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Review: Simon Armitage, translator: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Simon Armitage represents another take on Sir Gawain -- yet another attempt to translate the poem. Some have not tried to replicate the alliterative verse. Armitage does. The effect ranges from powerful to somewhat forced; noteworthy is his consistency in following an alliterative form (though unlike the original, he alliterates frequently on the final beat of the line.) The following passage from his translation provides a good picture of both his strengths and his limitations:
then stood, and stunned him with astounding words:
'May the Lord repay you for your prize performance.
But I know that Gawain could never be your name.'
'But why not? asked the knight, in need of an answer,
afraid that some fault in his manners had failed him.
The beautiful woman blessed him, then rebuked him:
'A good man like Gawain, so greatly regarded,
the embodiment of courtliness to the bones of his being
could never have lingered so long with a lady
without craving a kiss, as politeness requires,
or coaxing a kiss with his closing words.'
'Very well,' said Gawain, 'let's do as you wish.
If a kiss is your request I shall keep my promise
faithfully to fulfill you, so ask no further.'
The lady comes close, cradles him in her arms,
leans nearer and nearer, then kisses the knight.
Then they courteously commend one another to Christ,
and without one more word the woman is away.
He leaps from where he lies at a heck of a lick,
calls for his chamberlain, chooses his clothes,
makes himself ready then marches off to Mass.
Then he went to a meal which was made and waiting,
and was merry and amused till the moon had silvered
No man felt more at home,
tucked in between those two,
the cute one and the crone.
Their gladness grew and grew.
Positive things first. The rhythm generally works; the form actually IS alliterative, rather than faux alliterative, in that the alliterations actually work with the rhythm. It gives a good sense of the scene. There are lines where the effect is exactly what I imagine the Pearl poet had in mind -- 'the lady comes close, cradles him in her arms' -- for example, does a nice job of retaining the effect of the alliteration to emphasize the aggressive intimacy of the encounter.
Less positive things, are, alas to be found. Sometimes Armitage seems insensitive to the overpowering the effect of pure informal language in this poem -- phrases like 'the woman is away', 'heck of a lick' or 'the cute one' just do not work for me. He sometimes succumbs to the temptations to throw in alliteration, even when that creates illogical language. Really, who EVER is 'afraid that some fault in his manners had failed him'? When my faults fail me, I shall be thrilled.
It's a hard job, keeping an alliterative form in a translation like this, as I know only too well. (I shall have to finally get over the hump that stopped me some years ago, and translate the part where they butcher a deer, full of anatomical precisions.) Armitage makes a game attempt, but at times, he trips over his letters.
Copyright ©2011, Paul Deane