Sunday, October 12, 2008

To Translate or Innovate?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x

It may be possible to do both, but I've been wondering recently whether I should do some translation work next or write something completely new.

I'm studying Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the original Middle English this month, so of course my fingers are itching to write a new and truly contemporary version of that - sure, everyone says of each new translation of SGGK that it's 'contemporary' but I mean genuinely so, with contemporary references instead of axes and helmets etc. and not following the original form - but whenever I start to consider how I might come at that poem in an original way, I remember someone saying to me recently that everybody seems to be translating these ancient and venerable poems at the moment instead of writing brand new epics. Almost as though poets are scared of pushing ahead into new poetic territories right now, and prefer to look back instead at what's already been achieved.

So part of me is keen to make a new translation or version of some ancient work, and part of me is excited by the thought of creating something utterly new.

But what?


Andrew Shields said...

I'd like to see the brand-new epic!

But then, maybe you could get to the brand-new epic by using Gawain as a crib, as some Irish guy did with Homer once. :-)

Liam Guilar said...

It's one of the great performances in English? If you strip it of its verbal magnificence (change the form), and change the context (modernise the setting) wouldn't you end up with a story about someone who tries to keep an impossible promise and fails. And it wouldn't be "Sir Gawain etc".

I'm not sure the world needs another translation, especially of this poem, but a new narrative poem/narrative sequence that did soemthing different with the possibilities ....that would be worth reading.

david lumsden said...

Joyce's Ulysses is an interesting example to ponder. Old retold AND completely radically new.

david lumsden said...

SNAP re Joyce; Andrew put it better

Jane Holland said...

Yes, that's a great example of what I mean - except in prose, of course!

Thinking of my friend Mark and his 'translation' of the 'newly discovered' fifth branch of the Mabinogi, I wondered today, considering the five vibe in SGGK, whether a fifth Fitt might be an amusing thing to attempt at some point. My Middle English isn't brilliant but with a little work ... and I could cheat by writing it in Modern English first, then translating it back. Or just write the fifth Fitt in Modern English, straight up.

The Revenge of Gawain or Return of the Green Garter.

But I still fancy the idea of just writing a completely new story in verse, at some length. Well, okay, given that we know there are no 'new' stories available, then as close as I can get to that.

"On Warwick Castle" was a start, a forerunner of that idea perhaps, not being based on any extant work, but it's not a narrative per se either.

Hmm. Definitely something to chew over this autumn and winter. Though I did promise myself that I'd slink back to short individual lyrics once the Warwick poem was finished. Oh, the dilemma ... !

Bo said...

Good luck Jane! I like this idea. Whither epic in the 21st century?

I have your long-lost translation of Fitt 1 by the way, which you sent me after you'd left Oxford when I was doing finals. Shout if you want it back! xx

Jane Holland said...

OMG, Bo, really? Alas, I remember that translation as being horribly awkward and embarrassing. Which is probably why I never pursued it beyond Fitt 1. That was a real creative waste land for me, my time at Oxford. But a time of consolidation, perhaps. All sorts of creative and mental seeds being sown and only now coming to fruition.

Do send a copy of it though, if you get time. My life is mad, so I'm guessing yours must be too. No hurry!

Do you have - or did you already send me - that silly poem set in college, though? The ludicrous one with the ending you quoted at me over dinner once:

Looking for a doorstop, sir?
Try The Riverside Chaucer.

Or words to that effect. Was it Thirteen Ways of ... and whatever came next?

I'll be on Radio 4's Start the Week this coming Monday, by the way. With Duncan Wu, among other guests, who's written a new biography of Hazlitt. I've just got a copy through from the BBC. It looks fabulous, I can't wait to read it! I love Hazlitt, he's so deliciously candid, isn't he?

Now there's a progression. From epics to essayists in one Comment ...

david lumsden said...

Wu did that Carcanet anthology a few years back of poems Wordsworth liked, didn't he? I remember taking it as my 'one book' on some holiday. I must do a post on it one day. I'll have to order the Hazlitt bio now.