Medieval romances aren’t sacred texts, but translators often treat them with a reverence that overshadows their sheer entertainment value—so thank goodness for Adam Golaski, who’s grappling with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in an effort to make the poem his own. Playing Tom Lehrer to Cotton Nero A.x’s “Clementine,” Golaski began posting pieces of Green to the Open Letters Monthly web site in 2008, and OLM recently published the entire first fitt.
Here’s the opening stanza of Green:
Since ceased th’siege + assault upon Troye,
bones brok’nd brittled t’bronz’nd ashes,
that soldier who trod treason o’er th’plots’v
his enemies was tried f’r treachery tho
agile Ennias, of th’truest on Earth, of high kind,
haunted by shade Dido, was worth th’wonder
wealth’v all th’west isles——
From rich milk’v wolf-mother Romulus
rose Rome’nd’n its captured riches Romulus was
swath’d. W/ arrogance he built his name
upon a hill + took Palatine t’Romulus t’Rome——
Tirius traveled t’Tuscany he built beginnings,
Langaberde’n Lombardy left us houses,
+ far o’er th’French floods Felix Brutus
on many full banks built Bretayn + sits
where war’nd wreck’nd wonder
by surprise has went therein,
+ oft both bliss’nd blunder
fool hope shifted t’sin.
And here’s a bit of the Green Knight’s appearance at Camelot:
Arthur’nd Arthur’s court
look’d long’nd in wonder, + wondered what kind’v man be-held them,
wondered what this magical spectacle must mean,
f’r’a knight’nd’is horse to’ve accrued such’a hue that is
green as th’grass’nd growing greener it seemed
green glow’n’nd bright’nd brighter than enameled gold.
Translating medieval poems, whether long works or short, is a cage-match between meaning, meter, and form. Tricky passages drive the disheartened translator to other people’s versions, all of which have their own iffy relationships with the original. Preserving the sound of favorite lines clashes with the need to sacrifice fine medieval details—someone else’s favorite lines—for storytelling, while the manuscript context of the poem gets all the respect of a Carolingian hunchback.
That’s why Green is a hoot. Having developed his own idiom, Adam Golaski doesn’t try to spackle over its seams. He makes deliberately insensible decisions, jamming words together for the sake of sound and using typographic gimmicks to bemuse anyone who tries to read this thing aloud. Every conundrum a translator faces becomes, in Green, a source of amusement; some lines he barely translates at all. Golaksi gleefully defenestrates the needs of teachers, scholars, and students, but his Green makes a point that won’t be lost on medievalists: the original poem is really, wonderfully weird.
(Related “Quid Plura?” posts: a defense of the Gawain-based film Sword of the Valiant and a look at Christopher Logue’s rewriting of the Iliad.)