Question of translation: Armitage and Gawain

Armitage's version of Sir Gawain and the Green KnightWhere was I last week? I was at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and one of the events I attended involved British poet Simon Armitage talking about – and reading extracts from – his version of the 14th-century poem 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight'.

I say 'version' but the word that Armitage used in his talk was 'translation'. 'Translation' was also used in The Independent's review, for example.

However when I was studying Middle English at university, one of my tutors told me never to use the word 'translation' to refer to this process of writing Modern English (or rather, modern English) versions of Middle English works.

Middle and Modern English, my tutor argued, were not two separate languages, and therefore it was not possible to translate between them.

I'm not sure I agree with him, but the habit of avoiding the word 'translation' in this context has stuck with me.

My question to you is: if this process is not 'translating', what should we call it? 'Rewriting' suggests that more major changes are taking place (as does 're-imagining'); 'updating' suggests the original is somehow irrelevant.

On the theme of Simon Armitage, have you seen the film of Rufus Sewell reading Armitage's 9/11 commemorative poem 'Out of the Blue'? It's up on YouTube:


Unknown said...

I think it's silly to say that they're the same language. Granted, the cutoff between Middle English and Early Modern English is pretty arbitrary, but most Middle English is not terribly readable to modern English speakers—especially not a text like SGGK that comes from the North Midlands dialect. The Wikipedia article on it isn't afraid of using the term "translation."

JD (The Engine Room) said...
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JD (The Engine Room) said...

I'm inclined to agree with you, but it raises the question of when and where to draw the line. As you suggest, is it just a question of intelligibility?

I might struggle to understand someone speaking a certain regional dialect of English (as much as I might struggle to read SGGK, in some cases!), but does that mean we speak different languages?

Cantonese and Mandarin are often called dialects of Chinese, and they are not mutually intelligible either (I believe).

Anonymous said...

In regard to Cantonese / Mandarin, I've seen the "translation" process referred to as "conversion" so perhaps "version" is the right term after all.

garicgymro said...

The problem with deciding what counts as a separate language is a difficult one. In fact, there is simply no principled way of drawing the line, and there never will be.

Synchronically, languages often exist on continua. Some dialects of Dutch, for example, are more similar to some dialects of German than they are to some other dialects of Dutch. This is analogous to ring species in zoology. If we take intelligibility as the decider, then we have a problem in deciding whether or not German and Dutch are separate languages.

Other rules of thumb have been suggested: that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy is a famous one. This recognises that the dividing line is often political. Another diagnostic I like is the following: If you attempt to adopt someone's speech patterns and they're pleased, it's a language. If they're offended, it's a dialect. Though that doesn't resolve any debates over Scots and English.

So much for synchrony. The diachronic problem is similar. Proto-Indo-European is pretty clearly a different language from English. Most people would probably say the same about Old English. And this is probably about mutual comprehension. At that level of unintelligibility, the dividing line seems relatively clear. But Middle English remains a problem.

The answer?

As I implied at the start: there really isn't one. There is not, and cannot be, a principled way of making the distinction. We can all distinguish a few grains of sand from a pile, but at what point does one become the other?

Interestingly, evolutionary biologists have similar problems when it comes to identifying species. It seems unquestionable that we are a separate species from the chimpanzee; but how about the ancestor we share with the chimpanzees? Were they human? Were they chimpanzees? Both? Neither? Who was the first human?

But that's like asking who spoke the first Modern English. Or which grain of sand made the pile a pile.

Apus said...

Garik speaks words of wisdom but in this specific case maybe the answer lies in the writer's intention.

When I 'studied' Chaucer (to my shame I spent a lot more time studying my first motor cycle, a BSA A10 since in case you were wondering) two standard textbooks on the Canterbury Tales were recommended by my teacher.

One was a word-for word translation, in that the author stuck strictly to the text but substituted modern synonyms so we poor dullards could follow the action.

The other attempted to keep the flavour of the original by sticking to the original iambic pentameter A-B-A-B rhyme scheme and using modern words that fitted the rhyme scheme even if they weren't perfect synonyms.

I'd call the first a translation and the second might indeed be fairly described as a conversion, or maybe an interpretation?

garicgymro said...

Apus makes a good point. It's not necessarily clear that something has to be from one language to another before you can call it a translation. It wouldn't feel wrong to me to talk of translating a poem out of (say) a Yorkshire dialect into Standard English.

A couple of interesting further problems with using intelligibility to distinguish languages from dialects:
what do we do about a case like Portuguese and Spanish? There's also the issue of pairs like Italian and Romanian. Romanians, apparently, tend to understand Italian with relatively little trouble. The reverse, however, is apparently not the case.

Kel said...

I don't think the question is whether Middle and Modern English are the same language or not, the question is what the audience will think when they read that it's a "translation." If I heard it called a "version" or something else, I'd assume a rewriting. Translation may not be entirely correct, but it's what people understand. When talking about the book to a linguist or a Middle English scholar, feel free to call it something more appropriate.

goofy said...

imo the term "language" is a social and political one, not linguistic. Linguistically, English and Middle English are the same language, spoken at different points in time. As are Old English, Proto-Germanic, Proto-Indo-European. There is no point where can say one of these spoken varieties (a term I'm using so I don't have to call them languages) turned into the other.

Findabair said...

I've studied various time periods of a couple of languages and have always been more or less comfortable with using 'translation' about a newer version of an older text. The only other alternative I've heard is 'modernisation'.

In general I agree with the above. From my own point of view I would say that it is a question of intelligibility and language identity in particular.

Using my own experiences with Scandinavian as an illustration: Norwegian has two written standards, 'bokmål' and 'nynorsk'. These are perfectly mutally intelligible today. As they both are written standards of modern Norwegian, which I feel strongly about since it is my native language, I tend to get quite irate when people speak of 'translating' between them. I hate it that any Norwegian speaker can seem so estranged from one of them as to speak of 'translating' from one to the other.

On the other hand, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish are mutually intelligible as well (at least in writing), but I, and most Norwegians I'm sure, don't give it a second thought when people speak of translating between them. Again it's to do with language identity - for instance, a lot of Norway's cultural history of the nineteenth century was about establishing a Norwegian identity and distancing ourselves from Denmark and Sweden (we were in a union with Denmark from 1450-1814 and with Sweden from 1814-1905).

Anonymous said...

Goofy and Garik are right about 'language' having political overtones. Language and dialect are very loaded words, which is why the word 'code', as in 'code-switching' is used so often in sociolinguistics these days. Chinese and Mandarin are mutually unintelligble, but calling them dialects of one language is designed to show the unity of China. Hindi and Urdu are more or less the same language (when spoken), and, indeed, used to be known jointly as Hindustani. With the partition of India, the Muslims of Pakistan and the Hindus of India wanted to show their separate identities. Dutch and Flemish are more or less the same language too, yet are always described as two separate languages; that's because of politics too.