Interpreting Gawain: The Hermeneutics of Translation

By Tristan Gans
2011, Vol. 3 No. 04 | pg. 1/1

In the Broadview Press edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, editor and translator James Winny makes a concerted effort to render the original Middle English text in denotatively correct, non-alliterative modern English. In doing so, he fails to illuminate one of the work’s primary themes: the transition of Gawain from a socially defined literary superlative to a three-dimensional, introspective character. The language and form of the text, neglected in Winny’s translation, tie changes of insignia and verb form explicitly to the growth of Gawain’s identity and emotional agency—and the evolution of language and literature in the late middle ages.

From the beginnings of chivalric literature, Gawain was often present as one of the prominent knights of Arthurian legend, known as a ladies’ man and exemplary chevalier rather than a fighting man such as Lancelot or a man of God such as Galahad.1 His emblem, as opposed to the cross on Galahad’s shield or various love tokens carried by Lancelot, 2 is the pentangle described in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in lines 620-665. Winny translates lines 630-635 thus:

And he whole design is continuous, and in England called
Everywhere, I am told, the endless knot.
Therefore it suits this knight and his shining arms,
For always faithful in five ways, and five times in each case,
Gawain was reputed as virtuous, like refined gold,
Devoid of all vice, and with all courtly virtues adorned.3

Note that Gawain wears this shield due to his reputation. His personal feelings are of no importance, as he exists at this point solely as a literary archetype, typified by the ‘endless knot’: absolute perfection, unbending in adherence to the chivalric code of values.

The shield is replaced by the lady’s girdle, the wearing of which feminizes and humanizes Gawain. Instead of carrying the warrior’s emblazoned shield, he reminds himself constantly of his submission to the female sex, and the lust for life which compromised the mighty pentangle of virtue, and therefore his ‘trowthe,’ as described by Winny on lines 2509-2512:

This is the token of the dishonesty I was caught committing,
And now I must wear it as long as I live.
For a man may hide his misdeed, but never erase it,
For where once it takes root the stain can never be lifted.4

Problems arise in passages meant to draw parallels and illustrate, with subtlety, the shift in Gawain’s conception. Some scholars believe that there is no mention of the pentangle later in the tale,5 but this is not the case. The best example of this is line 2193, “Now I fele hit is the fende, in my fyve wyttez,” translated by Winny as “Now all my senses tell me that the devil himself.” Winny’s translation is redundant in light of the previous line, “perform his devotions in devilish ways,” which reproduces the alliteration of 2192, but then breaks from the form found in 2193, ‘fel, fende, five.’ The original text purposefully avoids this redundancy by moving towards a more ambiguous term, ‘fende,’ and alliteration on the letter f. This allows a reference to the number five and to the pentacle: line 640 declares “first he watz funden fautlez in his fyve wyttez.” Winny translates that phrase as “five senses” due to the necessity in context, but his failure to notice and enumerate the connection on line 2193 obscures the allusion. But the larger problem is his translation of the active verb: “my senses tell me” radically changes the meaning of the line by eliminating Gawain’s agency over his emotion, “I fele.” The original text explicitly grants Gawain the right to declare that he feels his pentangle unraveled (therefore himself compromised) by a malevolent force, while Winny’s translation uses an improper mood to dissociate Gawain from his identity.

Another questionable incidence occurs on line 2430. Winny translates “That wyl I welde wyth goud wylle, not for the wynne golde” as “I accept it gratefully, not for its wonderful gold.” This passage can be intuitively translated as ‘I will wield [wear] it with good will, not for the winning [fine] gold,’ and the Oxford English Dictionary supports such an interpretation.6 Winny deliberately subverts this line into courteous language characteristic of chivalric romance, at the expense of a declaration of Gawain’s awareness and control over his expressions and emotions. The only explanation for this willful exchange of words is Winny’s desire for a “non-alliterative” rendering as explained on the back cover, but one might think he could do so while being more “sensitively literal” in his choice of verbs.

Perhaps the most insensitive translation is found in the climactic third bedroom scene. The lady has been badgering Gawain by making statements in reference to his literary persona—she pressures him using his supposed identity, forcing him to succumb to her will or else forge his own conception of self and thus his own code of behavior. Lines 1773-1775 declare

He cared for his cortaysye, lest crathayn he were, 7
And more for his meschef yif he schulde make synne
And be traytor to that tolke that that telde aght.

And are translated by Winny as:

He felt so concerned for good manners, lest he behaved like a boor,
And still more lest he shame himself by an act of sin,
And treacherously betray the lord of the castle.

