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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (A New Verse Translation) Paperback – November 17, 2008
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"Compulsively readable. ... Simon Armitage has given us an energetic, free-flowing, high-spirited version."âEdward Hirsch, New York Times Book Review, front-page reviewAlready a classic of modern translation, this fresh, vibrant work by dynamic British poet Simon Armitage updates the late fourteenth-century poem for a new generation. The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in its depiction of Arthurian landscapes, dreamlike castles, and violent winter journeys, demands a peerless storyteller, and, "like the Gawain poet [himself], Armitage is some storyteller" (The Guardian). The work is an unparalleled masterpiece of alliteration and rhyme, and "[Armitage's] version inventively recreates the original's gnarled, hypnotic music ... but also has a free-flowing, colloquial twang that allows the poem to partake of the energies of contemporary speech" (Financial Times). 2 illustrations
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That's also because Armitage shows humility as a translator too when it matters. For example, he works hard to preserve the delicate moral ambiguities of the original poem. It's difficult to translate Gawain's refusal to give the seductress, the lady of the manor (where his humility, his loyalty and his self-control are tested) a token of his affection with the perfect blend of courtesy and self-regard that is there in the original ("Hit is not your honour to haf at this tyme / A glove for a garysoun of Gawaynes giftes," ll. 1806-07), but Armitage's "it strikes me as unseemly that you should receive / nothing greater than a glove as a keepsake from Gawain" hits the mark pretty well; by placing Gawain's reference to himself in the third-person at the end of the line, he makes us wonder if the hero isn't buying in a bit too easily to the reputation that has preceded him.
I'm not going to repeat the plot of the whole poem here; it's well known, easy to find online, and other amazon reviewers have gone over it. Armitage's confidence as a translator is expressed in his willingness to provide the original language of the poem on a facing page (Borroff's translation does not do this), so the reader can take a long look at the luscious original. Sure, he changes a word here or there (every translation does this), but Armitage is scrupulously true to the spirit of the original.
The original author of the poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is unknown but probably lived in the late 14th century. Although a contemporary of Chaucer, the use of language suggests he lived in the west Midlands or northwest of England. The poem is written in a primarily alliterative style of older Anglo Saxon poetry that was seeing a revival at the time but each stanza ends with five short rhyming lines.
Armitage, in his translation, makes the decision to not only follow the stylistic approach of the original but also to reflect the more northern character of the original work's language. The original poem is printed on one page with the translation on the facing page, making it easy to compare one with the other. Even to one with little knowledge of Medieval English, this reviewer for example, much of the original is comprehensible. It is a delight to be able to turn over the page from Armitage's translation and, automatically reading on the left page, continue for a few seconds in the original. However, there are many sections where the meaning of the original is incomprehensible due to words that simply no longer exist in modern usage.
In any translation but particularly in poetry, the translator is faced with remaining true to the original language while still imbuing the translation with the less tangible aspects of the writing that made it interesting or even exciting to its original audience. As Armitage says (p14): "Poetry is about manner as much as it is about matter" and his translation is highly successful in balancing manner and matter. His choice of keeping the basic style of the writing produces a work that is easy, interesting and fun to read. One can see from the parallel original that sometimes he veers significantly from the original text but usually to excellent effect and his attempt to retain the "northern " feel produces some fun lines. Here's a couple of example that show the alliteration and northern language:
179 "Wel gay was this gome gered in grene" becomes "the fellow in green was in fine fettle"
280 " berdles chylder" (beardless children) become " bum-fluffed bairns".
Along with some of the recent work of Robert Fagles on Homer and Virgil, this is a modern translation that remains essentially true to the original but produces a poem that gives a feel for the vitality and impact that it would have had on its original audience.