The Medieval Review 12.08.07


Rikhardsdottir, Sif. Medieval Translations and Cultural Discourse: The Movement of Texts in England, France and Scandinavia. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2012. Pp. 199. $90. ISBN: 978-1-84384-289-7.



Reviewed by:


Torfi H. Tulinius
Univeristy of Iceland
tht@hi.is

The admirers of Marie de France's deft and delicate explorations of love and fantasy in her Lais or of Chrétien's exquisite inquiries into what it means to be a knight in his romances--both poets expressing themselves beautifully in the mellifluous langue d'oïl of the twelfth century--may feel that the numerous translations or adaptations of their compositions throughout the Middle Ages show lesser artistic merit and are therefore not as worthy of interest as the originals. Sif Rikhardsdottir's Medieval Translations and Cultural Discourse. The Movement of Texts in England, France and Scandinavia argues eloquently and convincingly that they deserve much more attention than they have received throughout the history of medieval literary scholarship. Her book is an exciting foray into the potentially rich domain of research offered by the intense circulation throughout medieval Europe of romances translated, and frequently also adapted, from French. Much excellent work over the last three or four decades has gone into editing these translations, studying their manuscript transmission and evaluating their position within literary history. However, few have attempted to consider them as independent sources of knowledge about the people involved in their production, i.e. the medieval translators/adaptors and their public. Bringing together several trends in recent scholarship, ranging from translation studies to the new philology, and with important insights from post-colonial theory and cultural studies, Rikhardsdottir shows us that this is not only possible but that it can help us understand better the complexities of the cultural dialogue inherent in such translations.

Thanks to her uncommon blend of competence in three languages, medieval French, Old Norse and Middle English, Rikhardsdottir is able to study her texts in detail, highlighting the stylistic correspondences between the original and its translation or--more frequently--tracking their divergences. Her knowledge of the likely social and historical circumstances of the translators and their public allows her to propose convincing interpretations of the way the texts change and sometimes take on new meanings when adapted to a different public. Issues of class, cultural dominance and the social construction of gender are prominent in her results.

Though her study encompasses three linguistic domains and spans more than two centuries, Rikhardsdottir proceeds neither geographically nor chronologically, but thematically. Her four chapters reflect this choice. Before that, a lengthy introduction states carefully the author's purpose, situating her approach in the context of the research history and the already mentioned scholarly trends, but at the same time highlighting the independence of her own approach. Her first chapter illustrates this by adapting the concept of cultural imperialism, originating in post-colonial studies, to medieval situations of translation of Marie de France's Lais into Middle English and Old Norse. Rikhardsdottir draws attention to the interesting differences between translating from Old French to Middle English on the one hand and into Old Norse on the other. Given the multilingual situation of fourteenth century England, a large part of the audience was probably capable of understanding the original. Therefore, the considerable changes made by the adaptor have even more significance. Adapting it to Middle English would thus have been a political gesture of sorts, simultaneously confirming the literary value of the English language and bringing the world of the Lais to a socially different public. Moreover, a critical stance towards aspects of the courtly culture of old can be perceived in the way the adaptor of Sir Launfal "undermines the authority of the original by destabilizing the courtly ideology inherent to Marie de France's Lanval (50). The Middle English text cannot be dismissed as a "disastrous adaptation" but should rather be seen "as an independent reworking of the French lai to produce a 'commentary' on contemporary culture" (43). On the other hand, the Old Norse translation, baptized Strengleikar, was intended for a public incapable of understanding Old French and moreover much less familiar with the courtly ideals and atmosphere that pervade the Marie de France's Lais. Though the translation is in most ways quite faithful to the original, the translator is nevertheless aware that he is not only transposing it into a different linguistic code, but that his intended public, most probably members of the thirteenth century Norwegian court, does not have the same frame of reference as Marie's audience. There are things that have to be explained to them. In both cases there are "inevitable cultural transformations" when a text is transposed into "a quite different linguistic and conceptual realm" (52).

