Changing Times: Translation and meaning in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Despite its popularity in recent media, we know almost nothing about the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or of the context surrounding it. In fact, the entire poem is relatively new to us, only having been rediscovered in the 19th century. Despite this, however, it has managed to carve itself an almost irreplaceable quarter in Arthurian literature. We are enthralled by the poem’s imagery–visages of Mary’s Star, of that great, green rider haunting the narrative and Gawain himself–by its alliterative form, and by its hidden meanings; faith, chastity, chivalry. These concepts, combined with a lack of true “authority” over the poem, has created one of the English language’s most cherished and translated works of Medieval literature–yet, all of these translations have something different to say about the form, concepts, and even characters present in the narrative. Much of this difference stems from linguistic evolution on behalf of English. As the language evolved, so too did the ideologies of the people speaking it, leading to certain words developing multiple or entirely different connotations or meanings over the centuries. It is this evolution that I tackle in my presentation using both the original text and multiple modern translations. Through examination of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s classic language as filtered through translation, I aim to highlight how evolution of the English language has altered, or in some cases simply developed, our interpretations of the text.