game in order to test Camelot’s powerful reputation. This passage in which the Green Knight dares any man bold enough to enter his game serves as a prime example of the author’s talented use of consonance and alliteration as well as warlike imagery to sculpt his poem.

Each alliterative line in this passage contains the repetition of a consonant. Prefacing his proposal, the Green Knight says, “frayst I no fyȝt, in fayth I þe telle” (279), which translates to “to fight, in good faith, is far from my thought” (Borroff 279). The combination of consonance and alliteration works not only to highlight the statement but also to give the knight a strong, almost harsh tone with the “f” repetition. His tone is established in other lines as well: “Here is no mon me to mach, for myȝtez so wayke” (282), the Green Knight claims, meaning, “For measured against mine, their might is puny.” Every “m” word, each repetition, gives rise to the opportunity to re-emphasize the power of the Green Knight over the court of Camelot at this moment due to his superior “myȝtez.” When he explains how the game works, how whoever comes forward will strike at him with his axe, the knight again talks of his strength of character: “And I schal stonde hym a strok, stif on þis flet” (294), which translates as, “And I shall stand him a stroke, steady on this floor.” Essentially, by focusing on the lines within this passage that feature alliteration and consonance, a better understanding of the Green Knight as a very strong and very confident character emerges.

In addition, this passage contains engaging warlike imagery that helps to create a picture in the reader’s mind of how sharply the Green Knight’s savage game contrasts with the youthful mirth of King Arthur’s court. Take, for instance, how the knight calls the people of the court “beardless children” (280). These gentlemen and ladies are meant to stand as examples of the true greatness of the realm; yet within moments the Green Knight bluntly dismisses them as frivolous children who do not possess the strength or the boldness to defend Camelot. Another example are the lines: “If any so hardy in þis hous holdez hymseluen, / Be so bolde in his blod, brayn in hys hede, / Þat dar stifly strike a strok for an oþer” (285-7), or, “If any in this house such hardihood claims, / Be so bold in his blood, his brain so wild, / As stoutly to strike one stroke for another.” Here, the knight further describes the sense of daring and courage necessary for a man to enter the game, and he does so in such a way as to inspire an image of a man like himself, an almost-giant who boldly ventures into his enemy’s territory without armor. Readers can then call upon the prolific descriptions of the Green Knight and his horse earlier in the poem to enhance the imagery of both the confrontation between the knight and the court as well as the kind of knight who will step forward to take up the axe. These two examples serve to underscore how the author of the poem skillfully selects words that together paint a visual picture of the court, its people, the Green Knight, and the perfect knight who will accept the challenge.

The above English translations of the poem come from Marie Borroff, a renowned poetic translator. In the introduction to her translation, she writes, “I have done my best during the entire process of translation to attend carefully and respectfully to the exact sense of the poem at every turn, though I have inevitably had at times to decide what was essential in a given line” (Borroff xiii). Despite even Borroff’s best efforts, disagreements over her choices exist. For instance, she translates “myȝtez” (282) as “might” where I chose “powers” in my translation. By using “might,” Borroff maintains the consonant alliteration, but I decided on “powers” because I wanted to refer to the idea of an overarching power game between good and evil throughout the poem. “Might” did not convey that same meaning in my opinion. Another example is the word “hardy” (285), which Borroff and I translate as “bold.” Even though she and I both ultimately chose “bold,” it is important to highlight the other potential translations of the word “hardy”: brave, harsh, stubborn, oppressive, and violent. Each of these describes the Green Knight more than his future opponent, Gawain; yet perhaps these words describe what Gawain might become during and after the challenge. Overall, Borroff provides a solid translation of this passage, though in some cases, the layers of meanings are lost along with the stylistic devices.

The Green Knight fearlessly throws down the gauntlet before King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Through the alliteration of consonants, the warlike imagery, and the word choices in the poem and its translation, the knight stands as an indomitable force that tests the seemingly superior reputation of Camelot.

Shannon Bugos
University of Notre Dame

Undergrad Wednesdays – A Lovely Lady?

[This post, part of an effort to merge our undergraduate and graduate blogs, was written in response to an essay prompt for Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's undergraduate course on "Chaucer's Biggest Rivals: The Alliterative Poets." It comes from the former "Medieval Undergraduate Research" website.]

