Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 1, 2017

Sir Gawain vs. the Poets: Translations

Happy New Year, everyone.

Longtime UWS readers are familiar with my tradition of reading the ancient New Year’s tale, the 14th-Century verse romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK).

It’s a masterpiece of literature, but in an antique language. Each year I look for another aspect of the poem to share with you.

This year I decided to let someone else do the heavy lifting: the translators.

Initially, I intended to read only the 2007 translation by Simon Armitage, a widely known British poet. It’s relatively new to me, and delightful.

As I read, though, I kept wondering, “How did some of the other notable translators treat that line?”

Therefore, I’ve enlisted a star-studded squad of some of the world’s best translators of Middle English to help me read the poem. Here they are, with the dates of publication of their translations.

Simon Armitage, British poet and translator (2007)

J.R.R. Tolkein, British scholar, poet, translator, writer (published 1975 written ca. 1950)

W.S. Merwin, American poet and translator, 2010 American Poet Laureate (2002)

Marie Borroff, American poet and translator (1967)

All these translations are excellent, accurate and have great artistic merit. No one is “better” than another; they’re merely different from one another. There’s pleasure aplenty in comparing and contrasting the work of these masterful translators.

In all the versions there’s an enormous amount of poetic imagination at work: from individual word choices (demonstrating the vast flexibility of English and the considerable size of our modern word hoard) to decisions about the structure of the lines.

Most of SGGK is alliterative verse. Because so many of the words in the original are now obsolete, they can’t always be replaced with contemporary ones beginning with the same sound. That means a diligent translator must substitute all the alliterating words in the line in order to maintain the verse form. That opens up a broad landscape of possible word combinations, but magnifies the choices required. Multiplied over the poem’s 2,530 lines, it’s an enormous amount of creative labor.

I’ll begin with some of what Mr. Armitage has done to convert language, syntax and diction from 14th-Century English to 21st. He’s inventive, expressive and sometimes hilariously funny. Here are comparisons of some notable lines in Middle English, followed by the Armitage version. Read carefully or you’ll miss the funny ones in very contemporary phrasing.

21 Baret that lofden
AS battle-happy men
60 Wyle Nw Yer was so yep that hit was new cummen
AS With New Year so young it still yawned and stretched
95 Of alders, of armes, of other aventurus
AS Like the action-packed epics of men-at-arms
107 Thus ther stondes in stale the stif kyng hisselven
AS And still he stands there just being himself
202 Hit semed as no mon might/under his dynttes dryye
AS The force of that man’s fist/would be a thunderbolt
213 As wel schapen to schere as scharp rasores
AS It could shear a man’s scalp and shave him to boot
251 And rekenly hym reverenced, for rad was he never
AS Cordially addressed him, keeping his cool
413 Ta now thy grymme tole to the/and let se how thou cnokes
AS Now grasp that gruesome axe/and show your striking style

My two favorite lines from Mr. Armitage, describing the monstrous axe wielded by the fearsome Green Knight:

208-9 And an ax in his other, a hoge and unmete

A spetos sparthe to expound in spelle, quo-so might

AS and in the other hand held the mother of all axes

a cruel piece of kit I kid you not.

I learned a lot about SGGK (as I do with every rereading) by comparing how these poets transformed it into modern English. Here are some more notable lines from the original (great poetry, in and of itself), followed by the translations by Armitage (AS), Tolkein (JRRT), Merwin (WSM) and Borroff (MB). There are both similarities and differences in style and the degree to which they are more or less literal.

