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The Lays by Marie de France (review)

From: Arthuriana
Volume 23, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 120-121 | 10.1353/art.2013.0054

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Edward Gallagher has produced a competent and appealing translation of Marie de France’s Lais, supplemented by the translations of two lais, Melion and Tyolet, that are not by Marie. In addition, he prints in an appendix the Old French texts of Marie’s Prologue and three of her lais: Guigemar, Bisclavret, and Yonec. These texts in Old French can be very useful for anyone who is attempting to learn some Old French or who, just out of curiosity, wants to see what French looked like some eight centuries ago.

Gallagher provides a succinct but useful introduction—some twenty pages—that will meet the needs of most students. He begins with the question of Marie’s identity and authorship. Acknowledging that a few critics have doubted that Marie wrote all twelve lais, he himself is noncommittal on the subject, remarking only that ‘Marie de France’ is ‘at the very least, a convenient hook on to which three and perhaps four French literary works of the second half of the twelfth century can be hung, or she is an iconic genius and a watershed figure of the High Middle Ages’ (xii). A good many medievalists might subscribe to the latter view, but I fear that the notion of Marie as ‘a convenient hook’ is a less than happy formulation: it is too casual a view to be useful to readers.

The introduction continues with short sections on ‘The Period,’ ‘Influences,’ ‘The Lay as a Literary Genre,’ ‘Taxonomies of The Lays of Marie de France,’ ‘Variations on the Theme of Love,’ and ‘Narrative Techniques,’ followed by comments on Gallagher’s translation policy and by bibliographical information. He offers useful commentary on each lai in a section that follows all of the translations.

Gallagher’s rendition, based on Karl Warnke’s edition (Halle: Niemeyer, 1925), is in prose and is relatively straightforward and literal. In general his decisions, especially in regard to his departure from a literal translation, are reasonable and judicious, and they are explained in a note at the end of his introduction (xxv–xxvii). For example, he prefers to avoid as conspicuous the characteristic doubling of verb synonyms. As he explains (xxvi), instead of ‘he spoke and said,’ he translates as ‘he spoke, saying.’ That is a prudent choice; less felicitous is the other example he mentions on the same page, rejecting ‘he asked and inquired’ in favor of ‘he asked inquiringly.’ (Can one ask something uninquiringly?)

For the most part Gallagher’s translation respects the register of the original, neither too formal nor too casual. However, there are some passages that are slightly jarring or at least less graceful than they might be. One example is the literal rendering of the common Old French redundant synonyms, as when Lanval meets the fairy woman he is to love and her body is described as ‘lovely and comely’ (35); the repetition is rather conspicuous here, in part because ‘comely’ sounds a bit archaic. Another small infelicity occurs when Lanval’s lady approaches on her horse, which transports her ‘nice and gently’ (41), which is perhaps too casual (cf. ‘nice and easy’). However, Gallagher has fortunately eliminated many of these duplications. We might justify his keeping some as a way of communicating the flavor of the Old French narratives, though I seriously doubt that the literal retention of such traits really can convey the effect of the original. What may strike us as odd (or quaint?) in the English translation was doubtless unremarkable in Old French.

The preceding observations are relatively minor quibbles, and there are only a few that are more striking. Chevrefueil includes the most famous lines that Marie ever wrote, ‘Bele amie, si est de nus: ni vus sanz mei, ni ieo [=je, mei] sanz vus’ (ll. 77–78; Gallagher p. 70). This passage begins in Gallagher’s translation as ‘Beauteous friend…’—an unfortunate choice, in my view. ‘Beauteous’ just does not work, and of course she is far more than his friend. Less literal but perhaps more accurate would be a simple rendering such as ‘My love…’ or perhaps a slightly more formal ‘Beautiful lady,’ but not ‘Beauteous friend.’

Quibbles aside, Gallagher is to be commended for his...



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