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18.12.13 Burgess/Kelly (trans.), The Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure (Federico)

The Medieval Review

18.12.13 Burgess/Kelly (trans.), The Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure (Federico)


Glyn S. Burgess and Douglas Kelly have produced a clear and accessible translation of Benoît's twelfth-century Roman de Troie that will serve as the standard English-language version of the medieval French text for the foreseeable future. Undergraduates, graduate students, academic professionals and the general public alike will appreciate the fresh pace of the prose; while graduate students and researchers will still cite the Constans edition, the uncluttered apparatus of this new translation makes it ideal for undergraduate classroom use.

The book includes a compact but substantial "Introduction" that covers the essential historical background on Benoît and also lists all of the modern editions and translations of his poem. The "Introduction" also runs through some of the major topics of scholarly discussion about the text, including Benoît's distinctive narrative conjointure of Dares and Dictys, along with his treatment of various themes common to late medieval romances of Troy, such as the prevalence of catalogs, the formulaic iteration of the hierarchy of the combatants, and the notion of corteisie in battle (the ambiguity of the term, and its paradoxical relationship to carnage). Extended glosses follow on the theme of madness, the roles of women, and the influence of the gods on the outcome of the story. The "Introduction" also helpfully includes an outline of this very long poem, corresponding to the line numbers, with each narrative section plotted in brief.

The translators wear their collective expertise lightly, without a trace of ponderousness and with minimal intervention. This is a very readerly text, rendered in clear prose, with very light footnoting. For instance, for the original passage reading,

"Salemon nos enseigne et dit,

E sil list om en son escrit,

Que nus ne deit son sen celer,

Ainz le deit om si demostrer

Que l'om I ait pro e honor,

Qu'ensi firent li ancessor.

...

E science qu'est bien oïe

Germe e florist e frutefie." (Constans, ll. 1-6, 23-4),

the translation is rendered as:

"Solomon teaches us and tells us, and one reads in his writings, that no

one should hide what he knows. Rather, one should make it public so

that it becomes profitable and honourable, for this is what our ancestors

did....Knowledge that is communicated germinates, flowers and bears

fruit." (Burgess and Kelly 43)

As an example of the text's authoritative but unobtrusive apparatus, the accompanying footnote to the last sentence of the passage just cited reads: "A similar metaphor for transmission of knowledge is found in the Prologue to Marie de France's Lais: 'When a truly beneficial thing is heard by many people, it then enjoys its first bloom, but if it is praised its flowers are in full bloom' (The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby, Penguin Classics [Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1986, 2nd ed. 1999], p. 41)." Such careful but not overly complex footnoting provides important context for Benoît's poem at just the point when a new reader would benefit from guidance.

We see this kind of glossing again in a later passage, when the text, very capably translating Constans ll. 13457-62 and 13468-70, reads:

"On this subject I truly fear incurring blame from that woman, who

has so many fine qualities, including high birth, worth and valour,

integrity, intelligence and honour, goodness, moderation and virtue,

noble largesse and beauty....Noble spouse of a noble king, who

harbours no evil, no wrath, no melancholy, may you always be blissful!" (207).

The footnote here helpfully points to Eleanor of Aquitaine as the identity of "that woman," though it misses the opportunity to cross-reference with Chrétien's very similar and nearly exactly contemporary address to Marie of Champagne, his patron, and perhaps misses the larger occasion to talk about aristocratic women's patronage of the romance form in twelfth-century France. The "Introduction" is silent on this well-established and important issue in understanding themes of gender and power in Benoît's milieu. One wonders also, given the ambivalence of the relationship between the author and the patron, if the direct address "Riche dame de riche rei.../ Poisseiz aveir toz jorz leece!" (ll. 13468, 13470) may be more pointed than the translation admits. While the appendix rightly notes that the OF riche (from Frankish riki) "can also convey the notion of power" (428), this point seems here understated given its centrality to the dynamic between the poet and the queen.

The translators' objectives to transmit Benoît's meaning in words that are both consonant with his original tone but understandable to modern English readers are well exemplified in the section when Troilus "badmouths" Briseida to Diomedes (on p. 287), emphasizing her commonness and her sluttishness, and suggesting even that she is a prostitute. The poem reads:

"S'esté avez la ou jo fui,

Pro i avra des acoilliz,

Ainz que li sieges seit feniz.

...

S'ensi l'avez senz parçonier,

Ne s'est ancor pas arestee,

Dès que li mestiers li agree;

Quar, se tant est qu'un poi li plaise,

Li ostelain i avront aise.

Ço sera sens, s'el se porpense

Dont ele traie sa despense." (Constans, ll. 20092-94, 20096-20102)

The translation here is both literal and unsparing:

"If you have been where I was, plenty more men will be welcome in that

place before the siege has come to an end....Although you possess her

now, without having to share her, she has not yet stopped, given the fact

that the act now pleases her. For, if it happens to please her a little, the

other transient guests will have an easy time of it. This makes sense if

she considers the source of her livelihood."

The footnote (number 132) to this passage explains that "Troilus seems to believe that Briseida is prostituting herself, and that the 'transient guests' would be her clients. Robert Henryson will follow up on this surmise in his late-medieval Scottish poem The Testament of Cresseid, in which Cresseid ends her life as a prostitute." Once again, the apparatus provides explanation and further reading at just the right moment.

Given this pattern of thorough and yet not overbearing footnoting, it is surprising that, when we get to the passage in which Briseida foresees her reputation ("A sei meïsme pense e dit: / De mei n'iert ja fait bon escrit / Ne chantee bone chançon" [Constans, ll. 20237-39]), there is no reference to the lament as made famous by Chaucer; rather, the literal prose stands by itself: "Speaking to herself, she expressed what she was thinking: 'Nothing good will ever be written, nor will any fair song be sung, about me'" (289). While it is of course not the goal of the translation to cover the Troy story as it appeared in the later medieval English tradition, it is curious to not find any mention of it at all--and especially at this point in the description of the lovers' feelings for each other, where Chaucer's treatment of Criseyde's self-awareness is such a distinctive part of the Troy tradition. Another point at which a little more glossing was desired not only for the sake of comprehension but to help the reader understand key terms and traditions includes the passage at p. 330 (l. 23599 in Constans) comparing the sounds made by different musical instruments to the cries of Penthesilea and her Amazons as they charged the enemy:

"The Amazons uttered loud cries as they charged. Nothing on earth

sounded like them. Breton lays, harps, viols ["lais de Bretons, / Harpe,

viële" (Constans, ll. 23599-600)] and the sounds of other instruments

were mere sobs compared to their cries."

A note to the use of "lai" here to refer not to a literary form but to an instrument would have been very helpful to students' understanding of the genre's complex relationships with contemporary music.

Attached to the translation are two appendices, one glossing such key terms as corteis, franc, orgueil, and vilein, and the other listing all known manuscripts of the poem. This closing material strikes something of a confusing final tone, insofar as a general or undergraduate reader likely to be unfamiliar with a term such as corteis is somewhat less likely to appreciate the significance of the manuscript list, while the reader more experienced with the OF text will of course not need the abbreviated glossary. There is nothing wrong in including material that falls between two main catchment areas, but it seemed symptomatic of the translation's uncertainty about its main audience. Related to this point is the price of the book in relation to its readership. Those just beginning their study of Benoît--or the instructor who might wish to assign them the book--may be hard pressed to justify its cost in a course that inevitably would require other books (an undergraduate class focusing exclusively or even mainly on Benoît in translation being quite rare in the curriculum). A more affordable paperback edition would solve this problem and would seem to be necessary to the successful dissemination of this important contribution to the field of French letters.