Medievalists and madmen
A review of Paul Blackburn’s ‘Proensa’
The surviving poetry of the Old Provençal troubadours ranges from magnificent epics and beautiful lyrics to wickedly scatological satire. Their homeland, in the region that became southern France, is the source of the word Proensa, the title of Paul Blackburn’s anthology of troubadour lyrics in translation. Thanks to a re-edition of Blackburn’s translations by New York Review Books, we twenty-first-century readers have a new opportunity to read truly dazzling English versions of the troubadours.
It has been over sixty years since Blackburn received a Fulbright to travel to the south of France and study Provençal (or Occitan) literature. And yet, as poems, his translations stand alone. In the past sixty years of medieval literary studies, virtually no other Anglophone translator has dared to go beyond the merest literalism to approach — as Blackburn did — the style of their source materials or the voices of their authors.
For medievalists, the re-edition of Proensa offers the opportunity to think about our work as literary translation: the remaking of medieval poetry in/as modern poetry. As editor George Economou observes, “Blackburn does not attempt to preserve the formal elements of the poem … He never tries to ‘xerox’ such features as line length or rhyme scheme. Yet each strophe is rendered fully, its meaning intact, as he breaks the lines according to his own voice.”
Actually, Blackburn’s formal practice is slightly more complex than Economou seems willing to readily admit. As Economou remarks, Blackburn translates as both scholar and poet, creatively and intellectually at once. But what Economou seems to ignore is that Blackburn actually does reproduce soundplay as well as wordplay in his versions of the troubadours’ lyrics. This includes such features as rhythm and rhyme.
In translating a lyric by Guillem of Aquitaine, the one that begins Farai un vers pos mi sonelh, Blackburn begins with free verse, but shades into form by the fourth stanza:
And one said to me in her dialect:
“God save you, sir pilgrim.
You seem of decent family
in my opinion.
We see traveling through the world
too many madmen.” (2)
With a touch of assonance on the short vowels in “pilgrim,” “opinion,” “madmen,” this stanza could almost be sung as part of a folk ballad. For those who prefer free verse, most of these rhymes are probably understated enough to pass unnoticed; for attentive formalists, they are one of many subtle pleasures in reading Blackburn’s translations.
One particularly destructive corollary to the literalist ideology is the injunction (with which beginning translators are too often confronted!) to avoid archaisms at all cost. Happily, Blackburn is not impeded by this constraint. In doing homage to eleventh-, twelfth-, and thirteenth-century Provençal, Proensa gleefully jumbles the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century London dialect of Geoffrey Chaucer and Sir Thomas Malory (itself a rattlebag of French poetic forms and Anglo-Saxon pronunciations) with the twentieth-century American English (which, like its predecessor, incorporated loanwords from French) of Ezra Pound and company.
Thus a verse of Bertran de Born, which reads in Old Occitan as “If he wasn’t lying, the one who went telling you this” (Si no mentit cel que•us anet comtar), is variously adapted as:
if he told you the truth, the one
who fed you this balderdash
if he didn’t lie,
the SOB who handed you this rubbish! (159)
Because the verb mentir (to lie) was more deeply negative in the High Middle Ages of Western Europe than it is today — in the thirteenth century, the concept of “lying” was something akin to slander, treachery, backstabbing, the hidden depths of evil, et cetera — the acronym “SOB” is not entirely out of place. In the same poem by Bertran de Born, the speaker implores his lady:
[For mercy I beg, so that no one will be able to meddle
with your perfect body …]
Per merce•us prec qu’om no puoscha mesclar
Lo vostre cors fi … 
The first syllable of merce (“mercy”) is consonant and assonant with the first syllable of mesclar (“meddle,” mix, mingle, et cetera). Blackburn replicates and even exaggerates this alliteration:
And I pray you mercy
that no man may mess
or confuse your fine body … (158)
The twentieth-century vernacular “mess with” perfectly coveys the sexual menace that stands barely hidden in the word mesclar. The Old Occitan fi(n), which signified the very height of perfection, in the sense of ultra-refinement, distillation, and purity, finds its basic equivalent in the English word “fine,” which reflects both archaic and contemporary vernaculars at once.
