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13.12.04, DuVal & Staines, eds. The Song of Roland

13.12.04, DuVal & Staines, eds. The Song of Roland

The Song of Roland (Chanson de Roland in French), like many classics, offers a continuing challenge to the would-be translator. With innumerable translations into many languages (including perhaps Latin in its earliest days, in the form of the Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle), scholars and poets in the centuries since the 778 event that forms its climax have continually translated or revised the poem into prose as well as poetry (both rhymed and rhythmic). Recent years have seen an upsurge of translations, even of the less-well-known Franco-Italian versions. [1]

John Tabb DuVal, a scholar of translation theory and an experienced practitioner who includes translations of various Old French works (particularly plays and farces) in his curriculum vitae, here faces the daunting much-translated Roland. To give an idea of its importance, it has been said that being a medievalist is taking a stand on the Chanson de Roland. [2] Measuring oneself with famous literary works tests both translating skill and ingenuity, since one follows many others, some of whom have become accepted standards. It is a challenge to find new and more satisfying solutions to what are sometimes long-standing conundrums.

This volume rises to the challenge in a number of ways. First, it is uniquely organized; secondly, it attempts assonanced English verse; and finally, it seeks to make the volume attractive for classroom use.

The volume is unusual in that it includes the entire Chanson de Roland in Old French from the web-page (actually Mortier's 1940 edition digitized by Ulrich Harsch in 1999), [3] though this is not the version translated. The rest of the translation structure is conventional, with an introduction in two parts (textual background with selected bibliography, then translator's comments); the translation itself with explanatory footnotes, followed by brief notes about editorial and translation decisions; and a glossary and index (consisting of proper names with explanations). In the interest of full disclosure, I note that Staines' bibliography includes a volume about teaching the Song of Roland that I co-edited (xx), but the translator's introduction does not.

In his introduction, David Staines, a well-published literary critic and himself a translator of the Old French romances of Chrétien de Troyes, [4] offers context for comprehending the importance and meaning of the Song of Roland to the lay audience. He uses Einhard's Life of Charlemagne as background to the story, and emphasizes the importance of the crusades approximately contemporary to the Oxford Song of Roland (eleventh century) to the plot. In contrast to Charlemagne in the eighth through ninth centuries, Staines suggests that the composition of The Song of Roland might have taken place then: "The Christians did recapture Jerusalem in 1099, a suitable date around which the composition of The Song of Roland might well have taken place" (x). This will rather surprise scholars for whom ca. 1090 is merely the date of the Oxford manuscript. In fact, scholarly contentions related to actual composition and transmission (oral versus written) are not discussed; Staines presumes oral consumption--"When the audience heard this story" (xv)--with no discussion of how that might have been read, declaimed, or otherwise. He also states that before the Song of Roland there were no women "in the audiences for male-oriented stories of the heroic past" and that this is part of the reason "for the significance of two women in the story," but offers no evidence thereto (xv). In fact, the paucity of female characters in the Oxford Roland is frequently commented upon, especially in comparison to later chansons de geste, even other versions of the Roland. [5] The presentation of historical aspects follows traditional Western European narrative, speaking of Einhard, knightly audiences and inspiration for warriors. It does not bring in the Arabic point of view or the history behind the battle. Nor does it mention the fact that this version of the text is from the British Isles, or mention why that fact might be important.

DuVal, the translator, speaks of poetic compression in response to an implied criticism for lack of poetry seen in other epics in his introduction (xxi). He also addresses form, sound, and rendering the poetry into English. Both he and Staines omit further generalities about chansons de geste. Though not specifically stated, it would seem that this translation is geared to English-language students, with basic concepts and the plot outlined in this introduction, and the index of proper names and original text in the back to offer an instructor a panoply of options according to time available and interest.

The translation itself begins helpfully opposite a map of the "Roncevals [sic] Battlefield and Other Important Sites in The Song of Roland" (unnumbered, but xxiv). The translator aims for ease of use, with footnotes for explanation of format and content. He includes bracketed numbers to refer to the edition of the original in the back along with line numbers at the traditional every fifth line. As announced (xxii-xxiii), DuVal attempts to use assonance in his stanzas to recall the original, though as he himself admits, vowel sounds will vary across English dialects and regions.

