Undergrad Wednesdays – Analysis of original and translated Pearl lines 121-144

[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.]

Marie Borroff is widely considered to be the best American poetic translator of Middle English. I was skeptical of her translation abilities when I first read her modern English versions of Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight because she did not maintain the rhyme scheme as perfectly as the original, nor the alliteration. However, having attempted my own “modern English” poetic translation of Pearl, I now recognize Borroff’s tremendous skill. I attempted to translate the first two stanzas of section III (lines 121-144) of Pearl. I began by reading over the original text, provided on pages 60-61 of The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, and translated word by word – with help from the glossary in the back of the book. When the glossary failed to illuminate the meaning of the verses, I consulted Andrew and Waldron’s prose translation. I chose to keep the twelve line stanzas and the grammar of the original, but lost the rhyme, alliteration and rhythm. Here is my translation:

In the beloved splendor of hill and valleys,
Of wood and water and fine plains,
Where I dwelled in bliss, my sorrow abated,
My stress quelled, my pains destroyed.
Down along a stream that continually flows
I went blissfully, my heart brimming with joy*;
The farther I followed those stream-filled valleys,
The greater my joy strained my heart.
As Fortune goes where she tests a person,
Whether she sends someone solace or sorrow,
The person who receives Fortune’s will
Always seeks to have more and more of the same.

There was more of prosperity in that scene
Than I could describe even if I had the time,
For a mortal’s heart could not handle
Rejoicing in just one-tenth of such joys.
Therefore I thought that paradise
Was there over the wide bank nearby;
I believed the water was a divide
Between the joy beyond the boundary and myself;
Beyond the brook, somewhere or other,
I believed that paradise was situated.
But the water was deep, I dared not wade across it,
And I longed more and more than ever.

*The Andrew and Waldron prose translation writes this as “my brains brimful [with joy]” (3), but I feel the sentiment is better demonstrated by the narrator’s “heart brimming,” rather than his brain.

The Andrew and Waldron prose translation writes this as “I supposed that the water was a division between pleasure-gardens laid out beside pools” (4), but I simply cannot find evidence for the word “pleasure-gardens” and therefore stick to my own version.

Here is the original version of the poem, edited by Andrew and Waldron:

The dubbement dere of doun and dalez,
Of wod and water and wlonk playnez,
Bylde in me blys, abated my balez,
Fordidden my stresse, dystryed my paynez.
Doun after a strem that dryʒly halez
I bowed in blys, bredful my braynez;
þe fyrre I folʒed þose floty valez,
þhe more strenghþe of joye myn herte straynez.
As fortune fares þeras ho fraynes,
Wheþer solace ho sende oþer ellez sore,
þe wyʒ to wham her wylle ho waynez
Hyttez to haue ay more and more.

More of wele watz in þat wyse
þen I cowþe telle þaʒ I tom hade,
For vrþely herte myʒt not suffyse
To þe tenthe dole of þo gladnez glade.
Forþy I þoʒt þat paradyse
Was þer over gayn þo bonkez brade;
I hoped þe water were a deuyse
Bytwene myrþez by merez made;
Byʒonde þe broke, by slente oþer slade,
I hoped þat mote merked wore.
Bot þe water watz depe, I dorst not wade,
And euer me longed ay more and more.

British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x; f. 38v. The dreamer admiring the maiden in paradise.

I chose to study these two stanzas largely because of the beauty of line 128: “Þe more strenghþe of joye muyn herte straynez.” The dreamer, in these stanzas, experiences his first sense of relief from the overwhelming grief following his daughter’s passing. He writes of the splendid hills and valleys that “bylde in me blys, abated my balez” (line 123), yet the reader never forgets the underlying tragedy of the loss of the dreamer’s daughter. The paradoxical statement that his heart strains with joy captures the narrator’s conflicting emotions – how his heart is torn between joy at the sight of paradise and sadness for his daughter’s death. Describing his heart as “straining” rather than “full” or even “bursting” adds an element of distress to the stanza, and reveals the depth of emotions portrayed. Marie Borroff, however, does not preserve the imagery of the strained heart in her translation. Instead, she writes: “The greater strength did gladness gain” (128). Her version lacks the distress of the original, and fails to present the dreamer’s mixed emotions. Borroff’s diction otherwise maintains the richness and sentiment of the original manuscript – though she translates “bredful my braynez” (line 126) to “with busy brain” for the sake of continuing the rhyme scheme, whereas I think “heart brimming with joy” better captures the essence of the verse. Other than these two instances, however, I believe that Borroff translates the Middle English to modern English quite well in these two stanzas.

