Essay: Pearl - The Price of Translation -

Essay: Pearl – The Price of Translation

Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere,
Oute of Oryent, I hardyly saye,
Ne proved I never her precios pere.
— The Pearl, 1300s

The Pearl, the fourteenth century poem assumed to have been written by the same author as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, etc., is an allegorical tale of the narrator losing his Pearl, who tells him about God’s grace and lectures him about sin, repentance, and salvation, as well as showing him a vision of Heaven [Dunn and Brynes 339]. As a text written in Middle English, the best manner of understanding the material is through a translation. The translations of William Vantuono and Casey Finch are among the best known for The Pearl. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, but despite having the same source text, both translations are different: either with subtle differences or radical ones. When deciding on which to read, it is not a matter of which one is superior, or indeed inferior, to the other but simply to analyze the translations on their own merit. Do they work as literal translations? As poetry on their own? How do they highlight or suppress aspects of the original text? Are these translations also interpretations, which would account for the differences? Naturally, neither of these professional translations are incorrect, but simply that one word can have many different meanings or associations. For example, Stanza XIV, lxviii of The Pearl:

In Jerusalem was my lemman slayn,

And rent on rode wyth boyes bolde.

Al oure bales to bere ful bayn,

He toke on Hymself oure cares colde.

Wyth boffetes was Hys face flayn

That was so fayr on to byholde.

For synne, He set Hymself in vayn

That never hade non Hymself to wolde.

For uus He lette hym flyghe and folde

And brede upon a bostwys bem.

As meke as lomb that no playnt tolde,

For uus He swalt in Jerusalem. [Dunn and Byrnes 363]

The language is, of course, antiquated, but with a bit of mental exertion, the basic meaning can be derived, if not the poetics. To be fair, however, “Rode wyth boyes bolde” [ln 806] appears to be a sort of euphemism, and “He lette hym flyghe and folde” [ln 813] is nearly indecipherable to modern reader. Besides these, it is only a few words like “lemman” [ln 805], “wolde” [ln 812], and “bostwys bem” [ln 814] that could cause trouble, and easily remedied with a Middle English dictionary or footnotes, if available. Still, a complete transition would be more comprehensible. Translations are not only for the mere entertainment of the layman but also to assist analysis. A modern English translation would be quite adequate if one wanted only to discuss the narrator’s role within the story, but there comes the issue of how precise the translation is, hence the need for analysis. Would a word-for-word translation be best, as it would be the most meticulous? Or perhaps a simplistic rendering? Therein lies the difficulties of a good translator. What to translate, what to interpret, what to highlight, and what to suppress. Take Vantuono’s translation:

In Jerusalem was my Beloved slain,

And rent on rood by ruffians bold.

Willing to bear our sins that stain,

He assumed himself our cares full cold.

His face such bruises did retain,

That which was so fair to behold.

For sin, he suffered searing pain,

He who never had one to unfold.

He let himself be laid on mold,

And stretched upon a sturdy stem.

As meek as a lamb, as was foretold,

He died for us in Jerusalem. (65)

He sticks to a poetic translation and a quite literal one at that, nearly word-for-word. Because it is so straightforward, there is really very little difference between this and the original, while still managing to retain the rhyme scheme. Line 807, “Al oure bales to bere ful bayn” could possibly be translated in a different way or even more literally than here. Finch’s translation, however, is radically different than the original:

In drear Jerusalem He died

Between two thieves – men bad and bold –

For crimes we cast was crucified.

Thus Adam’s felony He felled.

To Him were wicked whips applied

And to His holy face! Behold,

For sins we sowed our Maker died!

In righteousness He reconciled

Our fault. And for our failing fold

He waned on cross all wearisome;

Just as a lamb was our Lord felled

In joyless, sad Jerusalem. (83)

