Skip to main content
Read page text

The case of Pearl is very different. In the introduction to one of its most valuable modern editions A.C. Cawley and J.J. Anderson say, rightly, ‘from the point of view of its metrical form Pearl is probably the most complex poem written in English’. Like Gawain, though less absolutely, it uses alliteration; but that is only the start of its formal devices. It is made up of 101 twelve-line stanzas, with an intricate rhyme-scheme and a recurring link-word at the start and end of each group of five stanzas. The recurring link-words carry the poem’s themes consistently, and the last line links back to the first (as in Finnegans Wake). As with the manuscript’s other poems, there is a great range of lexical diversity: English, French and Norse vocabulary, and variation in register from the French elegance of courtly love to the colloquial of northern English.

So the decision to be made by the translator of Pearl is altogether more difficult. How many of these interlocked formalities will the modern version attempt to reproduce? Some of the traditional translations have coped pretty well: notably Tolkien and Borroff. But with them you never feel you are reading something which is at once close to the original and readable in its own right as a new poem. This is what Jane Draycott’s new translation does so remarkably. Her great achievement is to produce a stanza-for-stanza and largely line-for-line translation which manages to retain total freedom in modern English. This version could not be further from the vices of translatorese. As with Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, when the alliteration offers itself in an unforced modern idiom, Draycott uses it. Perhaps most rewarding of all, she is always ready to work free of the line-ending by introducing an enjambment which (as critics such as Donald Davie and Christopher Ricks have shown) has had such an enlivening effect in English poetry since Milton. This is evident in her very first line: the original’s

Perle, plesaunte to prynce’s paye To clanly close in golde so clere (which might be literally translated as something like ‘Pearl, so delightful for a prince to set in pure gold for his pleasure’) is represented, immediately arrestingly, as

One thing I know for certain: that she was peerless, pearl who would have added light to any prince’s life however bright with gold.


My Bookmarks

    Skip to main content