The best translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

By Mohammad Alam Written by Mohammad Alam
Updated on April 2, 2022

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a Middle English 14th century chivalric romance. The poem has survived in a single manuscript with three other religious poems. The author of the poems is anonymous.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have been translated and retold multiple times by different writers. The best and the most well-known one in recent times is the one done by Simon Armitage. Simon’s version is modern and uses the English language that is spoken now in England and surrounding areas. 

Who has best translated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight poem?

The story of Sir Gawain and the green knight was first narrated in the late fourteenth century. It is one of the most fascinating, intriguing, and famous English poems from that era.

Simon Armitage’s version has successfully adapted the famous poem’s emotions. The adaptation has correctly and carefully inhabited the original’s sensitivity, elegance, and emotional gravity.

The adaptation by Simon Armitage is so good as if two poets born six hundred years apart have gone through the same journey through a majestic setting with the same physical, allegorical and symphonic. All the while the Gawain poem finds its true and destined translator.

Which translation of the poem is the best selling? 

Sir Gawain and The Green knight, a very well renowned 2009 translation by Simon Armitage, has sold over a hundred thousand copies worldwide. Faber republished a new illustrated version in 2018. 

In this new edition British artist Hicks-Jenkins portrayed the medieval poems’ significant events and incidents into a series of vibrant, highly textured screen prints. The images are produced along with Simon Armitage’s rewrite of the poem, making it a special edition of the marvelous classic. 

There is a podcast on the BBC website with Simon Armitage talking about Sir Gawain and The Green knight and sharing his thoughts there. 

Other famous writers, who translated the poem?

Despite being written in the late fourteenth century it wasn’t published until 1839 when Sir Fedderic Madden of the British museum identified it as worth reading. The surviving manuscript was written by an anonymous author. The first modern English translation of the classic was first done by literary historian Jesse Watson.

The poem draws influence from Welsh, Irish, and English literary works as well as touches heavily upon the French chivalric heritage. It is a classic example of chivalric romance, where the hero goes off on an adventure that tests his abilities to win over the lady of the story. The poem has a strong cult following thanks to modern English translations by the likes of J.R.R Tolkein and Simon Armitage and others. It has been adapted in cinema, theatre, and opera.

On what other platform has this poem been retold?

The poem has gone through film adaptation three times. Twice by writer and director Stephen Weeks in 1973 and 1984. Both times it featured Miles O’Keeffe as Gawain and Sean Connery as the Green Knight. Both films have received backlash for departing from the plot of the poem. Bertilak and the Green Knight are also never linked. In 2021, 30th July “The Green Knight” was released, directed by American filmmaker David Lowery. The latest adaptation featured Dev Patel as Gawain and Ralph Ineson as the Green Knight. 

Gawain and the Green knight was adapted for television in 1991, and the animated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was released in 2002. The BBC aired a documentary hosted by Simon Armitage in which the poem’s trip is retraced using what are thought to be the original places.

At the University Theatre in Newcastle, the Tyneside Theatre Company produced the first stage adaptation of Sir Gawain and The Green Knight in December 1971. Michael Bognadov directed it, and Brian Stone’s translation was used for the stage. Iwan Williams composed the music and lyrics, drawing inspiration from medieval carols.

The poem was first adapted as an opera for the first time in 1978 by composer Richard Blackford in response to a request from the community of Blewbury in Oxfordshire. 

Who is the original author of the famous poem?

The poem is preserved in a single manuscript, along with three religious narrative poems: Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience. Because all four are written in a North West Midlands dialect of Middle English, they are assumed to have been written by the same author, known as the “Pearl Poet” or “Gawain Poet.”

What is the poem about?

Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s round table, accepts a challenge from a mysterious “Green Knight” who dares any knight to hit him with their weapon and in exchange for a return blow in a year and a day. Sir Gawain accepts and with one blow beheads the green knight. At which the green knight stands up and collects his head, reminding Gawain of the timetable. Gawain exhibits chivalry and commitment in his efforts to honor his agreement. 

An illustration from the original manuscript.