Chapters two and three study different forms taken by these transformations. The former is a detailed study of the changes in the behavior of the protagonists of La Chanson de Roland in its Old Norse version. Presumably close to the warrior ethos of the Norwegian court, there are nevertheless differences in cultural norms that lead to changes in the translation. The translators tone down the inclination to emotional effusion of the French knights, not to mention their profuse weeping, a behavior deemed unmanly in the Old Norse family sagas. In a good example of an astute reading of the translation, Rikhardsdottir shows how Karlamagnús's (Charlemagne's) and his men's reaction to the death of Roland is made less extravagant, as well as a typical Norse twist is added to it, when they insist in saga-like fashion that it is better to avenge the dead than weep over them (69).

Chapter three examines what the author calls "narrative transformations" in the Old Norse and Middle English versions of Chrétiens Yvain. Despite Kalinke's earlier conclusions that the original translation of the Old Norse version, ívents saga, was probably quite accurate though its preserved copies are considerably shortened, Rikhardsdottir nevertheless argues for significant narrative transformations. The most remarkable are the depersonalization of the narrative voice, the reluctance to dwell on scenes of outpouring of emotion and the almost complete lack of interest in the courtly discourse on love (93). Rikhardsdottir's approach to the Middle English Ywain and Gawain is equally interesting. She demonstrates a shift from Chrétien's preoccupation with the "fallacies of Love (represented as an abstract and philo- sophical concept) to the realities of social and marital duties" (108). The translator/adaptor exploits the resources of his own language "in a manner that simultaneously contains and expounds its potential to convey meaning" (103). It is noteworthy that both adaptations deviate from the insistence on Yvain's spiritual transformation or internal growth in the French original. In the Middle English version, Ywain "does not progress as a character himself, instead his figure assumes signification through the narrative progress not as an individual, but as a semiotic representation" (104). Similarly, the Old Norse ívent does not as much achieve psychological maturity as he learns to be true to his own word. In both versions the focus is more socially-oriented (112). Both chapters demonstrate familiarity with the texts and with the relevant secondary literature. They also prove the author's ability to weave sophisticated theoretical perspectives into her analysis of the texts under study.

The last chapter of Rikhardsdottir's book is possibly the most stimulating of the four. Until recently, the French verse romance Partonopeu de Blois has received little critical attention. Nevertheless it was arguably one of the most popular, as well as geographically and linguistically most widely circulated, romances of the medieval period. It seems therefore to have had a considerable role in the "formation and dissemination of the romance genre in medieval Europe" (113). Versions exist in very many languages, among them Middle English and Old Norse and they are studied in a chapter which focuses on issues of "female sovereignty" and "male authority." This complex and multi-layered romance, opens up different avenues of cultural transformation which are brought to light in this chapter. There are two Middle English versions, albeit one of them only preserved as a fragment, and Rikhardsdottir discusses the divergences between the two in light both of the Old French original as well as of the Old Norse adaptation. Indeed, she uncovers significant differences in the representation of gender between the two versions, suggestive of a discrepancy in the cultural values of their respective intended audiences. In the later version, the queen is shown as a subject of desire, and not only as its object as in the earlier fragment. Rikhardsdottir speculates on whether this might have some bearing on the more radical transformation of gender roles in the Old Norse version, either by "textual transmission" or more generally by "cultural appeal" (142). Indeed, the Old Norse Partalopa saga presents the most interesting deviance of an adaptation from its source. Here, Rikhardsdottir shows that the story of the French knight and his royal lover Marmoria has been incorporated into a hugely popular theme in medieval Iceland, though almost unique in the rest of medieval Europe, that of the maiden king. Radically different from the other versions, the Old Norse one demonstrates a "substantial shift in the power relations and the delegation of authority" revealing "social conceptualizations of gender structures" (126).

Sif Rikhardsdottir's book on medieval translations is written in a clear style. It moves with ease from textual analysis to theoretical discussion and is constantly well-informed in its treatment of its sources, both primary and secondary. This does not however limit in any way the creativity of her approach. Her book is a significant contribution to romance in a European context and an invitation to look over the traditional boundaries--linguistic, national and academic--of medieval studies. It will disappoint no one interested in the richness and complexity of medieval textual culture.



Copyright (c) 2012 Torfi H. Tulinius



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