Translating rape in “Flamenca” (2)

In the previous post, we saw how the rape of Flamenca was read and written by several translators: from a mysterious medieval hand behind a marginal manicule, to translations published over the last ten years. That is: how, in the narrow and broad senses, her rape was “translated.” This second post looks at how rape was translated out of Flamenca: going beyond the usual senses of translation that include transposition, movement to a different place, away from one language and culture and into another; this translation is one of displacement and removal. Flamenca’s rape is translated out of existence.

Here is the first (and main) part of François Just Marie Raynouard’s 1827 “Notice” on the Flamenca manuscript. We’ve already observed how this version, which is not a full transcription and does not purport to be one, is an incomplete account or rendering. It is worth observing what has been reduced or removed, what is skipped with a line or a short paragraph of summary—the excerpt at the top of this post is a fine example—in the modern sense of “glossing over” rather than the medieval, expansive, one of glossing; and what in contrast has been retained in its entirety and allowed to speak uninterrupted for itself.

For many readers, that feasting episode is Flamenca: it is the most popular choice for anthologies that bring together  selected excerpts from a large number of works, in the interests of providing a broad overview, a literary survey, representative of a literature’s range and diversity across space, time, genre, form, and topic. Given the length of Flamenca (over 8000 lines), its complexities, and the size of the literature (medieval Occitan) of which it is but one work: it is understandable if few readers venture farther.

The feast is a literary feast, featuring as it does a list of works performed there over its several days. This goes some way to explaining its interest for literary history and criticism.

It is a linguistic feast: offering a richness of lexicon, exciting words and orthographies and morphologies to collect, and fine examples of case-system and conjugation and syntax.

The feast is also a feast, and its menu has whetted the appetite of many a cultural and social historian.

It is a treasure-trove of valuable historical jewels. (We will return to this idea of “jewels” later in this series.) Many an anthology conceives of itself as a treasury, the greatest hits, the pick of the crop, a garland, a florilegium; chrestomathies do too, with the addition of collecting together exemplary works for philological study, for learning about a language and literature and culture, as one unified entity. Albeit one that is centred on language, and a history of language that brings us, in a positivist progressive perception of history, to the apogee and zenith of civilisation that is the here and now.

Here, for example, is that feast again in Bartsch’s Chrestomathie provençale (various editions, this is the 6th of 1904):

Raynouard highlights two episodes, categorised as being of major significance. The wedding feast and its list of dishes served and literary works performed is “the” Flamenca with which most readers are the most familiar, be it from meeting it excerpted in a course or in a literary collection. It’s one of the episodes that has been reproduced, analysed, and used the most by scholars over the last two centuries, as providing us with valuable historical factual information. The other is the second long list at the end of the text: a list of participants in a tournament, used to fix the date of the events recounted and to identify their protagonists: mapping them (or their pseudonyms) onto real historical persons. In notes at the end of his “Notice,” Raynouard explains the importance and value of Flamenca:

Flamenca, like any other literary text, is a historical document. It is a source of historical information like any other text from that time, a source of information about actual life in that time; and that is what makes it more or less valuable, worth reading, relevant, and useful.

That attitude is a grave error. Not a service to scholars, scholarship, and knowledge but a disservice; not respect for the past but a disrespect; worse, an abuse that does dishonour to a poem.

I’d not be the first to argue that such a reading is a gross misrepresentation and misreading, an oversimplification of a subtle literary text, from a sophisticated poetic culture.

I’d also not be the first to be angered by the attitudes and presumptions of such a reading: that a quest for knowledge is one of conquering the unknown and that which evades grasping; for mining by an extractive industry; that this is material to be used. I’m not going to argue that such uses and abuses are also bad and to be avoided because they’re anachronistic: any reading in a different time and place is one that is out of time, diachronic, anachronistic, by its nature; including this reading right here right now. These are readings by live humans who exist in their world. I would argue, however, that it is an error to assume that the point and purposes of a reading from any one point in time—in this case, early 19th century France, post-Enlightenment, colonialism, capitalism, imperialism—should be taken as universal principles, divorced from their context and specificity.

