This month we published a new edition of the fourteenth-century poem Pearl, edited and translated by Thorlac Turville-Petre. Pearl concerns a father’s grief for the death of his infant daughter, whom he then meets in a dream. She attempts to bring him to an understanding of the place of death in the divine plan. This poem is one of four works by the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In this blog post, Professor Turville-Petre discusses the challenges that arise when translating such richly ornate work as Pearl.
By common consent, Pearl is ‘one of the great masterpieces of English poetry’, perfectly in control of its stylistic and rhetorical resources, deeply moving in its portrayal of a father’s grief over the death of a beloved daughter. As such it should be accessible to all who enjoy poetry, but its formal and linguistic complexities present a challenge even to those familiar with Middle English. The poem is composed in stanzas of twelve lines with rich alliteration and an interlacing rhyme scheme, each stanza linked to the next by repetition, the stanzas organised in twenty groups of five with a common refrain. To meet the demands of such a scheme the poet calls on an extraordinarily wide-ranging vocabulary, including words from his own north-west Midlands dialect, stretching and moulding their meanings to exploit and explore their significance.
Not surprisingly, many translations have been composed to meet the challenge, with versions of the poem by J. R. R. Tolkien, Simon Armitage and many others. But how can such a richly ornate work be translated? Some aim to reproduce the meaning as closely as possible draining the work of its poetic effects which are indeed an aspect of its meaning; others attempt to convey something of the poem’s beauty by imitating its verse-form in one way or another, but at a loss of faithfulness to the original. A translation of such a richly structured work can never be fully successful.
My own translation is not intended to stand alone but is an attempt to offer a basis for the accompanying commentary that explores the poetic techniques and the semantic range of the poet’s vocabulary. For example, in Section XVI the poet characterises the spotless purity of the Lamb in the Heavenly Jerusalem:
Þe Lompe þer wythouten spottez blake
Hatz feryed þyder hys fayre flote,
And as hys flok is wythouten flake,
So is hys mote wythouten moote.
A literal translation of this runs:
The Lamb without spots of black has carried his fair company to that place, and
just as his flock is without fleck, so is his city without blemish.
But this gives only a superficial and impoverished account of the meaning of this passage which the poet expresses through acoustics, word-play and verbal association. In the first of a pair of lines alliterating on /f/, feryed is echoed by fayre, and flote links up flok in the next line, in turn introducing the pararhyme flake, preparing us for a synonymous phrase in the refrain line with its word-play on mote / moote; though both are pronounced like modern ‘moat’, they are of different origins meaning ‘castle’ and ‘stain’ respectively. The heavenly mote, to be described later in the poem, is thus inherently unstained by sin. No translation can capture this, nor can it highlight the wider significance of the passage in the poem as a whole. As the link-word in this section, mote is used repeatedly in both its senses, and ‘wythouten moote’ is synonymous not only with ‘wythouten flake’ in the previous line, but also with ‘wythouten galle’ in the first stanza of this section, and ‘wythouten spot’ in the very first section of the poem. Together with other synonyms such as spotlez, motelez and masklez, these phrases carry through the poem the underlying theme of the need to be without the stain of sin in order to approach heaven.
It’s clear, then, that the translation has to be read in conjunction with the commentary, and I shall reckon it a success if it serves to send readers, thus equipped, to the text itself with increased understanding and appreciation.
 Derek Pearsall, Old English and Middle English Poetry (London, 1977), p. 172