Britain… now in effect!
In the second to last line of my translated bit of ‘Gawain’ I was tempted to leave the word ‘bigged’ in… maybe I should have. Garbaty gives the word ‘founded’… I wanted to preserve the alliteration with the next line and give a sense of willful creation so I chose built… it now seems to me that the clear choice would have been ‘began’ even though that does not have quite have the sense of putting one’s stamp on something. I am kinda attracted to the phrase “busted-out”… though most people would laugh at me ‘And when this Britain was busted out by that baron rich’?…. “Ta-da! Britain… now in effect!”
The thing is, ‘Bigged’ (which can be glossed cultivated or inhabited as well) is, in the amorphous way it strikes the modern reader, just about exactly right for the idea am thinking about in this post. The notion that a space- ribbed with structural lines burst out for something in the creation of a name- a word…. The thing is that the fact is this space was not created truly whole-sale nor was it fashioned consciously out of parts…. Instead it was…. ‘bigged’.
How would a word like ‘bigged’ have struck a Middle English reader? Differently than it strikes you or I, with it’s absurd and defamiliarizing impression, a rather humorous Chimera- an impossible beast with overtones of size and simplicity. Equally though, it would not have registered with them as meaning ‘founded’ in the way that founded means itself to us… or at least the way we think of it’s doing so- the point is that that we have a sense of our language having a fixedness. This is not something the speaker and writer of Middle English had. Middle English had neither grammar nor dictionaries and meanings were shifting and elusive…. For a good explanation of how this was the case I recommend the chapter about the Middle English attitude toward Latin in “Chaucer and the trivium- the Mind-song of the Canterbury tales” by J. Steven Russell… Basically, he discusses how Language in the sense that we mean it- something with a grammar- (laws) was exclusively the province of Latin- which displayed an order which, if not of heaven, was at least heavenly- the language of the bible and a remainder from a time when learning was greater. The relation between word and concept might be direct in Latin but the vernacular- like all that was messy and earthly was distorted approximate- in a word fallen….
In this way, it can be argued, the medieval English attitude towards language- and this is certainly part of my attraction to it- was not far from a Saussurian/ Lacanian one in which language is a chain, an independent sphere- like a mesh which re-presents, inadequately, something else.
It might be that the informal character of Middle English makes it even more futile to translate it than most modern ones- however alien… because, however estranged the context of the language is it still probably understands itself as conforming to given laws- accountable practices- if it is written… As a note- there is I think a huge advantage to reading works in the original- this is well known- but I think that reading works in translation has perhaps an undeservedly poor reputation- its an issue not unrelated to the ideas discussed here and hopefully I will address this in a future post.