Translating Middle English

So I’ve been doing something new and unusual lately – translating Middle English. For no good reason, really. Middle English Reading Group, who put up with my whims in text selection, normally read without preparation and without translation. However, a few weeks ao Sir Tristrem proved too much for about half the group members. ‘Too much’ is a funny thing – with a few notable exceptions, most MERG members over the years have developed a facility for grabbing the ‘gist’ and rolling with it, but this year we have a handful of members who prefer to prepare in advance of reading, and want to understand every line.

Now Sir Tristrem is an odd text – it screams NORTHERN NORTHERN NORTHERN as you read it, but the intro tells me there are unique southern word forms scattered throughout. I happen to like northern dialects, so I’ve fallen into the habit of paraphrasing action or description after it’s been read, and translating dialogue. It’s counter-intuitive for me: I don’t normally translate Middle English, and I try to get a feel for the language rather than ever having learned it.

However, it’s kind of satisfying to translate on the fly (whereas anything more than glossing on paper would feel redundant).  And I don’t know about the others (who are reading the text aloud, to be followed by my translation/paraphrase), but it’s absolutely accelerated the speed at which I pick up a facility for this particular author’s dialect and word use. Nifty! I may have to do this again…

Sir Tristrem isn’t, I find, a particularly elegant text (iambic quadrameter? Who does that? Blech). But every so often the poet has a way with words. I present to you the first meeting of Tristrem and Morgan, who killed his father:

Tristrem speke bigan:

“Sirking, God loke the

As Ythe love and an

And thou hast served to me.”

The douke answerd than,

“Y pray, mi lord so fre,

Whether thou blis or ban,

Thine owhen mot it be,

Thou bold.

Thi nedes tel thou me,

Thine erand, what thou wold.

(ll. 837-47, ed Lupack – Tristan began to speak: “Sir king, may god look upon you as I love and cherish you and you have served me.” The duke then answered, “I pray, my lord so noble, whether you bless or curse, may it be your own [fate], you bold man. You must tell me your errand, what you would [do/have].”)

I like that. It’s a deft instance of that truth-and-lies doublespeak which Beroul’s Iseut is particularly good at – here, manipulation with words is shown as Tristan’s skill long before we meet Iseut, and as a part of the masculine world of politics and combat, too. Interesting!


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