Before Spiderman, there was Sir Gawain. His 14th-century superhero-styled story begins when a mysterious Green Knight makes him strange offer: Sir Gawain can take one swipe at the Green Knight as long as the Green Knight can return the blow exactly one year later. Sir Gawain accepts and promptly, cleverly lops the Green Knight’s head off. But when the Green Knight picks up his head, Sir Gawain realizes he’s been punked.
It’s a great story, a fantastic poetical tale, an important piece of literary history. Trouble is it’s written in a tortured 14th-century Middle English dialect. Here’s a sample:
and fer ouer þe french flod felix brutus
on mony bonkkes ful brode bretayn he settez
where werre and wrake and wonder
bi syþez hatz wont þerinne
and oft boþe blysse and blunder
ful skete hatz skyfted synne
Hardcore fans of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight say that the poem blanches in translation. Well, writer Adam Golaski has embarked on an ambitious new translation called Green that will be serialized by the arts and literature review Open Letters Monthly as it is completed. Although the style’s idiosyncrasies might lead one to think this is just another exhibit of literary acrobatics, Golanski’s translation truly seems to keep the force of the original. Here’s that passage above, from his translation. Read them back-to-back for the full effect:
+ 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.
It’s as close to the original as you can get without learning obscure Middle English.