Category Archives: Old French

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 are 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 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.


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Filed under dictionaries, Escanor, introduction, Michelant, names, Old French, scholarship, translation

Michelant: Part 6

He [Gawain] then sees a group of young men and young ladies arriving while singing, who, at his request, tell him that they are from the White Mountain, and that their lord, who has no equal, is going to Carlion to engage in single combat; he continues on his way and he meets a new group of maidens singing in chorus; upon questioning, they tell him that they belong to the most beautiful and lovable couple in the world; finally, further on, is a company of young ladies and richly dressed knights, who in their songs embellish even more the praises they give to their lord, whose splendour and arrogance annoy Gawain more and more. Gawain lets the group that precedes Escanor pass and following on his way with the firm purpose of killing him, he moves forward close to the young couple whose elegance and beauty the poet describes . . . (Omission of a quire and around 1200 lines, which recount the details and the result of the attack planned by Girfflet . . .) A maiden addresses the sharpest reproaches to the king over what has happened; during a period of amnesty and with the assurance that he had nothing to fear, Escanor has been assassinated in treason. Angered, the king vows to [xii] exact a terrible vengeance for this act; he sends knights to enquire about the murder and search for the perpetrator. They find Escanor in the hands of physicians; upon seeing them he raises a racket of simultaneous complaints and regrets, but they ignore the details of the event, except Girfflet, who understands that, if they knew him to be the perpetrator, his brother would be dishonoured; and also his accomplice keeps absolute silence for him, while Gawain feels the most intense anger at not having been able to fight his accuser. He returns to hear the mass with the king and his friends when two maidens appear, who accuse him of being the perpetrator of this murder; these new grievances plunge the court into a profound sorrow, which goes into mourning. However Kay, still preoccupied by his love, desires to return to Northumberland and takes leave of the king, who tries in vain to make him stay. On his way he passes in front of a tower built near to a deep and rapid river that he cannot cross, despite his desire to reach the other bank; he hears a horn being sounded by a hideous dwarf who lowers the drawbridge and orders him, according to established custom, to hand over his horse. Kay threatens to throw him in the water[1], but the dwarf responds by blows with his baton and Kay hesitates no longer in taking it away from him, when the master of the castle arrives, a perfidious and disloyal knight named Colivre the Proud, brother of Bruno Without Pity who challenges Kay; he struck this man dead at the first attempt and already he was regretting his impulsiveness when a young girl comes to throw herself at his feet, while thanking him for having delivered her from a villain, who had abducted her by force after having killed her father in order to avenge himself on the man for having refused his daughter . . . (short omission following which they find Kay, who is dismayed to learn that Ayglin wants to take Andrivete away to his home . . .) He arrives at Bamburgh where he finds, to his great satisfaction, his former host, called Yonnet, a very honourable knight, seneschal of the king’s daughter, detested by Ayglin because of the fondness he felt for her; since he [Ayglin] only wanted her to marry a man of lowly estate whom it would be easy to get rid of; he also had her watched and guarded closely, out of fear that she would not do homage to King Arthur, in her capacity as heiress of the regions of her father, recently dead, [xiii] and he wanted above all to prevent her from speaking to the newcomer. However, through Yonnet, the young lady had been able to warn his whole lineage, who have been eager to rush to her service. Yonnet warns Kay about Aiglin’s plans and keen to get him an interview with his beloved, he goes to find her and invites her to a meal, where after the first service, she will leave the table and go in the company of her lady to walk in the garden so as to meet Kay there. Everything being organised, the rendezvous takes place in a secluded spot: the damsel informs Kay of these goings-on and seeks his support; he confers with Yonnet who puts him on his guard against Ayglin’s underhand plans. It is agreed that Kay in returning to the court will take the most constructive measures in order to prevent the misappropriation of the inheritance that he will try hard to keep for the young lady. Indeed King Arthur is favourably disposed to his ideas, and all his friends promise him the support most efficient to realise them, with an eagerness that makes him have the highest hopes.

[1] I have translated fossé for ‘ditch’ here as water, as the space Kay is threatening to throw him in is the river he wishes to cross. It highlights an interesting link between Norse and the Norman languages, as the English ‘foss’ meaning ‘river’ comes from Old Norse, but also has a precedent in the Latin fossa.

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Filed under introduction, language, Michelant, nineteenth-century French, Old French, scholarship, summaries, translation

E. Jane Burns’s ‘Ladies Don’t Wear Braies’, or the Gender of Words

I read an interesting start to an article by E. Jane Burns, whose writing I love as she has wonderful things to say about gender in medieval literature (and therefore indirectly about modern constructions of gender and the vocabulary we use to describe it). Her article reminded me of a discussion in one of the Old French classes I audited at the Ecole nationale des chartes last year, where people were discussing how to translate a word in a passage from Chrétien’s Arthurian romances, I think ‘Erec et Enide’. I’ll first quote Burns’s introductory paragraph to her article ‘Ladies Don’t Wear Braies: Underwear and Outerwear in the French Prose Lancelot before discussing the word it reminded me of.