Borroff preserves the linking words as well as the layout of the original poem, with twelve verse stanzas. She mostly maintains the same rhyme scheme as well. Every stanza in the original Pearl rhymes according to the pattern ababababbcbc; Borroff’s translation of the first stanza of part III maintains this pattern brilliantly. Her translation of the second stanza, however, breaks with the rhyme scheme twice, on lines 133 “prize” and 136 “joy”. The rupture of the rhyme scheme is somewhat disorienting, but given the difficulty of updating the language and keeping the rhyme, I understand that Borroff could not make it impeccable. Many scholars argue that the original poem maintains such a tight rhyme scheme because the author used this meticulousness to cope with his grief; perhaps Borroff could not achieve the same level of perfection because of a lack of drama in her personal life.

I argue, however, that Borroff’s sudden break from the rhyme scheme actually preserves the tone of the original poem. Though the poet of the original Pearl keeps the rhyme scheme throughout, there is a dramatic shift in alliteration between the first and second stanzas of part III: the first stanza contains several instances of three and even four alliterative stresses within a verse, whereas the second stanza contains only four verses with three alliterative stresses. This establishes a disconcerting effect to the rhythm: the first stanza skips along pleasantly, with verses like “The dubbement dere of doun and dalez” (121) and “I bowed in blys, bredful my braynez” (126). In the second stanza this quick, lighthearted rhythm halts, becomes disjointed, with lines like “þen I cowþe telle þaz I tom hade” (134) and “I hoped þe water were a deuyse” (139). Though I found four verses with three alliterative stresses (133, 137, 140, and 143), these serve as a reminder of the poet’s ability to alliterate, and reinforce the lack of alliteration within the other lines of the stanza. The alliteration – or lack thereof – reflects the tone of the stanzas. In the first stanza of part III, the poet describes the alleviation of his grief, and hence the alliteration mirrors the joyful scene. In the second stanza, the alliteration reduces significantly, in correspondence with the change in tone: the narrator realizes that he cannot explain paradise, because the mortal heart cannot handle the joy he saw. Furthermore, the narrator wants desperately – “more and more” (144) – to cross the brook and enter paradise, but he cannot. The second stanza, therefore, discusses the narrator’s dashed dreams and awareness of his incapacities – to enter paradise or even describe it – and the reduction of alliteration reflects this gloomy turn. Therefore, when Borroff misses two rhymes in her translation of the second stanza of part III, the rupture coincides with the tone of the original poem: it expresses the idea that something has gone wrong for the narrator, that he is no longer skipping along full of hope and optimism.

Since the original Pearl contains such dramatic four-stress lines, with three or four alliterative stressed syllables, I also decided to analyze Borroff’s treatment of these alliterations in her translation. Like the original version, Borroff provides more alliteration in the first stanza than in the second. Sometimes Borroff maintains the same alliterative sound as the original – such as updating “Of wod and water and wlonk playnez” (122) to “Were wood and water and shining plain” – therefore preserving the alliterative “w” stress. In other instances, she changes the sound but maintains the strong alliteration – for instance, she takes “Bylde in me blys, abated my balez” (123) and transforms it into “My pleasures multiplied apace” with the alliterative “p” stress instead of “b”. Though Borroff provides a decent amount of alliterative stresses, she does not achieve the same amount of skillful alliteration as does the original poet. I’m forced to conclude that, although Borroff’s translation is indeed an accomplishment, her work still falls short of the original version; not because of Marie Borroff’s own shortcomings, but rather because of the mastery exemplified by the original poet in Middle English. The original version of Pearl simply cannot be beat.

Elizabeth Orem
University of Notre Dame

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