496 Bot thagh the ende be hevy, haf ye no wonder
AS But don’t be so shocked should the plot turn pear-shaped
JRRT But if the end be unhappy, hold it no wonder.
WSM But if the mood grew heavy at last it was no wonder
MB But if the end be harsher, hold it no wonder
498 A yere yernes ful yerne, and yeldes never lyke
AS But each year, short lived, is unlike the last
JRRT A year slips by swiftly, never the same returning
WSM A year soon runs its length and never returns the same
MB A year passes apace and proves ever new.
517 Quen Zeferus syfles himself on sedes and erbes
AS When the west wind sighs among shoots and seeds
JRRT When Zephyr goes sighing through seeds and herbs
WSM When Zephyrus breathes gently on the seeds and grasses
MB When Zephyr sighs low over seeds and shoots
706 nykked hym with nay
AS No they say, never
JRRT And all denied it, saying nay
WSM And they all said no to him
MB They all said the same …
747 (birds in the frozen winter:) That pitosly ther piped for pyne of the colde
AS Pipe pitifully into the piercing cold
JRRT That piteously piped there for pain of the cold
WSM Piteously piping there from the pain of the cold
MB That peeped most piteously for pain of the cold
1703 (Hunting dogs in pursuit of a fox:) Runnen forth in a rabel in his right fare
AS running as a rabble along the right track
JRRT Running forth as a rabble then right in his path
WSM Running ahead in a pack along the right track
MB Running in a rabble on the right track
1856 Hit were a juel for the jopardé that hym jugged were
AS That this girdle being given could be just the job
JRRT ‘Twould be a prize in that peril that was appointed to him
WSM It would be a jewel for the jeopardy just ahead of him
MB It was a pearl for his plight, the peril to come
2081 Uch hille hade a hatte, a myst hakel huge
AS and every hill wore a hat of mizzle on its head
JRRT Every hill has a hat, a mist-mantle huge
WSM Each hill had a hat, a huge cloak of cloud
MB Each hill had a hat, a huge cape of cloud
2273 Such cowardice of that knight cowthe I never here
AS never have I known such a namby-pamby knight
JRRT Of such cowardice that knight I ne’er heard accused
WSM No one ever told me that knight was such a coward
MB Such news of that knight I never heard yet.

That final one by Armitage: namby-pamby! Professor Tolkein might object.

I did find one line in two of the translations that may be an error: line 1868. In the poem, Gawain is involved in a perilous bit of fooling around with the lady of the castle where he is staying (part of a plot designed by Morgan le Fay to discredit the Round Table). He fends off the beautiful woman’s advances, getting away with kissing her, far short of what she’s suggesting. This happens on 3 successive days: one kiss on day one, 2 on the second, and 3 on the third. That’s the meaning of “thrynned sythe,” below, which means “third time.”

Armitage and Merwin, though, mistakenly have her giving him three kisses at the end of the 3rd day when she’s already given him two. The section should end with ONE more to make 3. Tolkein has it exactly right by using “third,” and Borroff artfully writes her way around it with the present perfect. The other two have her adding three.

74 1868 Bi that on thrynned sythe/Ho has kyst the knight so toght
AS AS (No sooner can he say)

How much it matters, when

three kisses come his way

JRRT JRRT She then the knight so good/a third time kissed that day
WSM WSM And then three times she/Kissed that brave knight
MB MB Three times before they part/She has kissed the stalwart knight

I hope you find an opportunity to include SGGK on your 2017 reading list. Any one of these translations is an excellent introduction to the work, whether it’s your first reading or a repeat visit to a distant world of imagination and memorable poetry.

Thank you for coming with me on this annual visit to one of the foundational works of English literature. Thank you for the interest, likes and comments in 2016. I look forward to what 2017 holds for us.

What Does This Poetry Sound Like?

Here’s a 3-minute video of me reading one stanza of the original Middle English with modern English subtitles.

The sources. Your library almost certainly has at least one of these translations. All are in print.

Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, A.C. Cawley, editor. J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1962
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo, J.R.R. Tolkein trans., Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Marie Borroff trans., W.W. Norton & Co., 1967
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, W.S. Merwin trans., Alfred A. Knopf, 2002
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Simon Armitage trans., W.W. Norton & Co., 2007

Here are my other posts about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Silent Night, Green Knight Dec. 13, 2009
A 14th-Century Christmas Dec. 24, 2010
The Knight in Winter Dec. 26, 2010
Don We Now Our Green Apparel Jan. 1, 2011
Another Visit with the Green Knight Dec. 10, 2012
When Worlds Collide Jan. 6, 2012
New Year’s Knight Dec. 31, 2015
A Knight Appears on the Horizon … The Time Approaches Dec. 3, 2017
Cherchez les Femmes; It’s All Their Fault (per Sir Gawain) Jan. 2 2018
The Knight’s Christmas Eve. A Reading from “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” Dec. 24, 2018

© Brad Nixon 2017, 2019


  1. It was fun comparing the different translations. Thank you! I really enjoyed the Armitage translation last year and would read it again.


  2. […] I’ve written about numerous aspects of this old poem: from the language, the characters, to problems of translation into modern English, and just what it is about a 14th century poem that still might speak to us 700 […]


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