Nikki's Reviews > Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Unknown
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Mar 14, 10

bookshelves: arthurian, classics, contemporary, myth-legend-saga-etc, medieval-literature, poetry
Read in March, 2010

Simon Armitage's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is certainly a very modern one. I think it's important to remember, when reading anything in translation, that nothing is immune to the translator's own views and intentions. This is especially apparent in translations like Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, and this translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but it's always the case. Even when it's a group of undergrads doing awkward prose translations -- I always use the example of Wulf and Eadwacer. There is no way you can translate that poem without personal interpretation. Even if you consciously translate the poem in order to keep all the ambiguities in place, that's an interpretation. Knowing this, and having read the introduction to this translation, it was easy for me to settle down and just enjoy Simon Armitage's translation. It's not literal, and it's colloquial, and it's contemporary, and it will probably quickly become dated. I don't think it's suitable for commenting on the poem in an academic context, unless you're actually commenting on the different translations, because it's very much an interpretation and in "plain English" and doesn't hold all the richness of the original.

It's also very readable, and rich in its own way. If you want to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and you're daunted by the idea of the "Old English"*, this translation is great -- lively and, I think, playful. I enjoyed the language a lot, not least because of how very Yorkshire it is (I grew up in Yorkshire). Armitage makes a good attempt at using the alliterative metre, and the poem practically begs to be read aloud and savoured.

The story itself has become less and less important to me as I've read the poem in various different translations (Armitage's, Brian Stone's, a prose translation, the original...) and instead I've found myself focusing on the tone of the poem (is the narrator being ironic?) and details like the missing day (count 'em up carefully), and the use of adjectives ("good Gawain", etc). Still, there's an interesting story there, too -- the testing of Sir Gawain, a tension between courtly manners and Christianity, etc, etc.

*It's actually in Middle English, and all of the translations will be Modern English.
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