Translating ‘Biau’ and ‘Perron’

First, I would like to thank Jeffrey Heyer for his questions about my translation of the words biau and perron following the latest post of Michelant’s introduction. Below is my post in answer to his comment:

You translate the younger Escanor’s epithet as Noble. Was the original word used “Biau”? There is also a reference to “Merlin’s base” which is obviously the Fountain of Merlin where Gawain and Grifflet were ambushed in Part 8. Are there alternative translations or implications of the word here translated as “base”?

Thinking about the minute details of translation is something I love. However, it is also something that can be frustrating and, as far as I can see from work done by others, can never quite be satisfactorily resolved. As a brief explanation of my choices of my English translations, which are by no means permanent yet, I will deal with each separately because they raised different questions. With biau I was most influenced by the themes of this romance. The second is purely a linguistic issue, a case of needing to understand the etymology and definitions of Old French words much better!

In Le Roman d’Escanor the term biau is definitely one I was unsure of how to translate when first approaching Escanor’s character in the text and one I will return to. In the first instance, before I started the blog, I did indeed translate ‘Escanor li Biau’ as ‘Escanor the Beautiful. However, I began to feel by translating his name in this way I was exclusively emphasising Escanor’s superficial, physical characteristics. I decided to choose an epithet that suited the character both in the context of the genre of romance and its themes.

Escanor, so far in my reading, seems to be a solidly ‘good’ and royal character as the central king. This suits the typology of his role. In medieval romance beauty is typically an indicator of inherent goodness and/or nobility, for example as for the lost sons of Octavian and Sir Isumbras, or Gareth in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. In these romances beauty has decidedly moral and/or class connotations in the heroic trajectory that distinguishes them from other people, particularly when they are living and acting in non-courtly, i.e. non royal, spaces. In this body of literature I see beauty as a symbol or code, which contains more than one layer of meaning beyond the face value of the physical form it describes. So I have been translating Escanor’s epithet as ‘Noble’ because this choice seems thematically consistent with both his character trait and his class.

The moral connotations of the word biau were in use in different medieval contexts as well. A beau-père in Old French referred to a ‘monk’ or non-specific kind of ‘religious man’, which uses the adjective to elevate the position of ‘father’ from something ordinary and biological to the special and moral (DMF). Escanor actually becomes one, taking on a religious as well as a courtly role because at the end of Eleanor’s romance he spends a period as a hermit and his death is described at length—and in detail (see my 2015 IAS paper abstract). In brief, he is described as a paragon of moral and religious virtue and an exemplar to imitate, enabling his wife to escape the flames of hell by his heavenly ascension.

My only concern with the present choice of ‘noble’ is that for modern readers it may have more class connotations than those of moral or personal traits. Class is an inescapable part of medieval romance, so generically it works. Nevertheless, there is so much in this romance that is interesting for modern readers that I might choose a more neutral word (if such a thing exists) so that the king’s epithet is ‘Escanor the Good’. If Eleanor’s romance consistently invites its readers to empathise and identify with its central king, I would like to avoid alienating his character from modern readers who are less familiar with medieval romance as a genre the first time his name is mentioned. The Anglo-Norman Dictionary provides the definition for biau as ‘good’ as well as a much longer list of interior qualities for beautiful. An English audience contemporary to Escanor’s composition would have understood it variously as: ‘good’, ‘worthy’, ‘noble’, ‘virtuous’, ‘kind’, ‘helpful’, ‘wise’, ‘sensible’, ‘fine’, ‘courteous’ or ‘expert’ (AND). I need to translate more of the poem before deciding for certain; my opinion may change depending upon what other events and people Escanor is involved with in the story. Arthur and his knights are described by Caxton in his preface to Malory’s Morte as ‘good’ (CMEVP). However, knights’ acts often suggest otherwise. So before changing Escanor’s name I will wait and see what other things transpire in Eleanor’s romance…

Now, to take perron, as mentioned at the start this is purely a case of my not being familiar enough with the etymology or meanings for this word. A crucial thing I need to check is whether perron is a term Michelant used independently in his plot summary, or whether he has taken it straight from the romance itself as this would greatly affect my translation. Perron in Old French seems to mean ‘block of stone’ or some other kind of stone ‘construction’ and this meaning continues today in the modern French sense of ‘steps’ (DMF; CFD). Michelant’s choice here, as opposed to earlier, suggests a monument or purely stone landmark of some kind, whereas ‘fountain’ is a water feature. Whether it is naturally occurring or constructed would affect the meaning too—all of which distinctions have too many connotations to consider in detail here. According to the AND a perron was also a ‘mounting block’ too but I doubt it means that in this context (AND). I think Jeffrey is right that by perron Michelant must mean Merlin’s fountain. Currently I am attempting to provide an accessible version of Michelant’s introduction in English that is as faithful as possible to the 19th century French. However I need to cross-check the perron de Merlin in Escanor itself when approaching the original text on this. I chose the temporary word ‘base’ for Michelant because it implies a centre of power of some kind, which I would like to look into in the romance. If it is not a distinct place from the fountain, this must just be either an interpretative gesture on the part of Michelant or a translational inconsistency. When I discover more, I will be sure to post again about this.