Poetic translations pose special challenges. At times the translation reads choppily, with incomplete sentences, added words not present in the original, and odd word order for modern English. For example, "No castle blocks his way, / No city wall unbroken" (ll. 4-5) seems to be lacking a verb, and is certainly not a parallel sentence. "Not Charlemagne is able to protect / Whatever fool condemned you to this quest" (ll. 349-350), requires rereading to catch the sense. Laisse 30 begins, "Bláncandrin [sic] and Ganelon. They go / So far together...," which certainly arrests the attention and is perhaps comparable to a cinematic pan over the two before beginning the action in an incomplete sentence. The contortion to verse sometimes alters meanings, such as "mountain Saragossa" in line 6. The desire to even out a line brings the addition of "silver-toss" as a pass-time that is not at all present in the original in line 113. The translator uses some terms that that are inappropriate or incorrect; the frequent "guide-ons" (e.g., his ll. 845, 3470, etc.) for gonfalons or something similar is one example. One can find "guidon" in the dictionary, but it is the final definition and not spelled as he spells it. Another is the use of "mate" for companion or friend, as in his line 1010, "And Astramarz, his mate and war companion," which certainly evokes something not intended in the original "Estramariz i est, un soens compainz" (Short, l. 941; cf. ll. 1522, 1599 etc.). [6] Another frequent usage is "Wind your horn" (and similar expressions, here in l. 1010; see also ll. 1617, 1724, etc.) for "blow" or "sound." Now primarily poetic, juxtaposition with such terms as "mate" cause a confusion between registers and render reading difficult.

There are some definite inaccuracies beyond poetic license. Jangle Oversea (Jangleu l'Outremarin) is not a wizard (l. 3427); the valley at Aix is below, not above (l. 3794, Old French "Dedesuz," l. 3873, Short). There is nothing about Marsille reading and writing in the original (here, l. 473; Short, l. 485). The expression "laugh or weep" (here, l. 3287) is a common formula and does not merit a special note.

However, DuVal also provides some interesting innovations, as, for example, translating proper names when their meaning is evident, and choosing slightly different meanings from the standard in some cases. "Roncevals" as "Thorn Valley" for example (in the index and glossary) does not usually come to mind. It is worth noting that his form of the name is very odd; in the O manuscript we find only "Rencesvals," and usually critics use either the modern French "Roncevaux" (as I shall here) or Spanish "Roncesvalles." "Valleys and hills and paths they know" for "Tere Certaine" (his l. 844), with note, is interesting, as is "Evilgood" for "Malbien" (l. 68) and "Stagcatcher" for "Passecerf" (l. 1363). "Commilbury" for Commibles (l. 198) on the other hand, seems a little exaggerated. Speaking of going to "Marsille's sickroom" (his l. 2764) for "Sus en la chambre" [Up to his room] (Short, l. 2826) when he has had his hand cut off is excellent, and the "Vermillion flowers that his knights' blood dyed" for "les flors, / Ki sunt vermeilles del sanc..." [the flowers, / which are red from blood] is nicely done (DuVal, l. 2806; Short, ll. 2871-2872).

Occasionally, the colloquial and metric rendering provides a new look at the text. Alliteration of varying extent works nicely (perhaps because of the origins of English verse): "Too long in lovely France they've loitered" (l. 1776) for "Car demurét unt trop" (Short, l. 1806); "While Bramimunde, his lady, tears her hair, / Laments and calls herself a wretch and wails" (ll. 2546-2547) for "E Bramimunde le pluret, la reïne, / Trait ses chevels, si se cleimet caitive"(Short, ll. 2595-2596). One particularly striking laisse is 106, in the midst of the peers' battle against Marsille and his men at Roncevaux. The short sentences and assonance catch the brief opportunities for exchanging speech in battle:

