The dramatic story of Robert the Devil--murderer and rapist turned penitent--had a very long life, even appearing in nineteenth-century grand opera. Its French version, the thirteenth-century Robert le Diable,which survives in two manuscripts, has been translated several times but never before into English. It is good therefore to have an English translation at last. This one uses Löseth's 1903 edition of the romance, based on MS A.
The French poem, in octosyllabic rhyming couplets, poses the usual challenges and choices for an English translator. Should prose or verse be employed? Is a close translation preferable to a freer one? Should the language remind us of the period in which the poem was written, or appeal rather to modern-day readers? Samuel Rosenberg, like some other modern translators of medieval texts, has opted for a line-by-line rendering, thus making it easy (usually) for the reader to check the English against the French. The disadvantage of this approach is that the version can be workmanlike rather than elegant: it is neither good prose nor passable verse. Rosenberg tells us his goal was "to create a work suitable for recitation"...in "free rhythmic verse" and to add to this impression he has ended many parts of the poem with rhyming couplets (3).
The rhythmic quality, however, is inconsistent and frequently lacking. This is partly down to adding extra words or syllables to a line that in the original is more concise. It isn't clear why these are added. Bien se fait a cremir Robers appears as "And oh! Were they [the monks] right to fear him and run!" (196). Often these extras not only destroy rhythm but distract from meaning by their unnecessary inventions: Robert's rape and murder of nuns--Ançois qu'il issi de la porte/Mainte bele dame i a morte--is rendered "By the time he was finished, exhausted and listless / The nuns were all slain, none left to bear witness" (351-2). "Exhausted and listless" is only one of many examples where the translator has provided doublets. (It also draws attention to the sexual act, as it does when describing Robert's father energetically making love to his wife, in a manner absent in the French.) Superfluity of this nature is unfair to the original French, which readers may judge is long-winded; so is total invention in lieu of correctness. At lines 1465-7 the original poem evokes the Turks setting out to destroy Rome: Vont s'en li Turc, lor voiles plaines,/En haut levées les antaines/Sor les mas, qui sont enchargié. The yards and masts appear in the translation, but its next line is quite new, and uncalled-for: "the sailors eager and expectant."
The rhyming couplets are likewise guilty of inventions that bear no relation to meaning. At ll. 3651-2 a knight's inadvertent wounding of Robert is described (Li chevalier mout s'en esmaie/De chou qu'il l'a navré a ente); he is distressed "That he inflicted so grievous a hurt by pure chance; You can see the blood-covered shaft of his lance!" "By pure chance" does not correctly render a ente which, as Löseth's excellent Glossary tells us, means "painfully." The translator will have known this, but he has chosen rhyme, and extra words, over meaning.
There are important passages in the romance where Rosenberg's choices of vocabulary really detract from what the poet wants to say. The news of Rome, under attack and vulnerable, spreads to the wider world and prompts the Turkish siege. Both secular and spiritual powers (the emperor and the pope) are in decline; Rome may be on the brink of a fall: ele est si fort abaissie / Et si vencue et si plaissie (1433-4). This is not properly rendered by "[Rome] was now so deeply distressed, / So disturbed and dejected." She is humbled (abaissie), conquered/defeated (vencue) and wounded/tamed (plaissie); these adjectives point not to a mental state but a fact: the weakness of a formerly great power.
"Freedom" in translation is thus likely to lead to redundancy and even incorrectness. This is a pity when it is clear the original language has been well understood. Students reading this with no knowledge of medieval French will not have been led astray as to the content of the romance, but many of its details will pass them by. Rosenberg has tried to convey a vigorously expressed, fast-moving poem, with some success--but maybe opting for plain prose would still have been a choice kinder to the original.