Translation, like faith, most often requires preserving scrupulous devotion amid the lurking traps of doubt and disbelief. This is true for both translator and reader alike, especially when it comes to poetry. We expect translations to be “accurate,” and readers often wonder just what essence or art might have been “lost” in the process, causing us to feel cheated somehow of what we perceive as the inviolable authenticity of the “original.” Indeed, looking at a copy of a Vermeer or Rembrandt, we might enjoy or even be fooled by the painter’s skill, but when knowing it to be a copy, we would never wish to substitute it for the masterpiece.

And yet, for translation, this is a false analogy, one born of snobbery. Better is the comparison to music. Listening to Pablo Casals or Yo-Yo Ma or Pieter Wispelwey play a Bach cello suite, we might cling to a passionate preference for one, but to name any as being the most “accurate” would be silly, while even pegging one as “the best” shortchanges the pleasure of listening to how a particular musician chooses to interpret, open up, and celebrate unseen or unappreciated aspects buried in the score. Translations, like performances, can indeed be faulty, even bad. But our first expectation of them should not be restricted to fidelity, just as true faith is not easily borne of mere obedience to doctrine or edict. Each must grapple with its origins, be it text or belief, for only then is the spirit of the word released.

For not only do we not know the name of the poet, even his language has disappeared.

All of this is particularly true when it comes to translations from languages we do not know, and even more so for works locked into a culture or time no longer immediately recognizable to anyone beyond the literary scholar. Allegedly written in the late fourteenth century, and by what we believe to be the poet who gave us Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, plus two other poems, Pearl is just such a work. For not only do we not know the name of the poet, even his language has disappeared. Born of Britain’s rural West Midlands, rather than the early modern English of his more worldly London contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, the language of Pearl cannot be parsed by modern readers without the aid of translation.

As Simon Armitage explains in his engaging and quite vibrant new version, Pearl: A New Verse Translation, there are several ways to go about this.1 One can employ ancient terms such as “spenned” or “sweven,” or use old-fashioned words in modern English such as “demesne” or “descried,” or introduce outlaw aberrations in the pursuit of full rhyme, or jump ship on the poetry altogether in order to opt for the solid clay of scholarly accuracy. Without looking down his nose at any of these, Armitage sets out on an alternative path. He pays homage to the heightened alliteration of the original throughout, yet he replaces the poem’s tightly knit ababababbcbc rhyme scheme by allowing rhymes “to occur as naturally as possible within sentences, internally or at the end of lines, and to let half-rhymes and syllabic rhymes play their part.”

On the surface this might sound like a poet’s loosey-goosey way of bowing the strings vigorously while producing but the echo of a tune, but Armitage makes two critical choices that sustain the poem’s complex harmonies. One is to preserve the “concatenation” of the original, whereby “a word or phrase in the last line of the first stanza in each section is repeated in the first and last line of each stanza throughout that section, then once more in the first line of the following section.” Given that this transpires across twenty sections of five twelve-line stanzas each (section XV containing six), while the last of the poem’s 1,212 lines also repeats its first line, Armitage’s approach bears faith to a cohesive sense of form imbedded in the whole, rather than twisting lexical fact to cohere to linear end rhyme. Add to this the constancy of a four-beat line serving as the armature of a syntax as natural as it is contemporary, and what we have is the music of measure and meaning that aspires to the condition of poetry.

Like any good poem, this translation conveys a consistent mien that distinguishes it immediately from others, namely in its emotional register, the supple depth of which lies at the heart of the original’s greatness. In it a father who mourns the death of his two-year-old daughter, Pearl, falls asleep atop her grave only to dream of her as an adult maidenly presence admitted to the blessed company of the 144,000 redeemed from the earth in Revelations. Beholding her on the far shore of a river, he is also moved to inquire just how she could have been admitted, despite being so young, just what her life is like there, and in what kind of dwelling she abides. These are the natural curiosities of the earthly man. The maiden’s response, however, amounts to a catechism on the rewards and blessings of Heaven, as well as the faith and discipline necessary to enter it after death. The passionate but slightly too eager father cannot stop himself from trying to leap the river, at which time the force of the Lord thwarts him and he wakes up back in the garden, still awash with grief, and yet cleansed by the transformative vision granted him.

The central tension of the poem lies between its resonant earthly lament and the ecstatic vision of its spiritual allegory. The latter needs the former in order to make the drama convincing, but the first also depends on the second in order for the “pearl” of the daughter, heaven’s perfected grace, and even the poem’s formal intricacy to release the aura of the sublime. Just where and how this occurs is not easily rendered, for it demands a skilled handling of the poem’s competing registers, there being no single one that dominates throughout.

As with any great music, there are quite different ways to achieve the proper timbre for each expressive turn. Here, for instance, is the opening stanza of J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1975 translation:

Pearl of delight that a prince doth please

To grace in gold enclosed so clear,

I vow that from over orient seas

Never proved I any in price her peer.

So round, so radiant ranged by these,

So fine, so smooth did her sides appear

That ever in judging gems that please

Her only alone I deemed as dear.

Alas! I lost her in garden near:

Through grass to the ground from me it shot;

I pine now oppressed by love-wound drear

For that pearl, mine own, without a spot.

Here is Armitage’s rendering of the same:

Beautiful pearl that would please a prince,

fit to be mounted in finest gold,

I say for certain that in all the East

her precious equal I never found.

So radiant and round, however revealed,

so small, her skin so very smooth,

of all the gems I judged and prized

I set her apart, unparalleled.

