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A Troubled Translation: Reading the Lais of Marie de France Open Access


Other title
cultural translation
Marie de France
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Longard, Jeffrey S
Supervisor and department
Malena, Anne (Modern Languages and Cultural Studies)
Examining committee member and department
Nadasdi, Terry (Linguistics)
Gingras, Francis (Littératures de langue française, Université de Montréal)
Stewart, Selina (History and Classics)
Penrod, Lynn (Modern Languages and Cultural Studies)
Gow, Andrew (History and Classics)
Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies
Translation Studies
Date accepted
Graduation date
2017-11:Fall 2017
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
The twelfth-century Lais of Marie de France, twelve short narrative romances in French verse, are a delightfully heterogenous mixture of old Celtic, classical, Anglo-Norman and Christian themes and motifs. At times these varied streams of influence stand together in unreconciled incongruity. Scholarly attempts to present a unified interpretation of the Lais have yielded varied and often mutually incompatible results. It is the contention of this dissertation that, while all the differing and contradictory interpretations of the Lais offer particular insights into the work and message of the author, the most important single unifying optic is understanding Marie de France as a medieval translator. Marie began with genuine artefacts of Celtic performance and transformed them, not only linguistically but also culturally, assigning to the vernacular oral tradition the same status that was accorded to the written Latin heritage and submitting it to the same sort of treatment, not only representing it in another language but reforming it to enrich its content and meaning. What distinguishes her work from her contemporaries, what in fact, I argue, constitutes its success, is that she resisted a complete transformation, retaining authentic cultural elements unassimilated to one another, and allowing them to speak side by side, even if at times this process resulted in cultural and moral incoherence. A close reading of the Lais undergirded by historical, linguistic and literary investigation frequently enables a distinction of the disparate elements which came together to make the final product, masterfully unified in terms of narrative and disturbingly inconsistent in social and moral stance. This approach reveals at every turn Marie’s strategies as a translator and her inventiveness as a writer, and suggests that what became known from the twelfth century on as the lai de Bretaigne was actually a new genre, not of Breton but of Old French literature, in all probability created singlehandedly by Marie de France. Later attempts to imitate, resituate or translate Marie’s Lais demonstrate that her translation strategy was poorly understood. Though her influence on subsequent literature was profound, the continuing attempts to clarify the poet’s ambivalent positions, to moralize, feudalize, masculinize and harmonize the message of the Lais, reveal how unsettling was her method, and confirm how strongly her compositions have resisted—and continue to resist—any facile and reductive analysis.
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