Certainly a beautiful poetic translation, but it is not necessarily the most accurate one, if accuracy is indeed what it is sought in a good translation. It rhymes accordingly, but it really takes artistic license with the original. Let’s return to Vantuono’s translation. What exactly are we trying to preserve when we translate things? The language or the meaning? Vantuono’s translation primarily preserves the language. That is not say that it does not also convey appropriately the meaning, but its primary concern is trying to be as literal, as word-for-word as possible while still maintaining rhyme. Finch, on the other hand, seems to have used his translation as a means for the poetry to stand up on its own. Most of the words are not direct definitions, and he has rather interpreted the text in his own way. A notable line for comparison is 806, “And rent on rode wityh boyes bolde.” Vantuono has it nearly the same: “And rent on rood by ruffians bold.” “Rode” in the original does translate directly to “rood,” though it’s a rather antiquated word for a crucifixion cross [Dunn and Brynes 363]. “Rent” [ln 806] is an interesting word to retain, as its more modern usage is to, for example, stay on someone else’s property while making monthly payments, which may be appropriate, as it was temporary arrangement to be on the cross, and Christ was indeed making the ultimate payment. “Rent” also means to be torn apart in some violent way, and again, it is slightly accurate, given that Jesus was wounded from the crown of thorns and the forty lashes and bled copiously while on the cross. In any case, it is a word that perhaps did not need to be altered because it does mean what it means, however metaphorically. As such, the only word really changed was “boyes,” which Vantuono translates to “ruffians.” Now here comes the interesting bit. The word “by” in Vantuono can mean two things: either Jesus was placed on the cross near “ruffians bold,” or “ruffians bold” placed him on the cross. In the former, it is the infamous two thieves that are on either side of Jesus when he is crucified. In the latter, it is the Roman soldiers who hammered the nails and raised the cross. It is a rather important discrepancy to make. The Bible states that one of the thieves was actually forgiven by Jesus and was the first human to enter the kingdom of heaven and therefore not so much a “ruffian” by the end. If it is the Romans who are the ruffians, then it does technically make sense for the murderers of Christ to be referred to as “ruffians.” With an untrained eye, the original text would be somewhere along the lines of, “And rent on rood with boys bold.”  Again, the preposition marks a vital distinction. The “with” would indicate the two men on the other crosses. Finch seems to have thought so, as his translation reads, “Between two thieves – men bad and bold.” The “boyes bolde” from the original are these “bad and bold” men in Finch, who are on either side of Jesus. This entire argument all depends on what “wyth” really means. Does it mean “by” or “with”? If it does mean “by,” is it “next to” or an indication of those responsible for placing Jesus on the rood? “Boyes bold” could be either the brash Romans, killing anybody, or the two thieves who (apparently) dare to be on the same level as Jesus. Finch may have the stronger argument on this one, because it seems unlikely that the Roman soldiers would be insulted by such a paltry word as “ruffians” as Vantuono would be believed, and since Vantuono’s translation also implicates the thieves. To press on, Finch’s “Thus Adam’s felony He felled” (ln 808) can seem baffling when compared to the original. There is no mention of Adam in the original or in Vantuono. Here then, is a prime example of the creative leeway that Finch utilizes. “Adam’s felony” is obviously sin, even without looking at Vantuono, who translates the line as, “He assumed himself our cares full cold.” The original is much the same: “He toke on Hymself oure cares colde.” This line is best coupled with the immediately preceding one: “Al oure bales to bere ful bayn” [ln 807], a bit difficult to understand without translation, so Vantuono clears it up with, “Willing to bear our sins that stain.” Finch makes these continuous lines into two sentences: “For crimes we cast was crucified. / Thus Adam’s felony He felled.” Again, Vantuono favors the more literal translation, which is especially tricky to do here, since hardly any of the words are retained in any way in modern English. Finch moves to take the poetic route: “Crimes we cast” are “bales ful bayn” or Vantuono’s “sins that stain,” and “Adam’s felony” is “cares” as in both the original and Vantuono. Artistic license can provide enjoyment on its own, but Vantuono’s translation may actually be more powerful: “Willing to bear our sins” is the epitome of Christ’s sacrifice, and “assumed himself our cares full cold” implies that He did so regardless of any reward or recognition. Jesus’ humility is less obvious with Finch, who makes Jesus out to be a sort of Paul Bunyan-esque martyr: “For crimes we cast was crucified. / Thus Adam’s felony He felled.” All in all, Finch appears to have taken the original poem and added Biblical elements to it. The “boyes bolde” [ln 806] are not named in the original – hence the slight confusion as to their identities – but Finch establishes them as the two thieves. Sin is rather impressively called “Adam’s felony” as told in Genesis and reiterated in Hebrews. “Wyth boffetes was Hys face flayn” [ln 809] are the “wicked whips applied.” For this last, Vantuono again translates as closely as possible: “His face such bruises did retain.” The other differences between the two translations are negligible, as they all essentially end up meaning the same thing. Again, Finch’s translation works as poetry on its own, more like an adaptation rather than a translation. He highlights the direct Biblical references that original obviously makes, but suppresses any direct phrasing. It is rather similar to watching a movie based on a novel: the original elements are there, but they have been altered and augmented in a fantastic way: an interpretation of what the poem means rather than what it says. This is in direct contrast to Vantuono, who apparently took the translation very seriously and as literally as possible. If a word didn’t need to be changed, it usually wasn’t. The Middle English terms were defined and updated accordingly. It is not perfect, as that would be nearly impossible since much of Middle English terminology meanings are dependent upon other texts, without the aid of time period-appropriate dictionaries. At best, it is a flowing, readable subtitling of the original, as when translating from other languages. Most foreign idioms sound very awkward when translated literally, so translators usually either define the entire meaning or substitute an English idiom. Vantuono has done much the same: little interpretation or artistic license, and just straightforward translation.

Works Cited

  • Dunn, Charles W. and Edward T. Byrnes, eds. “The Pearl”. Middle English Literature. London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990. 339-375. Print.
  • Finch, Casey, trans. The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet. Ed. Malcolm Andrew, Ronald Waldron, and Clifford Peterson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. 83. Print.
  • Vantuono, William, trans. Pearl: An Edition with Verse Translation. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. 65. Print.



Despite this being written in my last year of college, I was having real difficulties in paragraph breaks. I found one essay (not posted here) where there are no paragraphs in the entire seven pages. Pretty sure I got knocked down points for that!

This was written in 2012 for my Middle English Literature – Later 14th Century class. Cool story: For a project, had to read a section of Middle English poetry out loud to the class. I, being very shy, was extremely nervous about this, but I was also determined to do it right. I knew I was going to embarrass myself, but I didn’t want it to be because I have half-assed it. So I went to YouTube and began listening and practicing Middle English speech. If you’ve never heard it spoken before, it’s very lyrical and rhythmic, almost like talk-singing. Also, very Scottish-sounding, with the rolling of the r’s and vowel sounds. I practiced as much as possible, and on the day of our “performance,” I was sweating bullets and my face was on fire, but I read it as perfectly as I could. I’m pretty sure I read it a little too fast, but when I finished, the room was silent (with awe, I hoped), and my professor said, Wow.” Which, y’know, is like the greatest compliment you can ever get! (And I also got a good grade.) So I’m very proud about that experience, and it helped me break out of my shyness shell a little bit more.

“Autumn Stream” by Dennis Dalton is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.


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