But I lost my pearl in a garden of herbs;

she slipped from me through grass to ground,

and I mourn now, with a broken heart,

for that priceless pearl without a spot.

While one might be quick to think the Tol-kien awkward or fusty in its inverted syntax and Elizabethan diction, or even question the addition of those “seas” simply for the sake of rhyme, there are merits to be noticed. Most prominent is the maintenance of rhyme for the entire 1,212 lines. Forced as it is at times, nevertheless the strained effort at rhyme conveys the poem’s sinewy tightness, while embedded in lines like “Never proved I any in price her peer” and “Her only alone I deemed as dear” lies the central tension between the poem’s courtly piety and the gravity of the speaker’s loss. Put another way, Tolkien’s translation is played on a period instrument. The notes might be a bit murky and the tuning off, but a bygone music can still be heard and appreciated.

By the same token, though Armitage’s opening is much more fluid and clear, and sounds like a voice actually speaking to its longed-for subject, a couple of choices lift a thin scrim of the contemporary between us and the past. Opting for “precious equal” rather than the more loyal “precious peer” taps more the language of class inclusion than courtly romance, while “unparalleled” echoes the hyperbole we extend to athletes, fine cuisine, and natural disasters. That is not to say, however, that these are wrong choices, or that they immediately betray the translation as being too contemporary. Rather it is only to observe that Armitage’s voice is as equally time-bound as Tolkien’s, which it cannot help but be. All translations are mortal, for the continual evolution of language outpaces them, while even in their own time it is diction and tone that mints their coin.

To note then the sprinkling of phrases such as “stunned my senses,” “lonely nights,” “seeing is believing,” “thick and thin,” “exceeds the limit,” “a just adjudication,” “a miracle worker,” “stamina and strength,” and “state of frenzy” is not to out verbal laxness or anachronism, but rather to note which instruments are used for this particular orchestration. The real question is in fact the degree to which they are noticed at all. Here, for instance, is the maiden reprimanding her father in Section VI for having needed this vision to quell his grief, rather than having had faith in God’s love and redemption all along.

“I judge unworthy of praise the jeweler

who only believes what his eyes behold,

and call him discourteous and worthy of blame

for believing our Lord would speak a lie,

who faithfully promised to lift up your life

should Fortune cause your flesh to rot.

You set the words of our Saviour askew

by clinging to the saying that seeing is believing,

an expression of a person’s love of pride.

It is unbecoming in a courteous man

to try and to test but trust no truth

beyond those facts which flatter his judgment.”

After “seeing is believing” has been flagged, one hears its familiar pitch more sharply, but it is the palpable tone of spoken remonstrance that unifies the whole, while “to try and to test but trust no truth” lands us convincingly, and quite wonderfully, in the fourteenth century.

Liveright has also done Armitage and the poem a decided service by including the original Midlands English on the facing page. Though most readers have no way to know if “my wretched desire writhed in despair” is a fit rendering of “My wreched wylle in wo ay wraghte,” it is marvelous to have the opportunity to encounter firsthand a long-lost shadowy wraith of our modern tongue. In other instances, to be able to slide from “You alone had the stamina and strength” over to “Al only thyself so stout & styf” in fact supports the choice made, while the climactic couplet, “And instantly I wanted to wade that water,/ longing for her, the delight of my life,” is sumptuously set off by the thick brogue of felt speech found in “That syght me gart to thenk to wade/ For luf-longyng in gret delyt.”

And so, too, the poem’s “concatenation,” for the chance to consult the original allows us to see how carefully and loyally Armitage has worked to preserve its interlacing structure. The test of such repetition is not to allow it to seem too forced and artificial, and Armitage for the most part manages this splendidly. In Section III, for instance, we can confirm that “more” is the repeating word in both the translation and the original, though it slips easily into the father’s pronouncement at the beginning of stanza 12: “There was more splendor displayed in that scene/ than time would ever allow me to tell.” The start of stanza 13 provides a slight intensification when he admits, “That longing mounted, till more than ever/ I desired to see beyond the stream,” while stanza 14 ups the energy further with “A more marvelous matter amazed me now.” Armitage, however, saves his most clever move for last when closing stanza 15 with:

Then she lifted her head toward the light,

and her face was so fine and ivory-white

that its wonder stung me. I stood there bewildered,

as if mesmerized for evermore.

A quick glance left tells us the poet ends with “more & more,” which Armitage could have easily supplied, but the nod to Poe is both deft and informative. For the degree to which Poe’s speaker is haunted by the prospect of “evermore” soon being swallowed up by the cold emptiness of “nevermore” is the very dilemma that the poem’s revelation is meant to overcome. Thus does Armitage allow us to see how far we have traveled from such faith, while the sheer plainness of the father’s culminating urge, “Nothing mattered more than being near her,” reminds us that mortality and eternity remained also at odds for the Pearl poet.

Whether what drove that poet to shape “a perfect pearl that could never fade” was allegorical or personal has long been debated, though both Tolkien and Armitage come down on the side of “lived experience” as its source and genius. Armitage’s real achievement, however, is in providing the “live experience” of poetry in a translation as nimble as it is resonant, as ecstatic as it is simply moving. In lesser hands, such a work could devolve into pastiche or be reduced to antiquarian fussiness. Great music requires a courageous and sympathetic conductor to redeem the full potential of the score. Pearl has found its maestro for our day.

1Pearl: A New Verse Translation, by Simon Armitage; Liveright, 153 pages, $24.95.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 8, on page 26
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
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