Principles of Translation

by Shira Schwam-Baird

(1) The art of translation requires balancing literal fidelity to the text with the overarching principle of clarity. Thus, the English translation of the Berlin manuscript respects the use of literal translation but avoids as much as possible awkward renderings that jar or make comprehension problematic. Translation is always an act of interpretation. Anyone who has ever tried to peel away the centuries not only of evolution of the language but also of scribal intervention and error to arrive at a hypothetical original knows how formidable the task is. Indeed, the first step of translation is preparing the edition. Inserting punctuation, expanding abbreviations, determining where copyist error has occurred and so on interprets meaning. For this very reason transcriber and translator have collaborated closely on both versions as the one cannot be separated from the other.

(2) The Berlin manuscript of Huon d’Auvergne, the basis of the translation, is the oldest of the manuscripts. It employs a Franco-Italian that is the closest to Old French among the exemplars and was probably composed by an Italophone with a good knowledge of French (Luisa A. Meregazzi, “L’Ugo d’Alvernia: Poema Franco-Italiano,” Studi romanzi, vol. 27, 1937, pp. 5-87). Meregazzi studied the language of the edited excerpts of Huon d’Auvergne available to her at the time and pointed out many of the ways in which Italian influenced and changed the French that the redactor was attempting to compose in, such as qual for quel, and tal for tel (“L’Ugo d’Alvernia,” p. 55). Some present little challenge to the translator, but others are more confusing and are often commented upon in the notes.

(3) Other challenges include the lack of regularity in the case system for nouns and adjectives (not unusual in any medieval French text from the 14th century, or indeed earlier), the frequent lack of agreement between subject and verb, also noted by Meregazzi (“L’Ugo d’Alvernia,” p. 58), and the twisting of word forms to conform to each laisse’s rhyme scheme. Numerous notes attempt to explain the translator’s rationale in certain problematic contexts.

(4) In balancing the needs of clarity in modern English with the principle of literal fidelity to the text, notes containing literal translations have been added where some significant departure from the letter of the text was deemed necessary. However, many adjustments have been made without comment.

(5) The translation often contains words in brackets. These are provided where the translation hews close to the original but additional words in English are necessary to keep the English fluent and clear or to adhere to common English usage.

(6) In cases of binomial pairs where synonyms or synonymous expressions are used for stylistic effect, the translation usually contains a similar set of compatible English synonyms if they make sense in the context. However, in cases like v. 10603, Lor garde Willame, a la chiere et al fron, which could be translated literally as “Now he looked at William at the face and at the forehead” is rendered simply as “He faced William directly.”

(7) Personal pronouns are used for the animals who have a relationship with Huon such as his horse, the lion he rescues who subsequently fights by his side and the griffons who transport him and his horse and defend them. All other animals are referred to as “it” in the singular.

(8) Where necessary, lines have been reordered in the translation for clarity (avoidance of dangling modifiers, misplaced relative clauses, etc.) so that they do not always correspond line for line with the manuscript transcription.

(9) Verb tenses change frequently within sentences in the original text and do not correspond to common usage in modern English narration. Thus, verb tenses in the translation have been rendered to adapt to normal English usage and to provide maximum clarity.

(10) Frequent lack of subject/verb agreement can lead to difficulties in translation. There are so many cases of verbs not conforming in number to the subject that context must be consulted to find the most logical solution for translation.

(11) Though punctuation in the translation generally follows that of the transcription, it differs in places to maintain the flow and sense of modern English.

(12) As for place names, when it is clear what the corresponding name is in English, it is used in the translation. When it is unclear, I have retained the name as it appears in the original text. Sometimes accompanying notes indicate our educated guesses.

(13) Many names of characters have variable spellings and, in accordance with modern practice, we have regularized and been consistent in the spellings, using English equivalents when they exist and are similar: Samson for Sanson, Richard for Riçars, and Charles for Karlle, Karllon, Çarles and Çarllon. The various spellings of Saracin are translated as Saracen, but Muslim is used for any reference in the notes to those so named in the text. See S. Rajabzadeh, “The Depoliticized Saracen and Muslim Erasure,” Literature Compass, 2019; 16:e12548.

(14) Idioms not found in standard OF dictionaries may be understood from context. In this text, for example, bien dir appears to mean ‘to pray.’ See vv. 2674 (Laisse 99), 4244 (Laisse 157), 7392 (Laisse 289), 8173 (Laisse 316), 8483 (Laisse 326), 8727 (Laisse 337).

(15) Italianisms abound in the original text. For example, in v. 7533 (Laisse 293) we see anch che which might be supposed to correspond to ‘aincois que’ (‘before’) but instead is based on the Italian ‘anche’ (‘even though’).

(16) Lor presents problems, not only because it is frequently used for a single possessor, but it follows the Italian pattern of definite article plus possessive as in v. 1275 (Laisse 48) of this two-line passage 1274-75: Tant il herra li cont en trois mois et dimie,/ De terre en terre autre façant la lor jornie [The count wandered over the course of three and a half months/ From one land to another on his journey].

(17) There are frequent occurrences of tot quant which finds its meaning in the Italian ‘tutto quanto’ (‘all’).

(18) An unusual word, marois, which in OF means ‘marsh’ or ‘bog’ (and appears with that meaning in the text), also appears multiple times with a completely different meaning. In these cases, we believe it is based on a dialectical word in Italian meaning ‘stone’. See note at v. 2591 (Laisse 96).

(19) An amusing translation conundrum presented itself with balain in this three-line passage vv. 6256-58 (Laisse 242): En celle nuit il fu en grant freor,/ Qar le air troble et vient g[ra]nt tenebror./ Foldre, ton, [et] balain si giete g[ra]nt lugor. My first attempt at translation was based on balain being one of the known Old French spellings of ‘baleine’ [whale]: During the night he experienced a great disturbance,/ For the air was shaken and great shadows fell./ Lightning, thunderbolts, and a whale cast flashes of light. What was a whale doing there, I wondered? Nothing, because it wasn’t there. The Italian word balenare means ‘to flash lightning,’ rendering v. 6258: Thunderbolts and lightning cast great flashes of light.

Published August 2023.