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Notes from the Editor

Translating Alliterative Poetry

What with trying to teach myself how to write poetry in the alliterative mode, I've been looking at many different translations recently. Especially of Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (I'm working on my own translation of Gawain to post on Forgotten Ground Regained) It's an enlightening experience. But also a frustrating one, as I've begun to get a very clear idea what works in modern English -- and so many of the translations fall far short of that.

In any translation, there is a tension between capturing the form, and conveying the meaning. With alliterative forms, there is an added problem -- the relationship between alliteration and rhythm. Anglo-Saxon poetry had a very well defined rhythmic pattern, which was finely tuned to the rhythms of English circa 800 A.D. Since then, the rhythms have changed, and translations which try to recapture Anglo-Saxon rhythms (or even Middle English rhythms) can quickly sound stilted and unnatural.

J.R.R. Tolkien's translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a case in point. Consider his translation of the crucial moment when the Green Knight issues his challenge:

    Nay, I wish for no warfare, on my word I tell thee!
    Here about on these benches are but beardless children.
    Were I hasped in armour on a high charger,
    There is no man here to match me - their might is so feeble.
    And I crave in this court only a Christmas pastime,
    Since it is Yule and New Year, and you are young here and merry.
    If any so hardy in this house here holds that he is,
    If so bold be his blood or his brain be so wild,
    That he stoutly dare strike one stroke for another,
    Then I will give him as my gift this guisarm costly,
    This axe - 'tis heavy enough - to handle as he pleases;
    And I will abide the first brunt, here bare as I sit.
    If any fellow be so fierce as my faith to test,
    Hither let him haste to me and lay hold of this weapon --
    I hand it over for ever, he can have it as his own --
    And I will stand a stroke from him, stock-still on this floor,
    Provided thou'lt lay down this law: that I may deliver him another.
    Claim I!
      And yet a respite I'll allow,
      Till a year and a day go by,
      Come quick, and let's see now
      If any dare reply!

The language here is far far more courtly than it is in the original, which is striking for the Green Knight's bluntness and lack of courtly decorum (surely his use of the familiar thou and thee, the form one would use to address servants or children, not a king, has precisely the oppostie effect in Modern English, where it is associated with prayer to divinity.) And it is also syntactically unnatural; Tolkien has sacrificed normal English word order to the cause of lining up alliteration on the first three major stresses in each line. The following examples will suffice:

... on my word I tell thee! ...

In modern English, prepositional phrases are only put before the subject when they are either highly emphatic, or background scene-setters like a year or a month. This makes the Green Knight's challenge seem much more reluctant to fight than the words that follow indicate.

Were I hasped in armour on a high charger ...

The "Were I" subjunctive is nearly dead. But it's convenient for Tolkien to get "hasped" in the right stress position for the alliteration.

Then I will give him as my gift this guisarm costly

"as my gift" ought to come at the end of the sentence grammatically. Tolkien moves it out of its natural position so that it won't land at the end of the sentence.

If any so hardy in this house here holds that he is ...

This one takes a bit of unscrambling even to parse: it means, "if anyone here in this house holds that he is so hardy ..." (note again the archaic word choices, hardy being a pretty literary word by this date.) <

... Here bare as I sit ...

i.e., as I sit here bare ... which Tolkien rejects (again) because it puts the alliterating word "bare" at the end of the line.

What's going on?

It's partly just a matter of taste. I doubt Tolkien even noticed how archaic the language was: but it does the poem no good, obscuring its forcefulness and humor. But a much larger part has to do with changes between Middle English and Modern English (and even more changes going back to Anglo-Saxon.)

Middle English was much more like German in its grammar than modern English, which meant (among other things) that it was very easy for the main verb to come at the end of the sentence: and that had major consequences on rhythm. The verb is seldom the most naturally emphasized word in a sentence, so that the verb (or other background material) tended to land at the end more often than in Modern English. In Modern English, by contrast, new, focused information tends to come sentence-finally, which means that the single most important stress tends to land at precisely the point where the traditional alliterative form disallows alliteration.

That does not mean that an alliterative form cannot work in Modern English, but it needs to be constructed in ways that do not necessarily always respect the formula of the traditional "long line".

Consider my translation of the same passage, by way of contrast:

    "Never fear," he said, "I'm not fishing for a fight.
    With the beardless children on the benches all about.
    If I were strapped on steel on a sturdy horse
    No man here has might to match me.
    No, I have come to this court for a bit of Christmas fun
    Fitting for Yuletide and New Years with such a fine crowd.
    Who here in this house thinks he has what it takes,
    Has bold blood and a brash head,
    And dares to stand his ground, giving stroke for stroke?
    Here! I shall give him this gilded blade as my gift;
    This heavy ax shall be his, to handle as he likes.
    And I shall stand here bare of armor, and brave the first blow.
    If anyone's tough enough to try out my game,
    Let him come here quickly and claim his weapon!
    I give up all rights; he will get it for keeps.
    I'll stand like a tree trunk -- he can strike at me once,
    If you'll grant me the right to give as good as I get
    In play.
      But later is soon enough,
      A full year and a day.
      Get up, if you think you're rough,
      Let's see what you dare to say!

Some differences between the two translations have to do with a conscious choice on my part to highlight the Green Knight's brash impudence, so that I have chosen idiomatic translations that help reinforce the tone. ("Never fear" instead of "in faith", "a bit of fun", "he has what it takes","brave the first blow", "tough","for keeps") But another difference, and I think a critical one, is that I have felt free to alliterate the fourth stress of the line and drop alliteration from one of the three earlier stresses. You find lines like that in Middle English alliterative poetry. They appear because Middle English was moving in the direction of Modern English stress patterns, with typically rising rhythms, instead of the falling rhythms typical of old Germanic languages, and still present in Icelandic.

That's not the only difference. But it's a crucial one, and it accounts for much of the strange language one sometimes encounters in many translations of Beowulf or Gawain.

Interestingly enough, even Sir Gawain and the Green Knight took what some view as "liberties" in its alliteration patterns, as did much late 14th century alliterative poetry. The standard view is that these were signs of the form's impending dissolution. I wonder if that's really true, or if it reflected changes in the language, which forced poets to vary from the received form in order to get their poetry to work rhythmically.

So the moral of this tale is very simple: alliterative poetry in modern English needs to find its own forms, rather than attempting to precisely replicate the medieval patterns.

Copyright ©1999, Paul Deane