The problem of translating positives and negatives

One interesting aspect of translation and the transmission or copy practice of stories between manuscripts is how just one word, translated as a positive or as a negative, can affect the portrayal of a particular character. I came across such an example first in my research on the figure of Igraine, King Arthur’s mother, in Arthurian literature. In one manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, after Ygerna’s marriage to Uther, he appears to say that they lived in ‘no small amount of love’ as translated into English from the Latin non minimo. Siân Echard notes that in another manuscript the Latin is instead cum minimo, which changes the meaning drastically to ‘joined by no love at all’ (emphasis mine). Echard remains aware that this could be an accidental scribal error, but finds it more interesting to consider the implications about their relationship if this represents a conscious choice, designed to increase the ambiguity that colours the marriage of Ygerna and Uther (commentary on this line in Arthurian Narrative 54-55).

I was reminded of this positive/negative comparison in deciding on a translation when reading line 84 of Escanor. It forms part of a description of a princess’s virtues:

Elle refu bien enseingnie

Et de mout gente compaingnie

A trestouz ceuz qui li plaisoient;

Mais aucun qui li desplaisoient

La retrouvoient anieuse

Et de parler un peu crueuse (Trachsler 81-86).

Here, the Old French aucun has the potential to change the character of the princess described; she could appears as having two opposite temperaments, depending on whether this is translated as ‘someone/those who’ or ‘no one’. The Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (DMF) explains the word as meaning certain, or ‘anyone’ in a positive phrase. Similarly, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary (AND) gives multiple examples of the indefinite pronoun meaning ‘any’, ‘anyone’, ‘someone’, ‘certain [people]’. Translated with this in mind, the passage would read thus:

She was well educated

And of the most genteel company

to all those who pleased her;

but anyone who displeased her

found her disagreeable

and a bit cruel in her words (81-86).

To me, this came across as slightly strange, given the usual formulaic construction of heroines in folklore and romance as perfect, indiscriminately kind and accommodating. The AND includes the negative for ‘no [one]’ in its list of definitions of aucun and although there is a lack of a clear negative ne preceding its use in line 84, I wonder whether the word could safely be translated as ‘no one’ due to the negative implication of mais. In the context, the negative ‘no one’ fits a positive portrayal of the princess better.  If Girart d’Amiens wants to portray a flawless woman ‘qui . . . n’avoit pareille’, ‘who had no equal’, her character is more sympathetic if she is equally kind to those that displease her as to those she loves. So I have translated the following lines thus:

She was well educated

And of the most genteel company

to all those who pleased her;

but no one who displeased her

found her disagreeable

or a bit cruel in her words (81-86).

In line 86 I have changed the ‘and’ to ‘or’, simply to fit the phrase better in English. This kind of example of how to translate just one word is quite a good demonstration of the effect a tiny change can have on the characters and text as a whole.


Echard, Siân. Arthurian Narrative in the Latin Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


2 thoughts on “The problem of translating positives and negatives

  1. This should be interesting… From what I read in summaries she does a bit of banter with Kay, so maybe the first translation will make sense in the end… I kinda like it anyhow 😀


    1. That’s made me reconsider it now! I’m going to email a contact in Old French and see if they say it’s ambiguous, or whether I simply should have gone with my first instinct after all. It certainly makes her a less conventional and more interesting character if she doesn’t conform to the ideal.


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