Katharine Margot Toohey, trans., Once She Had Escaped the Tower: Aucassin and Nicolette, and Marie De France’s Gugemer: Modern English Translations, with a subjective essay on the translations. Penrith, NSW: Quemar Press, 2019. ISBN: 978-0-6485552-0-9
Once She Had Escaped the Tower contains Modern English translations, by Sydney-based translator Katharine Margot Toohey, of two medieval French narrative poems, along with the original texts. The two poems match well together in style and substance. Both tell of a pair of tragically separated true lovers, a princess and a knight. Both princesses are imprisoned in towers and then escape. Unexpectedly for modern readers, as Toohey notes in her preface, the narratives continue after their heroines escape. The narratives unfold in castles, woods and seas and each environment is given its own distinctive flavour. The castles are luxurious but restrictive, the woods pleasant but dangerous, the seas chaotic. The reading of the texts gave me a feeling that I had been on great adventures, having visited such distinct places.
The first text, Aucassin et Nicolette, is made up of interlocking sections of prose and verse. The prose is in a delightfully matter-of-fact style, as is the recounted dialogue within it:
The night was beautiful and calm, and he went on until he came to a path where seven paths fork, so looked before him and saw the bower that Nicolette had made; and the bower was lined with flowers outside, within, in front and above, and was so beautiful that nothing more fair could exist. When Aucassin saw it, he stopped at once. The rays of the moon glowed in it.
— Oh, God! Aucassin says, here was Nicolette my sweet companion, and she built this with her beautiful hands.
Much like in the Bible, no attempt is made to imitate realistic speech patterns. The verse sections contain an indeterminate number of lines, usually all of which rhyme together. Such a rhyme scheme is common in medieval French poetry, but has never found popularity or success in English, and with good reason: it quickly becomes tiresome. Toohey has given us delightful exemplars of how to use this form in English without creating weariness in the reader. Her most successful stanzas abound in stress-penultimate words rhyming on the final, unstressed, syllable:
Nicole of the clear face brightly
Left the herd-boys suddenly,
And undertook her journey
Amidst woods so leafy
Along an old path quickly
Came to a way unforeseen
Where seven ways fork between
Woods and go through country.
Such a rhyme used once is barely perceptible in English. When repeated many times in a row however the rhyme becomes perceptible yet never tiring.
Toohey has taken the strange decision to match her English rhymes directly with the original French rhymes, such that the word “petis” can never be translated as “little” because they don’t rhyme between the languages. I can’t see any advantage to be had from this constraint: how does it benefit the reader of the English poem? By limiting herself to the English equivalents of the French rhymes the translator has limited the arsenal of rhymes she has at her disposal: the potential unstressed rhyme “le”, eg. “little” and “rabble” has been forgone since no stanzas use such an equivalent French rhyme in the original text.
The problem with end rhyming comes to a head when Toohey is presented with stanzas of “é”/“ay” rhymes. Since in Modern English all words ending in “ay” receive emphasis on the final syllable, these stanzas lose the beautiful airiness of the feminine slant-rhymed stanzas. Instead we are bombarded with a long succession of lines ending in “ay”, a rhyme scheme which quickly tires. The relative dearth of vocabulary on offer from “ay” rhymes also forces the translator at times into awkwardly contorting the syntax or inserting filler words such as “anyway” onto the ends of otherwise interesting lines. At times the translator even allows these deformations to obfuscate the meaning:
I’d still rather it this way:
It is the wolves who will slay
Me. I am lions’ or wild boars’ prey,
Not those in the city, anyway!
I was only able to work out the intended meaning of that final line, spoken by Nicolette, by referring to the original French:
Encor aim jou mis assés
Que me mengucent li lé,
Li lion et li sengler,
Que je voisse en la cité!
Literally this could be translated as: “I’d still rather/That I be eaten by the wolves,/Lions and wild boars,/Than that I should go to the city!” What purpose does “anyway” serve here? Who or what are “those”? I can’t see that the answers to these questions would be evident to a reader of only the English text.
The second poem, Marie de France’s Gugemer, tells the tale of a love-spurning youth who, while hunting, shoots a talking doe. The arrow rebounds and strikes the youth, who is told by the doe that he shall not be cured unless he can find his true love. For the translator this text is an easier task formally, being in standard rhyming couplets. Nevertheless she often opts for the use of a slant rhyme, which continues to work well to keep, in Toohey’s own words “the text’s lively resonance”:
He knows not what to ask her,
he from a foreign land, a stranger.
In fear of letting her know at last
in case she hated, left in haste,
but he not showing illness honestly
can hardly be cured and healthy.
Love is a wound inside the body
never to bleed out openly:
a malady lasting a long time
made in nature’s own design.
Putting aside the poorer stanzas in Aucassin et Nicolette this is an exceptional pair of translations that brings to English readers the poetic beauty and the narrative excitement of two classics of French literature.
Editor’s note: Once She Had Escaped the Tower includes the original Anglo-Norman and Medieval French texts, cited by the reviewer.
Alex McKeown is a Tasmanian poet and translator whose work has most recently appeared from Penteract Press, E-Ratio, Otoliths and Cordite. A selection of his published work can be read at alexmckeownpoetry.com