As for the noun merce — which, by the early thirteenth century, came to denote both the divine grace of God and sexual favors from a lady, since both could be freely given or arbitrarily denied by their respective donors — its duality renders a satisfactory English translation next to impossible. Instead, Blackburn has wisely chosen to position “mercy” directly above “mess” in order to indicate, by virtue of its placement on the printed page, that this word can be read as a double entendre or euphemism.
In his introduction to Proensa, Economou cites Blackburn’s initial, “epigrammatic” definition of the translator: “A man who brings it all back home. / In short, a madman” (xviii). “All” can only mean the whole poem — sound and sense, music and meaning, history as well as hermeneutics. Translated by Blackburn, a lyric by Guillem IX, Duke of Aquitaine acquires new elements of both:
[Companions/friends, I will make a verse […] proper:
and it will have more of folly/madness than of sense/sanity,
and it will be all mingled with love and joy and youth.
And consider him a vile man who won’t hear/understand it
or doesn’t willingly learn it by heart;
he leaves love behind who composes [poetry] for himself alone.]
Companho, faray un vers … covinen:
Et aura• i mais de foudaz no•y a de sen,
Et er toz mesclatz d’amor e de joy e de joven.
E tenguatz lo per vilan qui no l’enten
O dins son cor voluntiers (qui) non l’apren;
Greu partir si fa d’amor qui la trob’a son talen.
I’m going to make a verse boys, … good enough?
But I witless, and it most mad and all
mixed up, mesclatz, jumbled from youth and love and joy —
And if the vulgar do not listen to ’em?
Learn ’em by heart? He takes a hard
parting from men’s love who composes to his own liking. (2)
The poet, like the translator, is a “madman”: a conveyor of everything — not only content, not only form, but the whole dialectic between them. Is it, then, a stretch to imagine Paul Blackburn himself as a troubadour?
Since Blackburn’s translations first appeared in 1953, literary translations of medieval texts have been at once too many and too few. There are infinite variations on Dante’s Vita Nova and Comedia (especially the Inferno), Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Villon’s Testament, the ghazals of Rumi, and the shorter Old English poems. But as for those that have been truly groundbreaking, I can count them on one hand:
- Seamus Heaney, Beowulf (Norton, 2001)
- Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales (Canongate Books, 2015)
- Maryann Corbett, excerpts from the Cent Ballades and Autres Ballades of Christine de Pizan, some of which are included in her poetry collection Mid Evil (University of Evansville Press, 2015)
- Peter Cole, The Dream of the Poem (Princeton University Press, 2007)
Heaney and Agbabi have made “classic” texts, poems we medievalists think we know, available in new forms to specialists and lay readers alike. Corbett and Cole have chosen to work with lesser-known texts, poems that have been rendered — by factors such as the perceived “difficulty” of their language of origin and/or the marginalized identities of their poets — undeservedly obscure.
(I should note that quality is always subjective, and your opinions are probably very different from my own. Even so, I am willing to bet that if asked, you would be unable to name more than five medieval-to-modern translations you have ever really enjoyed as poems in their own right.)
This dearth is astonishing, given that the Middle Ages span one thousand years of history. From the deposition of the last Western Emperor of Rome in 476 AD to the invention of the printing press at Gutenberg around 1440, each succeeding generation produced its share of luminaries: Latin poets such as Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, the Archpoet, Bernardus Silvestris, Hugh Primas, Alain of Lille, and Hildegard of Bingen; as well as vernacular versifiers such as Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Gonzalo de Berceo, Guillaume de Lorris, Jean de Meun, Rutebeuf, Dante Alighieri, Juan Ruiz, Guillaume de Machaut, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, the Pearl Poet, Eustache Deschamps, Christine de Pizan, Charles of Orléans, Ausiàs March, Alain Chartier, and François Villon. These are only a handful, and very far from a representative one. It is to my shame that I cannot yet cite, without the aid of a search engine, any poets from fifth- through fifteenth-century Africa, China, India, Japan, Russia, the Middle East, or the Americas.
Where are the literary translations of medieval poetry? To paraphrase the ladies in Paul Blackburn’s translation of Guillem of Aquitaine, we see among us too few madmen!
1. See A Handbook of the Troubadours, ed. F. R. P. Akehurst and Judith M. Davis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), especially Paul Zumthor, “An Overview: Why the Troubadours,” 11–18, Amelia E. Van Vleck, “The Lyric Texts,” 21–60, and Moshe Lazar, “Fin’amor,” 61–97.