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17.12.14, Smith, ed., Christine de Pizan / The Book of the Mutability of Fortune

17.12.14, Smith, ed., Christine de Pizan / The Book of the Mutability of Fortune

In producing the first English translation of Christine de Pizan's Livre de la mutacion de Fortune (1403), Geri Smith has done a great service for students and scholars alike. The Mutacion is part autobiography, part meditation on Fortune and fate, and part history of the world. It is a remarkable work, usually best known for the section in which Christine explains how Fortune transformed her into a man after her husband's death so that she could navigate her responsibilities as widow and head of household. Prior to now, only translated extracts have been printed in anthologies. Smith's volume makes the vast majority of the text available to those who do not read Middle French, and it provides ample support for research for students who may be approaching the text for the first time.

Smith's useful and lucid introduction includes discussion of Christine's life and works, the historical context, an "orientation" to The Book of the Mutability of Fortune, the influences and resonances of the work, and a note on the translation itself. These sections are both concise and instructive. The note on the translation is especially informative: it includes an excellent discussion of the problems of translating even the title term mutacion, and it explains the complexities of Christine's sometimes archaic, sometimes innovative but always complicated grammar, style, and word choices. Scholars of later time periods occasionally underestimate the demands of producing medieval editions and translations. In Smith's frank and admiring discussion of Christine's difficult language and the challenges of "detangling" it, one also sees clearly the intensive labor she has undertaken, which makes an important work of Christine's accessible to future generations of students and scholars.

Smith's prose is energetic and accurate, smooth and frequently beautiful. The translation follows Suzanne Solente's four-volume edition of the Mutacion (Picard, 1959-66), including section headings and divisions; Smith further subdivides the text into smaller sections keyed to Solente's line numbers, which enables readers to make easy comparison of the translation to the original. Some sections have been abridged, with priority given to passages "with the most powerful and vivid imagery, those essential to the flow of the story, and the sections that most strongly evoke themes and stylistic elements characteristic of Christine's corpus as a whole" (24). Most of the abridgements are short sections of 20-50 lines, here and there, with occasional longer portions of biblical history or battle scenes omitted. All abridged sections are summarized to keep the narrative intact, and, at times, the summaries include direct quotations (in translation), to retain some of Christine's original flavor. I spot-checked several sections against Solente, and, while some medievalists may quibble with Smith's word order or translation of particular terms, I found that Christine's meaning comes across effectively. The only characteristic of the translation that gave me pause was the occasional compression of the text. For example, in the section on Jason and Medea, after Christine notes others' criticism of the two for spending too much time together, she mentions that Jason heard la nouvelle [the rumors/gossip] (Solente l. 14703), a potentially important term, while Smith prints, "Jason heard about that" (171). More commonly, intensifiers such as grant or tout son fall out of the translation, even when they might be meaningful, for instance in the mention of the grant ardeur [Smith: ardor] of Jason and Medea, of how Medea abandoned tout son lignage [Smith: her lineage], and of the grant souffrance [Smith: fortitude] of recent French kings (Smith, 171 and 242; Solente, ll. 14699, 14724, and 23514). Additionally, given Christine's enduring interest in women's status and abilities, I found myself mildly disappointed that among the abridged sections were those depicting Andromache's attempted persuasion of Hector not go into battle the day of his death (also a key moment describing Hector's flaws) and the Amazon Penthesilea's first routing of the Greek soldiers after her arrival in Troy. Yet in the grand scheme, these minor differences in opinion do not mar the impressive nature of this volume. Smith's rendering is a thorough negotiation of Christine's text and modern English sensibilities, and her thoughtful annotations, discussions, and correlations of her text to Solente's offer ample encouragement for readers to use the edition as an opportunity not only to appreciate the translation but also to explore and enjoy Christine's French for themselves.

The supporting apparatus is equally valuable. Footnotes identify major figures, cite scholarly debates, give access to some of Solente's notes, and helpfully discuss linguistic challenges or ambiguous terms in the original. Smith also provides a helpful Appendix that lists numerous bibliographical resources on major topics and themes addressed in the text and introduction: Christine's life and works, gender and authority, the Debate of the Romance of the Rose, Christine's production of her texts, gender and transformation in the Mutability, the manuscript tradition, reception, and Christine's uses of Fortune, Ovid, allegory, and language. These bibliographies inform students of critical academic debates relevant to the present work and to Christine studies more generally. In addition, there follows a complete bibliography of foundational and recent research. This apparatus rounds out the conscientious design of this volume, which is clearly aimed at providing students the resources necessary to understand Christine, her text, and her historical and literary contexts.

This translation is a monumental accomplishment that fills a longtime gap in the availability of Christine's texts to modern readers. Smith's volume will bring new readership to the Mutacion and will allow French students to consult Solente and more easily understand Christine's complicated style. As we all know, no translation can fully capture the sense of the original, but Smith's comes as close as we can hope to ask for. This is a volume for which the field unquestionably will be grateful for some time.