This month, I composed a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 101 tweets, corresponding to the 101 stanzas of the original Middle English alliterative poem. This project was inspired by Elaine Treharne’s translation of the Old English poem Beowulf in 100 tweets and Alice-Catherine Jennings’s translation of the Old French poem Song of Roland in 291 tweets. To create my translation, I cross-referenced Neilson’s translation with the original Middle English text.
I was thinking about Gawain because I have been reading it with my undergraduate seminar, Literary Approaches to the Past. One of the themes of the course is the way that attitudes toward the distant past find expression not only in literature but also in the material conditions of its production, transmission, and reception. We began with William Caxton’s printed edition of Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, and we will end with Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. In late April, we will visit the Burns Library at Boston College to explore rare books and manuscripts relating to the course content.
Gawain occurs in only one manuscript copy, known today as British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. Unusually for a manuscript of medieval English poetry, Cotton Nero A.x has illustrations depicting scenes from the four poems it contains, including Gawain. I chose to include images of the manuscript text and manuscript illustrations at appropriate points in my translation, because I felt that this was an opportunity for medieval and modern text technologies to speak to one another. Ironically, in this my translation comes closer to reproducing a medieval experience of reading Gawain than modern critical editions, which tend not to include images of the manuscript text or the illustrations.
Translating Gawain in 101 tweets was an exercise in concision; it also taught me two things about the poem as a poem. First, I was reminded that this is a poem of lists: lists of clothing items, lists of food, lists of animal parts, lists of landscape features. Many of the tweets took the form of a list. Second, the third section of the poem is very long. The poet devotes more attention to Gawain’s stay at Hautdesert Castle, its three hunting scenes interlaced with three bedroom scenes, than to any other event in the poem. This imbalance teaches us something about the poet’s conception of the poem as a narrative; it also raises questions about the conventional modern title for the poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which refers only to the action of the first and fourth sections.