As the translators of the Lancelot-Grail cycle worked together over the past few years, hammering out solutions to some of the more difficult transitions from Old French to modern English, we struggled over many problematic terms. One of the most troublesome translation snags, for which we never found a satisfactory solution, involved the terminology for medieval undergarments, most specifically, the words chemise and braies. Although these terms do not occur frequently in the Lancelot-Grail corpus, their occasional appearance did send us on a hunt for adequate English equivalents. How were we to describe, for example, the temptress who is said to be dressed only in a chemise when trying to seduce the wayward Lancelot? The word ‘shirt’ bears connotations that are obviously too masculine. To say that the seductress was wearing a ‘shift’ suggests outer clothing rather than the garment often described in medieval French texts as lying next to the skin. The word ‘slip,’ which readers would readily recognize as underwear, describes a tight-fitting sleeveless garment, whereas the medieval chemise was loose-fitting and had long sleeves. What about the word ‘chemise’ itself, defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as ‘a woman’s loose, shirt-like under-garment?’ It seemed a perfect solution. And yet how many speakers of English would in fact know what the English term ‘chemise’ meant? (152)

The issue of gender connotations when translating a word 1) either from Old French to modern French, or 2) from Old French to modern English, reminded me of a discussion at the ENC about the Old French vaillant which still exists in modern French as vaillant(e) and the English is ‘valiant’. If my memory serves me correctly, I seem to remember that in translating a line of Erec et Enide the word vaillant was said to be more appropriate to knights, being a male word. The character whom it described in this instance was a woman, and therefore an alternative in modern French had to be found. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what word was suggested instead. However, it got me thinking. In modern English, in my opinion, the word has become more gender neutral, for example it works to describe either men or women who ‘make a valiant effort’ at something. Therefore, when the word is used by the author of Escanor to describe Eleanor of Castile I have kept close to the original and translated her character as ‘valiant’.

This issue of words being considered as predominantly describing ‘male’ or ‘female’ characteristics is, of course, an ancient one. Having given a paper at Kalamazoo last week on the idea of the ‘gender-free being’ as inspired by the Roman de Silence which boasts one of the few female knights in medieval romance, I suppose ideas around the subject are still very fresh in my mind. I think words are best when describing characteristics, not when describing notions of gender. After all, anyone – regardless of their sex or gender – can be ‘strong’, ‘weak’, ‘determined’, ‘daring’, ‘loud’, ‘angry’, ‘meek’, etc. So why can our commissioning queen of Escanor not be ‘valiant’?

Works Referenced

Burns, E. Jane. ‘Ladies Don’t Wear Braies: Underwear and Outerwear in the French Prose Lancelot.’ The Lancelot-Grail Cycle: Texts and Transformations. Ed. William W. Kibler. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994: 152-174.

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Filed under criticism, gender, language, Old French, scholarship, translation, women

Re: ‘aucun’ in Old French

Having spoken to a colleague in Old French, and consulting further dictionaries better suited to Escanor’s period (such as the Godefroy and Hindley/Langley/Levy’s Old French-English Dictionary), I have confirmed that in deliberating with the two translation possibilities for the passage previously posted, I in fact chose the wrong one! The passage does mean that ‘some people’ not, ‘no one’ who displeased the princess Andrivete could receive sharp words from her in return. ‘Mais’ is not a strong enough negative to mean ‘no one’, so this will be useful in future. I am pleased, because this gives her a more interesting character. It does seem more in keeping with her seemingly argumentative, or certainly more vocal, nature suggested by later passages. For example, there is competition between the ‘Queen of Traverse’ as I am presently calling her, and Andrivete. The issue of female jealousy and political competition is something I am looking forward to considering in this romance. Andrivete also expresses her dissatisfaction in other instances. Moreover, women besides Andrivete frequently challenge male members of the court in this romance, so it will be interesting to compare them with the main heroine. The love story between Andrivete and Kay features prominently as a thematic strand, and their love is eventually rewarded. So it will be interesting to see how a more vocal woman is dealt with by the text in comparison to other medieval romances which question issues around female silence, for example Enide’s speech in Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide. I am looking forward to analysing the tone of Andrivete’s conversations with Kay, as they have several ‘interviews’ or meetings together before eventually marrying.

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Filed under Andrivete, female speech, language, Old French, translation, women

The problem of translating positives and negatives and the impact on characterisation

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.


Filed under Andrivete, competition, female speech, language, Old French, translation, women