Translator: Taylor Barrett Gaines | Author: Christine de Pizan | Work: Ballad XXXIX | Original Language: French | Genre: Poetry

by brouillonjournal

On cognoist bien qui se faint;
Car qui grant griefté reçoipt,
Le visage en a destaint.
Se le cuer est fort destroit,
Et pour ce mes griefs anuis
Amenrissent ma vigour,
Car repos n’ay jour ne nuys ;
Il en pert a ma coulour.


We know well the ones who languish
Those who have felt great grief
The face pales at it.
The heart is utterly destroyed
And for that my griefs lurk behind me
And wait to starve my strength
No respite in day nor in night
It drains me of the color in my cheeks.

We all know grieving people lie
in bed, and think no one can see.
And yet the cheeks, the mouth, the eye,
show the shattered heart’s debris.
Grief taunts my strength with his single aim:
to murder with a highwayman’s grace.
I keep my eyes open the day and the night;
it drains the color from my face.

This is a verse from a ballad by medieval poet Christine de Pizan. She wrote in Middle French, and in traditional ballad form, ababcdcD, with the capital D indicating a refrain. At first glance, I expected comprehension of the Middle French to be my biggest challenge in effective translation, but sounding out the Middle French phonetically yields comprehensible modern French. Where I faced the biggest challenge, not just in the completion of this translation, but to my larger ideas about translation (both the best and the scariest kind of challenge), was putting it into rhyme. Above you’ll see the original verse, followed by my literal, prose translation. Here I was able to hew closely to the original images, which are haunting in how personal and poignant they are (something I never expected from medieval poetry). But how to maintain these gorgeous images in the rhyme scheme? I was especially concerned with keeping the idea of “anuis”, which I understood to be the past participle of “anuiter”, an old, now little-used verb meaning to surprise someone on the road in the night (though in later French it would be “anuité”). What a cool, specific, luscious verb…unlike anything we have in English. “Lurk” worked well enough for my more literal prose translation, but I wanted that image to really sing in my final ballad: grief, personified, draining the strength from our narrator as one assaulted in the night. I eventually settled on the image of a graceful, murderous highwayman, which calls up images of being caught in the night, without even the chance to defend oneself, with the threat of one’s throat being slit so as to drain one’s lifeblood away, the degree of torment that drains the color from the narrator’s face. I initially felt like I was being extremely disloyal to the text, calling up images that had never appeared in the original. But, I wondered, disloyal in the service of what? I was trying to communicate the text as loyally, truthfully, as possible, and realizing that the text is not just the words, but equally the associations, the impressions, the desired, realized, and lasting effects. I am a young translator, just beginning to understand that a translation cannot be a twin, but must be contented with being a sibling, having arrived in the world in different ways, but sharing the same genes and the same potential.

Taylor Barrett Gaines received a BA in Drama and French from the University of Virginia, and is currently working towards an MA in Cultural Translation from The American University of Paris.