In a way, any translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a minor miracle. Translating anything is difficult because the translation must attempt to make good logical sense while simultaneously capturing the spirit of the words. This is often difficult because the connotations behind each word are different in the language that the text is being translated into. Translating Middle English is particularly difficult because many of the words that the original texts use have a plethora of possible meanings. Middle English was also written in a time when dictionaries and writing guides were not readily available for all writers; therefore translation is further complicated by inconsistent spelling. On the same page it is not uncommon to find two or three spellings of the exact same word. Without spelling books words were often written phonetically, which led to further variation in writing as individual authors spoke different dialects. The difference in dialects is comparable to the different regional variations of speech in the United States. Imagine if a Bostonian and a Southern Californian were both to write and spell exactly as they spoke: their writing would share common words, but some words would sound and look completely different. It is therefore, difficult to even identify the best rewriting of particular words, let alone capture the connotation of the line or piece as a whole. Poetry presents a challenge in any language. Its special use of word play is often filled with subtleties that even an astute fluent reader can miss. In translating poetry the tools of alliteration, rhyming, as well as word play through the use of homonyms and homographs is often lost. Therefore any translator attempting to relate the epic poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight faces many difficulties, and each translator will have their own individual spin.

Marie Borroff’s translation is the one most commonly found in Norton Anthologies and is widely viewed as one of the best translations. However, after reading Sir Gawain, I would like to tease out some difference between her text and the original as I understand it. Below is a side by side comparison of my own translation (on the right) and Borroff’s translation (on the left) of Part I lines 1204-1236.


One of the first things I noticed was that this rather steamy scene was significantly censored and edited so that the lady was portrayed in a more playful rather than sexually aggressive light. For example, instead of translating “I schal happe yow here þat oþer half als” as “I shall imprison you on the other side too” and choosing “I shall hem and hold you on either hand,” Borroff is closer to directly translating the words themselves, but misses the truly sexually explicit imagery that the words imply. Her chosen adjectives go with the less aggressive or unsettling meanings, as well. For instance, she has chosen to take the word “vnslyȝe” in “Ȝe ar a sleper vnslyȝe, þat mon may slyde hider” to mean “slack”. However an alternative meaning of the word is “incautious”, which warns the reader that Sir Gawain must be very cautious in this next encounter. Interestingly, on further examination Sir Gawain is similarly portrayed in a gentler light as he is described as gentle and jesting, “Thus jested in answer that gentle knight,” instead of being characterized as more war-like, “And thus he wittily answered (verbally jousted) against with many a happy laugh”. I have chosen to translate the word “bourded” in this way because of the presence of the word “aȝayn” which means against. Jesting and verbal jousting are often the same thing, however I felt like the word “against” together with “jousting” created a war-like feeling appropriate to a knight being tested.

As the differences in translating the line “And þus he bourded aȝayn with mony a blyþe laȝter” reveals, even some of the best translations cannot capture some of the word play that is occurring. “Bourded” seemed to be a variation of the word “bourden”. “Bourden” could mean exactly what Borroff suggests, according to the Middle English Dictionary, it could very well mean “to joke, jest, mock”. However the MED also gives a second possibility as “to joust,” or even more specifically, “charge (a boar) with a spear”. Clearly the second possibility cleverly links Gawain’s challenge in the bedroom with the lady, to Lord Bertilak’s ongoing hunt in the forest as one of the animals he hunts is a boar.

Another example of when the translation must unfortunately shed itself of the word play occurring is in the line “Al laȝande þe lady lauced þo bourdez”. The word “lauced” according to the glossary in the back of Gillespie, Glasscoe, and Swanton’s The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript could mean to “utter, speak” but it also has the alternate meaning “loosen, break, burst, undo, and open”. The use of this homograph helps create the sexual atmosphere of the scene. Even though the lady does not actually loosen or undo anything, the clever play on words, draws the reader’s eyes to the implicit sexually aggressive nature of the scene as a whole.

Aside from the sexual nature of the scene, which Borroff tries to make family friendly, her usage of punctuation is particularly interesting. In part, I believe that this is due to the fact that Borroff is not directly translating the text, but is attempting to make it flow in modern day English. Despite her careful use of archaic words, Borroff gives a very readable text to the modern reader. However, by slightly changing the punctuation of her text, Borroff is placing emphasis on different ideas within the passage. For example, by placing an exclamation point after “I am well content!” instead of the comma used in the original, Borroff Is stressing the knight’s content. While this may seem like a minor issue, the stress on the knight’s content makes him sound more confident and at ease than in the original. In the original he is obviously uncomfortable as he claims that he needs a certain outcome to occur, “Me schal worþe at your wille, and þat me wel lykez, For I ȝelde me ȝederly, and ȝeȝe after grace, And þat is þe best, be my dome, for me byhouez need!’”.

Therefore, while Borroff provides the world with an introduction to the story of Sir Gawain by translating it and thereby making it more approachable, her translation can be and should be critiqued. First, for some of the choices she herself makes, like the choice to downplay the sexual nature of the scene; and secondly, because of the nature of translation itself. No translation, however masterful, can capture all of the intricacies of the original.

Mercedes de la Rosa
University of Notre Dame