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15 August 2009

Translating Gawain

Using this blog as a scrapbook, here are some of Simon Armitage's comments from his introduction.

Cover of hardbackThe lack of authorship seems to serve as an invitation, opening up a space within the poem for a new writer to occupy. Its comparatively recent rediscovery acts as a further draw; if Milton or Pope had put their stamp on it, of if Dr Johnson had offered an opinion, or if Keats or Coleridge or Wordsworth had drawn it into their orbit, such an invitation might now appear less forthcoming.

Some translators, for perfectly valid reasons and with great success, have chosen not to imitate its highly alliterative form. But to me, alliteration is the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads In some very elemental way, the story and the sense of the poem is directly located within its sound. The percussive patterning of the words serves to reinforce their meaning and to countersink them within the memory.

It's surely no accident that the second passage is itself so alliterative, but also noticeable that it sounds perfectly natural. English, modern or middle, likes alliteration. And that's not the only advantage Armitage has. As a northern poet, you feel his diction is directly derived from the Gawain poet.

I read the book in three or four train journeys in three days. It's a really good read, thanks both to the brilliance of the original story, and to what seems to me to be wonderful translation. Very occasionally you sense that the alliteration is forced, leading to a jarring choice of word, but why not? Chances are, that happened in the original, and it's a poem, not a news report. It should tease and tickle the heart's inner ear.

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