Translating rape in “Flamenca” (1)

Welcome to the first of a set of posts about translation, about scholarly editions as translations, about editorial decisions being individual ethical decisions made by people in a cultural context, and about scholarly responsibility and responsible scholarship. And about the 13th-century Occitan Romance of Flamenca.

This post will start with some excerpts from the previous post and some other background introduction to Flamenca, looking at their backgrounding or avoidance of rape, which is something that perpetuates rape culture. In this series of posts, I’m going to use the word “rape” a lot. By it, I mean: sexual activity without consent. I’ll also use the word “sex”; meaning sexual activity with consent. I’m not going to use the term “consensual sex” because it’s tautological, and I’m not going to use “unconsenting sex” because it’s a contradiction in terms. Other points on a sliding scale might or might not also be discussed: for example, “attempted rape.” We’ll also encounter love, desire, joy, pleasure, and care.

I will also be talking about ambiguity, though I won’t be talking about ambiguity in relation to the rape/sex distinction. The last post in this set is a close reading of a pair of passages from Flamenca that, together, show the difference between the two and an example of consent. “Consent culture” may seem like a fantasy, an impossible dream. The end of Flamenca is a strange dreamlike creature, and this is a work of imaginative art and of poetry, conjuring magics out of words. Whether or not something exists in the world of material being and lived experience, or did, or might in the future: what is vital here is that that thing exists as an idea and has been expressed and thus communicated, with the potential for further spread and continuation.

We’ll start with some news from Spain. Last Thursday, the following piece was published in the Education section of El Diario:

That may be the first time that many people will have heard of Flamenca, and the first thing that they read about this poem. They might also have met this introduction, again in mainsteam media: ABC Seville, in December of last year:


General readers and medieval specialist readers might also have met the description and plot summary on the page that hosts the digitised manuscript (the Carcassonne Bibliothèque municipale 34 unicum):

The introductions above are problematic.

They are not pure neutral objective descriptions or summaries: Flamenca, like any other poem, resists such treatment and it is hubristic of any human to believe themselves to be capable of such purity or of possessing such traits. These introductory summative statements are readings. They also rewrite their subject-matter, even if believing that they are writing about a thing rather than writing a new—shorter—version of it. The same is true of longer critical work, even a monograph or a history, that seems to be writing about a thing but is, again, writing further versions of the thing. That thing is better perceived not as a single fixed thing but as a multiplicity in an ever-growing live moving group. Here’s an analogy that reuses terms familiar from the evaluation of teaching (and learning), that are etymologically related: a scholar might believe that they are making summative statements and that this would be a desirable thing to be, but they are actually formative ones, and that is way better. Whatever else we might like to think that we’re doing, we’re all doing creative reading: forming, making, shaping, finding, innovative composition. Old Occitan has a wonderful verb, trobar, that includes all these senses of “finding” and more. It’s associated with the noun form trobador, from which we have “Troubadour,” and with trobairitz, a feminine derivative whose sole appearance in Old Occitan literature is in Flamenca. Trobador spreads to Galician-Portuguese and translates to Old French trouvère and later Scots makar, and is also conceptually related to adventuring and to seeking knowledge; see also Ken Campbell’s “seekers.”

Any scholar who has worked on Flamenca has had to produce such statements, and I know of no-one who has gone beyond their problems, problems of social convention and of literary genre, and found ways to change the formal constraints so as to make this kind of statement better and get it right. I’ve written such statements too, and to my mind got them wrong. This is a problem with scholarship as a cultural construct. A couple of days ago, at the beginning of what then turned into a horribly long post, I tried to do something better: but it was a different kind of creature. It was a version or a translation, and conceived as an addition to a multiplicity of versions and translations, and retellings and continuations, which together constitute a plural Flamenca. This isn’t a new radical exciting idea, it’s a variation on work from the previous century by two Romance philologists: Bernard Cerquiglini’s “éloge de la variante” and Paul Zumthor’s “mouvance.”

“My” Flamenca, reduced to a single key point: it is a literary work—art made out of words—that is, amongst many things, about being an object of use, about consent, about resistance and perdurance and survival, and about objecting to abuse. The narrative motor in Flamenca is rape. Rape, in the plural. The first rape is the most obvious. There is no way that a reader can fail to see it. There is no way that an intelligent reader can fail to see the cold dark bitter sarcastic burning rage behind the irony of its portrayal. Well, there could be ways: if you have no knowledge or awareness of rape. If you are not of this world. If you are from an alien species to whom this is new and perhaps—physically and otherwise—impossible and inconceivable. In the articles and reports presented above, and they are a representative sample of the Spanish media, rape is absent. Welcome to rape culture.

Let’s see how various versions of that first rape scene translate it.

In the manuscript, it’s on f. 6v (page 28 of the digitised version at, and at least one medieval reader has perceived the scene to be important, adding a manicule to point to “car la nueg jac ab la puncela / e si la fes domna noella” (“as that night he lay with the girl / and made a new woman of her”):

The hand that drew that manicule is the first known commentator, editor, and translator of Flamenca. This is the first manicule in the manuscript, and one of very few such marginal marks that have been added to it by (a) medieval reader(s). Deployed judiciously, all are at significant moments in the text. They tell us about medieval reading, about the medieval reception and perception of this work, about these people and their world. They convey precisely the sort of valuable historical information that is prized by the last two hundred years’ scholarship, and, perhaps ironically, sought by readers in the words of a poem—a work of imaginative art—rather than in a book as a whole, as a historical artifact and a material object.

