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  • Medieval Translations and Cultural Discourse: The Movement of Texts in England, France, and Scandinavia by Sif Rikhardsdottir
  • Matthieu Boyd
Sif Rikhardsdottir, Medieval Translations and Cultural Discourse: The Movement of Texts in England, France, and Scandinavia. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2012. Pp. 211 isbn: 978–1–84384–289–7. $90.

This book is the author’s dissertation, Cultural Transformations in Medieval Translations: French into Norse and English (Washington University in St. Louis, 2006), and in fact the dissertation had a better title: it was clear which way the texts were moving. There is not much ‘value added’ by this new publication, since it is nearly word for word the same as the original—especially in the Introduction, there is a lot of theoretical framing, appropriate to a dissertation, that feels heavy-handed and unnecessary now. Still, the book is well worth reading.

In four chapters, the author (SR) takes us through the Norse renderings of different French texts, and compares them with the Middle English translations if there are any.

Chapter One is about Marie de France’s Lais and the Norse Strengleikar. SR emphasizes ‘the infiltration of a dominant ideology [Francophone court culture] into a marginal society [Norway under King Hákon Hákonarson,] highlight[ing] the imbalance of power and the imperial implication of the literary incursion’ (29–30). Her discussion of the English Sir Launfal focuses on change in socio-economic context.

Chapter Two, about the Song of Roland, notices how ‘effeminate’ shows of emotion, like Roland’s weeping, are trimmed from the Norse text. There are apt comparisons to how emotion is treated in native literature like Njáls saga.

Chapter Three contrasts Chrétien de Troyes’s Yvain, the Norse Ívens saga, and the Middle English Ywain and Gawain; it chronicles a shift in both the Norse and English texts from philosophical reflection on ‘amour courtois and chivalric idealism,’ concerned with the protagonist’s evolving ‘psychological maturity,’ to a more ‘fast-paced and narrative-oriented’ illustration of ‘appropriate behavioural models’ for maintaining social order (112), like being true to one’s word.

Chapter Four deals with Partonopeu de Blois, a chivalric rewriting of the Eros-and-Psyche myth. Where the French and English texts involve coming-of-age through sexual conquest (SR says a lot about the gendered gaze), the Norse text again minimizes unmanly emotion by the male lead, and gives us something more like a negotiation of power between equals (the female lead is called not queen or empress but ‘maiden-king,’ hence fit to rule on her own). As co-editor with David Lawton of the Middle English text, Partonope of Blois (forthcoming in the TEAMS Middle English Text Series), SR is especially invested in this tale and has a detailed appendix comparing the plotlines of the different versions (152–63).

SR reads her texts attentively and convincingly, with due acknowledgment of historical context, manuscript evidence, and the work of other scholars, from Marianne Kalinke to Sarah Kay. Her suggestion that Ívens saga and Partalopa saga may not have been translated in Norway for Hákon, but rather in Iceland, fits the manuscript evidence and is important. Some of the comparisons of French and English texts, especially, have been done before, but even then the Norse texts bring a new ingredient to the mix. [End Page 124]

Some of the analysis could perhaps be questioned, as when SR says that the Norse translator displaces Marie de France’s feminine authorial voice (32–33); this displacement might have happened earlier, in the manuscript transmission of her Lais in France, where they are already indiscriminately mixed with anonymous ones. Or, when SR claims that ‘the medieval imperium is to be found in Christendom and its propagation, rather than secular rulers’ (25), does she mean that the Anglo-Normans were not imperialistic in a secular way? Surely not, as she later seems to realize (38).

The explicit theoretical point of the book is that medieval translations in general are not inferior and boring when they stray from literal correspondence to the source text, but instead reflect preoccupations of the target culture and are worth studying from that perspective. SR cites enough scholarship from the...


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