"Oliver, what are you doing?" Roland cries. Why fight with wood? What about steel and iron? Your sword Hautcler? What's wrong with it? Just right, With its gold hilt and the glass-sharp edge, for striking!" "Too many targets, Roland! There's no time To draw my sword," Oliver replies. [7] (ll. 1344-1349)

In reading this translation, I thought of my own classes where I read the Song of Roland in English, and considered student reaction as well as things I would wish to clarify or correct were I to use this translation. To start with, geste is defined as a "song of a deed or action" (x), which is only partially correct. That definition omits the all-important family, "geste" as lineage. The ordering of the translation is also an issue. There are several alternatives to battle order after laisse 112. Some of the alternatives are mentioned in the endnotes, but not all and not the result of those alternatives (e.g., should the reader consult another translation or the original, numbering will vary as will sequence). It is also surprising to see that the translator's sources are so old, from 1924-1968 (the Whitehead edition is a reprint of one initially printed in 1942). Considering the number of learned editions and translations since that time, the recent useful discussion of them in Kibler (9-13), and the chart that Kibler offers of equivalencies, we now need to add a further column to Kibler's chart. [8]

Short / Burgess (1990) / DuVal Laisse 109 / 109-110 / 109-110 113 / 116 /115 125-126 / 114-115 / 113-114 114 / 117 / 117 124 / 125-125a / 124 127 / 126 / 125 202 / 202-203 / 201 203 / 204 / 202 214 / 215-216 / 213-214 226 / 228-229 / 226 230 / 233-234 / 230 232 / 236-238 / 232 274 / 280-281 / 274 Final laisse: 291 / 298 / 291

Clearly, this will cause confusion in comparisons even with the recent Burgess edition, and certainly not facilitate commentary should anyone venture to base it on the English text.

The notes at the end are brief, barely three pages, addressing DuVal's editorial and translation decisions. He refers to the O and V4 manuscripts, but does not address the differences or give any information about the manuscript situation other than that of Digby (O). Once again, a brief reference would have sufficed, like that of Kibler, or possibly to him (11). The Glossary and Index include proper names, with the French name in parentheses where the translation differs substantially. It also oddly includes the term "guide-on," but no other terms. The lemmas are listed by the laisses in which they appear rather than line numbers.

In the end, how useful a translation is depends upon the purpose for which it is destined. DuVal is himself a poet, and produces here a new poem, a work of art in its own right. For those seeking to read a work of poetry, this is a worthwhile read. Poetic license and older sources, however, may create some misapprehensions about the actual content of the original. Thus, the translation may also lead a reader to further investigate the poem and seek the original or other translations. In that it serves a worthwhile purpose and contributes to the study of the chanson de geste.



1. Joseph J. Duggan and Annalee C. Rejhon, trans., The Song of Roland: Translations of the Versions in Assonance and Rhyme of the Chanson de Roland (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). See TMR13.03.09.

2. Sharon Kinoshita, Medieval Boundaries: Rethinking Difference in Old French Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), p. 15; note p. 241 for the original from which she cites.

3. Raoul Mortier, ed., Les Textes de la Chanson de Roland I (Paris: Union latine d'éditions, 1940). The current classic English translation, Glyn Burgess, trans., The Song of Roland (London: Penguin, 1990), includes sections of the original, not the entire text (164-210).

4. David Staines, trans., The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).

5. See, for example, Joseph J. Duggan, "L'épisode d'Aude dans la tradition en rime de la Chanson de Roland," in Charlemagne in the North: Proceedings of the Twelfth International Conference of the Société Rencesvals, Edinburgh 4th to 11th August 1991, ed. Philip E Bennett et al. (Edinburgh: Société Rencesvals British Branch, 1993), 273-279.

6. Ian Short, ed. and trans., La Chanson de Roland, 2nd edn, Lettres gothiques (Paris: Livre de poche, 1990).

7. I will not go into the poetic license taken here in the wording; the reader can consult Short, laisse 106.

8. William W. Kibler, "Editions and Translations," in Approaches to Teaching the Song of Roland, ed. William W. Kibler and Leslie Zarker Morgan (New York: MLA, 2006), 9-13. Kibler's chart includes the use of "AOI" and the lines on which it appears (13