It is remarkable that throughout this passage, Gawain is worried about his state of being and doing, while Winny portrays his concern as that of seeming. Moreover, Winny seems to intentionally omit words that have specific referential meanings: ‘courtesy,’ like ‘villany,’ ‘sprezzatura,’ and several others, has specific connotations across the genre of chivalric literature and the behavioral conventions therein: ‘his cortayse’ refers to a property of his character, not his appearance of being well-mannered. Similarly, ‘meschef’ more accurately refers to his potential internal state of spiritual malnurishment, as opposed to a position of shame to be incurred in society through an act of transgression.8 The emphasis in both the lines is that Gawain in the original text is moving towards an introspective definition and actualization of the self, while Winny still portrays his actions as being ruled by societal perceptions and judgements. This subversion of agency becomes obvious in line 1775, where Gawain wonders if he will “be traytor to the man” and Winny has him “treacherously betray the lord,” thereby decreasing the emphasis on identity and obscuring the thematic and formal reference to Aeneas, the supposed traitorous founder of Britain whose dubious identity frames the narrative.9 In these lines, Winny’s subversion of the alliterative style and verb form actually subverts Gawain’s usurpation of his literary identity.

In light of the work’s prominence in the emerging humanist period of the late middle ages, Gawain’s quest for self-determined identity has risen to a position of importance among the several themes examined in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain first appears in the tale as he has been portrayed in previous chivalric romances—a stock character bearing the emblem and characteristics superlative of chivalric values—and in its course overcomes the self-awareness of literary his reputation in order to gain agency over his humanity. This realizes a shift in the artistic psyche in the late 14th century in which chivalric literature ceased to explicate the politics of possession and social hierarchy, concerning itself instead with the intricacies of gender relations and introspection.10 It is a wonder that editor and translator James Winny realizes the text in such a way as to undermine the continuity of Gawain’s character in transformation as well as the work’s self-awareness of its context in literary history.


1.) Thomas Hahn describes this tendency in chivalric literature in his essay “Gawain and Popular Chivalric Romance in Britain,” published in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Edited by Roberta L. Krueger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Lancelot’s tales also involve romantic intrigue and transgression; however, even in the greatest tales such as de Troyes’s Knight of the Cart, this transgression is less thematically prominent and is explored in court and on battlefields as opposed to within the bedroom and therefore the psyche of the knight.

2.) See Knight of the Cart and subsequent literary works comprising the “Vulgate Cycle.”

3.) Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Edited and Translated by James Winny. Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press, 2005. I quote from the translation for expediency; as far as I am concerned this is adequate. Differences of word choice, tense and agency in other passages will be noted.

4.) This translation also seems adequate, although the meaning of line 2510 is somewhat debatable: “And I mot nedez hit were” according to the Oxford English Dictionary ( uses a construction of the verb ‘mote’ that was used in the 14th century also to mean ‘to be obligated to’ and ‘to have the opportunity or permission to.’ This ambiguity of meaning is lost in translation, and would lend Gawain more agency than otherwise granted.

5.) Class notes from lecture, 1/08/08.

6.) I.e., there are no ‘false friends’ here: ‘welde’ translates to ‘wield,’ ‘wylle’ to ‘will,’ even ‘wynne’ for ‘winning,’ with as much accuracy as ‘wonderful.’

7.) OED specifically references line 1773 as an early form of the word ‘crathon,’ a term of depreciation later subsumed into ‘craven.’

8.) OED defines “mischief” in its earliest forms thusly, as a combination of misfortune, and in early forms, poverty as well.

9.) Class notes, Lynn Shutter 1/08/08. OED defines ‘tolke’ and ‘tulk’ as simply a man. This line also draws referential and alliterative parallels to lines 3-4 of the poem, “the tulk that the trammes of tresoun ther wroght…” that are less clear in translation. Winny may have done the best he could to represent this connection by repeating ‘treacherously,’ but ‘tulk’ and ‘trams’ have few direct descendents in modern English. So unfortunately, the connection to Aeneas and the history and politics of transgression in this line is obscured.

10.) Felicity Riddy, in her article “Middle English Romance: Family, Marriage, Intimacy” that in Gawain, one of the”most ambitious romances of the late fourteenth century…the shift from the hall to the bower—by then called a chamber—is almost complete.” From The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Edited by Roberta L. Krueger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. My foremost reference on the importance of chivalric romance in the late middle ages are the works of Richard Kaeuper, most specifically Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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