Whether you have read Flamenca before or not, I recommend reading it anew following that guiding manicule in the manuscript, to see what a medieval reading looks like, what it highlights and underlines, and how that differs from nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century readings.

Here is that same passage, taken out of the context of that whole page and the book (we’ll return to them later in this series), with Paul Meyer’s 1865 transcription and E.D. Blodgett’s 1995 English translation, at the Flamenca Project:

Next, our first modern editor, François Just Marie Raynouard in 1827:

There will be more from him later in this series. Raynouard makes no claims to completeness, nor to veracity and accuracy; this is a “notice” and its purpose is to bring new readers to some semblance of Flamenca, even though, given the material and technological circumstances of the time, few readers would be able to access the manuscript. Working for a public institution, he is performing public outreach in the public interest.


He is interested in his own work having a certain flow and intelligibility, and whetever else a reader of 2019 might have to say about his editing of the rape scene, it is to him that we owe Flamenca’s title. Many a more recent description, summary, and reading would disagree, seeing the young lover Guilhem as the more natural hero.

The 1860 prose translation by Jean-Bernard Mary-Bufon, an adaptation more akin to the later Joseph Bédier manner and rationale for that formal choice and style, is a classic example of what happens to Flamenca in retelling this scene:


His Flamenca is incomplete; aside from adaptations such as the one above, he concludes his story before the Flamenca manuscript end its one. He has some Issues with Raynouard, which might or might not have anything to do with professional rivalry and failed election to the Académie française. Snark culminates in a renaming of the work that did not catch on but that still shocks; an attitude towards Flamenca that echoes down the ages, repeated every time a new translation’s writers rename her anew to make her theirs. “E si la fes noella” over and over.


The first complete edition of Flamenca is by Paul Meyer, in 1865. It includes a full transcription of the manuscript and a translation. He published a second edition in 1901, revising his transcription in the light of half a century’s scholarly work (by him, by other Romance philologists, and more widely on Old Occitan language, literature, and culture) and, rather than retranslating, adding a glossary. We’re in the period of the grand encyclopaedic philological projects and dictionary-making that includes etymology and historical linguistics: Raynouard, a member of the Académie française, works on its dictionary; and on the six-volume Lexique roman (1838-44), one of the first of its kind; Meyer and colleagues in the Romania group will continue this kind of work with printed editions, anthologies of excerpts, collections, compilations, and chrestomathies. Such works are another iteration of the problem of introductions and summaries: for example, the “representative selection” from Flamenca that’s in the Karl Bartsch Chrestomathie provençale (here, the 6th edition of 1904, via the Internet Archive):

That scene is from about a hundred lines further on. Removed from its context, it’s easily read as a happy scene of rich feasting. In its new context, it’s recast as a rich precious source for luxuriating in useful vocabulary and for information about social practice and lived experience; the kind that counts, that is, that of a leisurely aristocratic élite and their “courtly culture.” As we’ll see later on in this series, that’s a fiction.

Meyer’s transcription, editions, and translation are the main base for much of the next century’s Flamenca work. Here it is in René Lavaud and René Nelli’s 1960-66 two-volume collection of Old Occitan literature; of whole works this time:

Further scholarly editions of the manuscript appear in the next two decades—the main one is by Ulrich Gschwind, in 1976–and an increase in critical work on Flamenca. The next widely-available translation, and the first in paperback from a mainstream publisher, is by Jean-Charles Huchet in 1988 (UGE collection 10/18). I’ll include more of the surrounding text this time, as it’s a prose translation:

His edition’s base text is a reading of the manuscript microfilm; you’ll also find a photocopy of the microfilmm, and a transcription and edition of it, in John Ryan’s 1974 PhD dissertation.

Gschwind 1976 is the base text used for a good decade or so of translations. We’ve met Blodgett’s 1995 translation earlier as he graciously agreed to its use in the (free, openly acessible, public) Flamenca Project. Mario Mancini’s 2006 Flamenca includes a new Italian translation and much more. Like Blodgett and most translators, he includes the Occitan text: a necessity, given its complexity and multiple meanings, and giving some sign of awareness of the multiple nature of Flamenca(s) and of one’s “own” Flamenca being one of that multitude. Another Gschwind-based translation is the first published one in Spanish, by Antoni Rossell in 2009.

The last ten years have seen two completely new editions—reading the manuscript anew and transcribing it afresh—and four new prose translations: Roberta Manetti (2008, new edition and facing-page Italian translation), Jaime Covarsí Carbonero (2010, Huchet 1988 edition as base, Spanish translation), François Zufferey and Valérie Fasseur (2014, new edition and facing-page French translation), and Anton M. Espadaler (2015, Manetti 2008 as base, Catalan translation).

The extract that we’ve seen above is just a very short passage, and one that’s not usually read as being particularly significant. We’ll see in the next posts why there might be more to it than that: from the point of view of this present reader, and of my friend the anonymous medieval hand, and of Flamenca. Rereading these recent translations, and reading them alongside earlier ones and the manuscript’s version, it’s revealing to observe writers’ choices and comparative carefulness and care when they’re communicating and commenting on the following words, phrases, and lines in particular:

Car d’aquo era ben maïstre


Flamenca que / non.s saup tornar
Ni per forsa ni per engien

Consi que fos, a quella ves
An[c] non s’en plais ni clam non fes


Flamenca: the manuscript online, editions, and translations

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.