This wedding episode is very important, but for quite different reasons.

It is a joke.

It is always immediately funny to mock an old rich man who is trying to do the noble thing, because we wise witty well-read people know what happens to such butts of ridicule, from Monsieur Jourdain to every fool in a malmariée story.

Read on, and then reread the feasting episode: now that you’ve realised that somewhere along the line the narrative focalisation has moved to Archambaut, away from external observation; however external that was, or that of a court as a plural entity, or the wry caustic gaze of one of the invisible performers to whom no-one pays attention, whom no-one sees, but who see and remember everything. Read some more, and circle back again and read it again: that laughter becomes more uncomfortable when Archambaut has been driven mad, and you reread and rereread to see the point at which that started to become apparent, the point at which you think—on rererereading—that you first started to develop sympathy and stopped laughing with him, moved to laughing with him, then stopped laughing altogether.

On every further reading that food looks less appetising, the festivities less appealing, the metaphorical and philological jewels duller and darker, the whole scene more queasy. Its humour discomforting, weird, uncanny.

And you worry ever more. You find yourself spiralling, just as your patterns of repeated readings are, just as Archambaut is. You are caught up with him, caught with him. Because the alternative is to admit that you are a lousy human being, an insensitive lout, and a poor reader: you didn’t spot what was going on. But if you catch it, and yourself, in your rereadings that magically make time stop and go backwards and then return you to a better present over and over again: that makes it all OK. We are in a speculative fiction in a world that has time travel.

You don’t want to be part of what’s being laughed at rather than being on the laughing side of the joke. This is about sides: us and them, “u and non-u,” in and out. This is the court. We are in courtly literature.

You don’t want that, for the joke to be on you, for this sly subtle text to have “had” and “got” you. That wouldn’t do: you’re smart and sensitive.

You’re a good reader.

You’re the reader: you’re in control.

And now, read the wedding feast again as part of a larger episode that is structured around the rape of Flamenca. It is a long episode, a painfully long episode, an unendingly painfully long episode. Reread it. Better: read it aloud, slowly, savouring every word. Force yourself. It is upsetting. It should upset you. You should feel physically upset: a bitter taste in your mouth, indigestive, nauseous; palpitating, faint, dizzy; off balance and unbalanced. These sensations are significant. Perhaps you already know what they mean; if you don’t know through direct experience, you can look up these symptoms, put your research and imaginative talents to good use, and think carefully about what you are learning.

Think again about those delicious delights and the endless entertainment.

This horror of a feast is an angry rape joke. Its laughter is a sardonic one. That laughter is all that remains of the rape of Flamenca; an echo in the background, a haunting undercurrent. It is a slow laughter, very slow, scary, sick to your stomach as you listen to it through this whole long episode; as you laugh along; as you slowly wake up to what, and who, that laughter is really about.

REFERENCES as before: Flamenca: the manuscript online, editions, and translations

  • François Just Marie Raynouard’s 1812 edition of excerpts of Flamenca appear in “Notice de Flamenca, poëme provençal, manuscrit dans la Bibliothèque municipale de Carcassonne, no. 681,” Notices et extraits des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque nationale et autres bibliothèques vol. XIII part 2 (Paris, 1827): 80-132; and in Choix de poésies originale des troubadours (Paris, 1816-21); and in Lexique roman (Paris, 1838-44).
  • Karl Bartsch Chrestomathie provençale (here, the 6th edition of 1904, via the Internet Archive)
  • Three-column text: Flamenca Project (Indiana University, Bloomington: Eric Beuerlein, Sandra Kübler, Michael Paul McGuire, T.M. Rainsford, Olga Scrivner, Barbara Vance) = digitised manuscript (Bibliothèque d’agglomération de Carcassonne. Ms. 34 (anciennes cotes : n° 2703 ; n° 2176) via Project Occitanica + Paul Meyer 1865 transcription & French translation + E.D. Blodgett 1995 English verse translation.


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