Okay, let me tell you a story:
Once upon a time, there was a prose translation of the Pearl Poet’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was wonderfully charming and lyrical and perfect for use in a high school, and so a clever English teacher (as one did in the 70s) made a scan of the book for her students, saved it as a pdf, and printed copies off for her students every year. In true teacher tradition, she shared the file with her colleagues, and so for many years the students of the high school all studied Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the same (very badly scanned) version of this wonderful prose translation.
In time, a new teacher became head of the English Department, and while he agreed that the prose translation was very wonderful he felt that the quality of the scan was much less so. Also in true teacher tradition, he then spent hours typing up the scan into a word processor, with a few typos here and there and a few places where he was genuinely just guessing wildly at what the scan actually said. This completed word document was much cleaner and easier for the students to read, and so of course he shared it with his colleagues, including his very new wide-eyed faculty member who was teaching British Literature for the first time (this was me).
As teachers sometimes do, he moved on for greener (ie, better paying) pastures, leaving behind the word document, but not the original pdf scan. This of course meant that as I was attempting to verify whether a weird word was a typo or a genuine artifact of the original translation, I had no other version to compare it to. Being a good card-holding gen zillenial I of course turned to google, making good use of the super secret plagiarism-checking teacher technique “Quotation Marks”, with an astonishing result:
By which I mean literally one result.
For my purposes, this was precisely what I needed: a very clean and crisp scan that allowed me to make corrections to my typed edition: a happily ever after, amen.
But beware, for deep within my soul a terrible Monster was stirring. Bane of procrastinators everywhere, my Curiosity had found a likely looking rabbit hole. See, this wonderfully clear and crisp scan was lacking in two rather important pieces of identifying information: the title of the book from which the scan was taken, and the name of the translator. The only identifying features were the section title “Precursors” (and no, that is not the title of the book, believe me I looked) and this little leaf-like motif by the page numbers:
(Remember the leaf. This will be important later.)
We shall not dwell at length on the hours of internet research that ensued—how the sun slowly dipped behind the horizon, grading abandoned in shadows half-lit by the the blue glow of the computer screen—how google search after search racked up, until an email warning of “unusual activity on your account” flashed into momentary existence before being consigned immediately and with some prejudice to the digital void—how one third of the way through a “comprehensive but not exhaustive” list of Sir Gawain translators despair crept in until I was left in utter darkness, screen black and eyes staring dully at the wall.
Above all, let us not admit to the fact that such an afternoon occurred not once, not twice, but three times.
Suffice to say, many hours had been spent in fruitless pursuit before a new thought crept in: if this book was so mysterious, so obscure as to defeat the modern search engine, perhaps the answer lay not in the technologies of today, but the wisdom of the past. Fingers trembling, I pulled up the last blast email that had been sent to current and former faculty and staff, and began to compose an email to the timeless and indomitable woman who had taught English to me when I was a student, and who had, after nearly fifty years, retired from teaching just before I returned to my alma mater.
After staring at the email for approximately five or so minutes, I winced, pressed send, and let my plea sail out into the void. I cannot adequately describe for you the instinctive reverence I possess towards this teacher; suffice to say that Ms English was and is a woman of remarkable character, as much a legend as an institution as a woman of flesh and blood whose enduring influence inspired countless students. There is not a student taught by Ms. English who does not have a story to tell about her, and her decline in her last years of teaching and eventual retirement in the face of COVID was the end of an era. She still remembers me, and every couple months one of her contemporaries and dear friends who still works as a guidance counsellor stops me in the hall to tell me that Ms. English says hello and that she is thrilled that I am teaching here—thrilled that I am teaching honors students—thrilled that I am now teaching the AP students. “Tell her I said hello back,” I always say, and smile.
Ms. English is a legend, and one does not expect legends to respond to you immediately. Who knows when a woman of her generation would next think to check her email? Who knows if she would remember?
The day after I sent the email I got this response:
My friends, I was shaken. I was stunned. Imagine asking God a question and he turns to you and says, “Hold on one moment, let me check with my predecessor.”
The idea that even Ms. English had inherited this mysterious translation had never even occurred to me as a possibility, not when Ms. English had been a faculty member since the early days of the school. How wonderful, I thought to myself. What a great thing, that this translation is so obscure and mysterious that it defeats even Ms. English.
A few days later, Ms. English emailed me again:
(I had, in fact searched through both the English office and the Annex—a dark, weirdly shaped concrete storage area containing a great deal of dust and many aging copies of various books—a few days prior. I had no luck, sadly.)
At last, though, I had a title and a description! I returned to my internet search, only to find to my dismay that there was no book that exactly matched the title. I found THE BRITISH TRADITION: POETRY, PROSE, AND DRAMA (which was not black and the table of contents I found did not include Sir Gawain) and THE ENGLISH TRADITION, a super early edition of the Prentice Hall textbooks we use today, which did have a black cover but there were absolutely zero images I could find of the table of contents or the interior and so I had no way of determining if it was the correct book short of laying out an unfortunate amount of cold hard cash for a potential dead end.
So I sighed, and relinquished my dreams of solving the mystery. Perhaps someday 30 years from now, I thought, I’ll be wandering through one of those mysterious bookshops filled with out of print books and I��ll pick up a book and there will be the translation, found out last!
So I sighed, and told the whole story to my colleagues for a laugh. I sent screenshots of Ms. English’s emails to my siblings who were also taught by her. I told the story to my Dad over dinner as my Great Adventure of the Week.
…my friends. I come by my rabbit-hole curiosity honestly, but my Dad is of a different generation of computer literacy and knows a few Deep Secrets that I have never learned. He asked me the title that Ms. English gave me, pulled up some mysterious catalogue site, and within ten minutes found a title card. There are apparently two copies available in libraries worldwide, one in Philadelphia and the other in British Columbia. I said, “sure, Dad,” and went upstairs. He texted me a link. Rolling my eyes, I opened it and looked at the description.
Huh, I thought. Four volumes, just like Ms. English said. I wonder…
Armed with a slightly different title and a publisher, I looked up “The English Tradition: Fiction macmillan” and the first entry is an eBay sale that had picture of the interior and LO AND BEHOLD:
THE LEAF. LOOK AT THE LEAF.
My dad found it! He found the book!!
Except for one teensy tiny problem which is that the cover of the book is uh a very bright green and not at all black like Ms. English said. Alas, it was a case of mistaken identity, because The English Tradition: Poetry does have a black cover, although it is the fiction volume which contains Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
And so having found the book at last, I have decided to purchase it for the sum of $8, that ever after the origins of this translation may once more be known.
In this year of 2022 this adventure took place, as this post bears witness, the end, amen.
(Edit: See here for part 2!)