Axes Piling Up
OL: Many other hands have translated this poem over the years – did you read up on those earlier versions before embarking on your own? What does “Green” do (or attempt to do) that those others don’t? Or to put it another way: why do you hate Professor Tolkien so?
AG: Not purposefully. I first read Brian Stone’s (revised) translation and then (more than a full decade later) W.S. Merwin’s. The Merwin was published with the J.R.R. Tolkein / E.V. Gordon edited (not translated) Gawain on the even pages; my eye was drawn from Merwin’s prose-like verse to the music of the Middle English. Subsequent to beginning “Green” I’ve read a few other verse translations: Marie Boroff’s, Burton Raffel’s, and Simon Armitage’s. If any of the translations were to make me worry about what I’m doing it would be Boroff’s, which is the loveliest I’ve read.
I began “Green” ignorant, with no other goal than to translate a few lines for use in a novel I’m writing. Once I began, however, it became apparent to me that the Gawain poet’s poetic speaks naturally to my own. (I call my translation “Green” to indicate that my project is different from the project of its previous translators; i.e., I’m not just translating the poem. I take liberties. I add and subtract.)
Replace hate with envy. I’m jealous of Tolkein’s easy access to a clear copy of the manuscript that includes the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (MS. Cotton Nero A.x.). I would like to study and perhaps incorporate what Tolkein and others considered to be irregularities. The pdf. I downloaded is impossible to read. Please someone pay my way to The British Museum.
OL: The First Fitt of your version is now complete! Mind telling readers what the Hell that means?
And also: is there a unity here, perhaps strands or themes that weren’t apparent to you when you started out?
AG: “Strands”—I like that. There’s much I’ve emphasized with language. For instance, a piling up of certain words (and symbols): “green,” “now,” “axe,” and “+.” The emphasis on “green” for obvious reasons—“axe” too, for that matter. I emphasize “Now” for its power and urgency. “Now” was suggested by the poem’s tendency (common to Middle English poems) to move back and forth between past and present tense; I like the way the word “now” brings the poem here. As for “+”—a poetic peculiarity of mine (not just the use of the + symbol, but it’s repetition coupled with the use of “and” and “‘nd”) I’ll allow readers to consider for themselves.
I’ve kept archaic words—“gomen,” for instance. I kept these when I felt they were the best word. Fitt is an archaic word that means “section.” Many translators have kept it. I like it for its present day meanings: to fit (as in a puzzle piece—a “section”), to be fit, to have a fit, etc.
Complete? Let’s say drafted. (More on this great question when we’re talking about the fourth fitt.)
OL: The original poem is monstrously complex, stylistically and syntactically. You’ve taken the rather unusual translator’s step of gleefully retaining the monstrous complexity – and the sense of fun it engenders. This has always been a poem in which you have to keep your wits about you, and in your version it still is, which raises the question: why do you hate your readers so?
AG: I love the Gawain poet’s language and I love his/her medieval mind. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight monstrously complex? Naw. Rich.
OL: You’ve done readings of this poem, which may be one of the oldest in the English literature canon that doesn’t have roots in the oral tradition; in what ways does it come alive when spoken aloud? What have audience reactions been?
AG: “Green,” like so much of my poetry—is interested in sound first. However, my poetry doesn’t require performance, just a single reader who listens to the sounds the words make.
That said, there would be no “Green” had I not been encouraged to take my own project seriously by its first audience. I’ve only read from the first fitt five times, but each time my reading has been greeted with enthusiasm.
OL: Perhaps the signature element of this particular poem is its unreality—do you see it as an ancestor of modern fantasy and science fiction?
AG: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight certainly appeals to readers of fantasy, and it played a part in the creation of Tolkein’s foundational fantasy epic, but I think it’s only a post-medieval mind who would call it fantasy. I think the Gawain poet would have been compelled to believe that the supernatural was real in the world. The Gawain poet wasn’t writing “fantasy.”
Adam Golaski is the author of Color Plates and Worse Than Myself. He co-edits for Flim Forum Press, and is the editor of New Genre. Check in on Adam at Little Stories.