Norris J. Lacy

title.none: Raffel, trans., Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart (Lacy)

identifier.other: baj9928.9806.005 98.06.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Norris J. Lacy, Washington University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Raffel, Burton, trans. Lancelot. The Knight of the Cart. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. Pp. x, 241. $30.00 0-300-07120-5 (hb). ISBN: $15.00 0-300-07121-3 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.06.05

Raffel, Burton, trans. Lancelot. The Knight of the Cart. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997. Pp. x, 241. $30.00 0-300-07120-5 (hb). ISBN: $15.00 0-300-07121-3 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Norris J. Lacy
Washington University

Burton Raffel is a versatile and accomplished translator who has published widely on translation theory and has set into English an impressive variety of works and authors, from Chretien de Troyes to Cervantes to Rabelais, and well beyond. The present volume, as Raffel informs us in his very brief "Translator's Preface," is the fourth of Chretien's romances that he has translated; Perceval: The Story of the Grail is yet to come.

Concerning his method, he notes that "Most of what needs to be explained about the technical aspects of this translation has long since been set out, in my Translator's Preface to Yvain." That is correct, but as a way to impart information to his present readers, it leaves a good deal to be desired: those without access to the earlier translation are simply left in the dark. How has Raffel gone about this translation? How is it different from other Englished Lancelots? How can we know whether he has succeeded at his task if we do not know what he set out to do? If an explanation of the translator's approach is helpful or necessary, I believe it should be given in the book we are reading, and not in a different one published a decade earlier.

But the reader who does have the earlier text -- and I was fortunate enough to have reviewed it -- can learn this about Raffel's method: "I have . . . devised a flexible line of an invariable three stresses, but with varying numbers of unstressed syllables. In practice, this measure varies from an extreme of four total syllables to the opposite extreme of thirteen total syllables" (pp. xi-xii).

In principle that is an ingenious solution to the problem of translating the Old French octosyllabic couplet, and in practice I thought it largely effective in Yvain, where it most often imparted a sense of rhythm and organization without appearing self-conscious and conspicuous. However, I have found it somewhat less successful in the present translation. Specifically, when lines or groups of lines correspond to the natural syntactic divisions -- clauses, phrases, sentences -- of the text, the three-stress approach works. But very often in this translation, the syntax and the line do not match, with the syntactic unit overflowing the boundaries of Raffel's line by only a word or two. The result is that the three-stress organization is frequently lost to the ear -- or, at least, to my ear. (Raffel had noted in his earlier preface [p. xii] that Chretien's romances are "intended primarily for the ear, rather than for the eye." This translation, however, does not seem to function in the same way, and perhaps was not intended to.)

Of course, if we are reading, rather than hearing, the text, we ourselves can preserve the stress pattern by providing a psychological pause, or even a temporal one, at the end of a line, but in so doing we break sentences in unnatural ways. Consider lines 146-150 in Lancelot (given first from the Poirion edition, which was Raffel's primary source):

The translation renders these lines as

In the English, there are indeed three stresses in "her breath, as they were wasting," but the more natural division is into another three-stress segment: "as they were wasting theirs." Moreover, in Raffel's line, the resulting enjambment emphasizes a single word ("theirs") for no reason that I can see.

Such overrun lines are common, and often their structure does not mirror either the form of the Old French original or the natural rhythms of English. Indeed, so frequent are they that I concluded that Raffel must have been making a deliberate effort to prevent the coincidence of some clauses (or sentences) with lines of text -- perhaps, in the example cited, to avoid the iambic regularity of "as they were wasting theirs."

The following instances are typical: ". . . Arthur gave him / Her hand, and Kay led her / Out, the entire palace / Following" (ll. 195-98); ". . . knights and ladies, / Were as sad as if she were being / Buried" (ll. 216-18); "Clearly, there'd been a furious / Fight, involving a good many / Knights . . ." (ll. 310-12). In at least one case, a hyphenated word is divided between two lines: "But playing a far more deadly / Game, in which chance had no role / But only mortal battle- / Strokes" (ll. 2412-15). And perhaps coincidentally, the names of the two famous bridges in this romance -- the Water Bridge (here called the Sunken Bridge) and the Sword Bridge -- are both divided when first named: "One is called the Sunken / Bridge" (ll. 654-55), ". . . it's called the Sword / Bridge" (ll. 671-72).

To test my recollection that such lines were fewer in the Yvain translation and that they were less conspicuous, I reread a portion of that translation. That test, though neither extensive nor scientific, reinforced my impression: to my mind, the line breaks seem generally to conform more effectively and more gracefully to the natural structures and rhythms of the language. In the present text, I found the approach frequently bothersome, whether I read silently or aloud.

Our evaluation of a translation depends, perhaps in equal measure, on objective analysis and on subjective response, and other readers may not find themselves distracted by the disjunction between rhythm and syntax. But for me the effect was very much that of a prose translation that simply happens to be broken, sometimes logically and sometimes oddly, into lines of unequal length. Yet I hasten to add that, if we do read it simply as prose (even though we are presumably not supposed to do so), it is clear, pleasing, and undisturbed by syntactic distortions.

In his overall approach to translating Chretien, Raffel is by no means slave to the Old French text. The five-line segment quoted previously (ll. 146-50) offers a revealing example. "As they were wasting theirs [= their breath]" is not in the original. Further, where the Old French says that "Kex li prie qu'ele se liet" ("Kay begs her to rise"), the English inserts "[she] begged him to remain" before having Kay ask her to rise (in l. 151). By no means am I criticizing Raffel's general approach. Taken as a whole, this passage, like most of the translation, conveys the meaning perfectly well. I am offering no more than a small caveat: this is a competent and readable rendering of Chretien's romance, but it is to be used as a general, not a detailed, guide to the original.

Textual and critical notes are nearly absent from this volume -- there are four notes to the 7,121 lines of text -- and that obviously limits the use to which students and other serious readers can put this translation. Compensating in part for the lack of notes (and of an introduction) is a short but excellent Afterword by Joseph J. Duggan. Duggan treats problems of Chretien's attitude toward the theme of adulterous love and toward his own material, and he discusses the curious fact that Lancelot is simultaneously a messianic and a ridiculous figure. He also offers a brief discussion of Arthur and Arthurian themes prior to Chretien, and he suggests, though without elaboration, that the figure of Lancelot is not Chretien's creation.

If we return once again to Raffel's preface to his earlier Yvain, we find him defending his translation on the ground that Chretien has been "virtually nonexistent in English" (p. xii). Indeed, that was largely true at that time. It certainly is no longer the case: we now have the romances in a number of translations -- individually and collectively, in a choice of prose, line-for-line renderings, or verse. Nonetheless, Raffel's approach is sufficiently novel, and his work sufficiently appealing, that we can only welcome this addition to the burgeoning corpus of Chretien's romances in English.