George Economou
from Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry
Selected and Translated by Paul Blackburn


Introduction to Proensa: An Anthology of Troubadour Poetry

More than any other body of literary work in the western tradition, the poetry of the troubadours has commanded a larger "reputation" than the readership it has actually enjoyed. One does not have to look for esoteric or exotic explanations for this situation. Setting aside the most obvious obstacle of language, the reasons are quite clear. There is, in the first place, the general, and often vaguely held, recognition that these poems have exerted an enormous influence on subsequent literature. This recognition frequently begins during a serious reading of Dante, who acknowledges and manifests the importance of the troubadours for him and his work in a number of ways, and concludes with a concentrated reading of the English love lyric generated and sustained by the Petrarchan tradition. Though this tradition is understood as being indebted to the poetry of the troubadours via the dolce stil novo, most readers and students have had to rely (and with good reason) on the authority of a small number of specialists of varying degrees of literary and critical expertise for their "background" information. Recognition also comes in the form of the quest to understand the roots and ramifications of the nature of love in the western world. an endeavor which at best adduces the poetry as evidence to an argument for a particular interpretation of the history of sexual love in our culture. In either case, or in both taken together—as they often are—it is an unfortunate situation, for which no one in particular is to blame: a high art has been reduced to a remote, if important, historical cause of cultural and literary effects that are intellectually and linguistically more accessible and of greater popular interest.

Recently the language barrier has been lessened by the publication of numerous reliable translations of the troubadours into modern English and other languages. Old Provençal, or Occitan as some prefer to call it, is not easily understood even by a person fluent in French. These translations, done mainly by scholars, have been complemented by important new critical studies by medievalists, like Frederick Goldin and L. T. Topsfield (to mention two writing in English), who have produced major accounts of the technical and thematic development of the troubadour lyric. The appearance of these translations and criticism along with better editions of many of the poets, marks a new level of interest in the poems of the troubadours as poems and in their historical and courtly contexts. Significant research and analysis is being done, as well, on the melodies that were sometimes composed for the poems or sometimes to which the poems were set. And "courtly love / amour courtois," the great controversial aspect of the poetry, continues to provide matter for debate—over its origins, over its exact definition, over whether or not amour courtois ever existed. It is activity like this that will one day help bring about something approaching a balance between our knowledge of the poetry and the importance we have accorded it.

I do not know if there is a meaningful connection between the situation I have just described and the fact that Paul Blackburn's translations of the troubadours, which have been ready and waiting for publication since the late 1950's, are being published now, two decades later. I suspect a number of factors have caused this delay, if that is what it is. It was Ezra Pound, of course, who did more than any other twentieth-century poet to introduce the troubadours and their legacy to the English-speaking world, especially America. Stimulated by a London literary milieu in which Provence was already something of a vogue, as Hugh Kenner has shown in The Pound Era, Pound not only wrote about the troubadours, as in The Spirit of Romance and other criticism, but he also translated some of them and adapted others, as in his Personae; he also worked some of their lives and lines into The Cantos. In short, he extended their legacy into the practice of making poetry in this century. But Pound's involvement with this poetry was limited by his interests in other matters; and, though his work with it—particularly his translations of Arnaut Daniel—pointed in the direction of the desired end of a more complete representation of troubadour poetry by a poet, he was not the man for the job. Paul Blackburn was. Acutely clued in to the various poetic energies that were current at mid-century, educated, able and willing to take on the serious study of Old Provençal, and biased by temperament and taste, if not by birth, towards Mediterranean and Latin culture (a serious joke he made often), Blackburn heard and understood the appeal and cue for action in Pound's initial contribution. He devoted himself to the study and translation of the troubadours as one of his central commitments to poetry. It turned out to be for life. I cannot help but believe the publication of this volume is of historic significance, as I know for sure that it was a fateful decision he made almost three decades ago to share his career with the poets in this book.

In what was probably the last resumé he prepared, Blackburn included a concise account of his training and early work on the translation project:

I first studied occitan ancien (Old Provençal) with Professor Karl Bottke at the University of Wisconsin, 1949-50. I continued my reading and studies alone for a few years, and by 1953 had published a small volume of a dozen translations with the texts en face (Proensa, Divers Press, Mallorca). I believe that the independent work and subsequent publication was chiefly responsible for my Fulbright award in 1954.... Two years of study at [the University of] Toulouse saw most of the basic research on the anthology done. My studies were chiefly in occitan linguistics with Professor Jean Seguy, social anthropology of the region with Dr. Rene Nelli, and some Catalan literature courses. Summer 1956 to Fall 1957 were spent mostly living in Malaga and Banyalbufar, Mallorca (living is cheaper in Spain and I was living on my own savings by that time), translating, reading, re-reading, making final choices, doing constant revisions—plus my own poems.

Although the basic work had been done in this period and the resultant manuscript had been tentatively accepted for publication by a major commercial house in the spring of 1958, the book never saw the light of day. Blackburn's plans to write a long introduction to the book were interrupted by the complications and consequences of a divorce from his first wife. By the time he returned to the work two years later, he decided to undertake major revisions of the translations and to provide a section of footnotes for each poet. At the time of his death in the autumn of 1971, he had completed his revisions; the fact that some of the pages in the then final typescript contain handwritten changes indicates that he was constantly on the lookout for improvements, a normal preoccupation among translators. Since these changes were made invariably in the interests of accuracy, economy, and melody, the texts below contain these last revisions as nearly as I have been able to ascertain them. The annotation, however, proved to be a major task which went very slowly, and Blackburn was able to complete notes for only twelve of the thirty sections of the book (see note on the footnotes below). But the work of the translations was truly finished to his satisfaction.

There are, of course, some minor matters that reflect the conditions under which the work was begun and completed, matters which Blackburn would probably have taken into account had he lived to prepare his anthology for press. The most noteworthy of these are textual. First, the few poems in this volume which are now considered to be of doubtful authorship, I have allowed to stand in Blackburn's original attributions, having identified them in my notes. Second, a small number of poems in this selection received superior textual editing after Blackburn had completed his versions of them. That his translations are poetic recreations in our language, is argument enough for refraining from violating their special integrity. Besides, he always comes up with solutions that work in his poem: a close comparative reading of his translation of Marcabru's "Ges l'estornels non s'oblida" with the recently re-edited original text and translation by Goldin in Lyrics of the Troubadours and Trouvères will reveal the nature of some of the problems Blackburn faced and the ingenuity with which he solved them. The only matter on which I would have overruled him had I been able to, would have been to include here the version of Arnaut Daniel's "Trucs Malecs" that he mentions in his notes on that poet, but I have not succeeded in finding it (if it still exists) among any of the materials I have consulted and worked with.

At the end of an interview on translation conducted and published by New York Quarterly and reprinted in The Journals (1975), Blackburn concluded:

I do enjoy translating, getting into other people's heads.
Thass right...
   This is one motivation for translation. Are there others?
There must be...

It is one of the most trenchant commentaries in English on the art of creative translation and deserves the attention of anyone interested in the subject. There are a few essential points: the translator must "let another man's life enter his own deeply enough to become some permanent part of his original author"—the getting into another person's head (and vice-versa); he should love, at least admire, what he reads in the original, recognizing their affinities; he must be guided by a realistic desire "to make an equivalent value," to settle usually for a single meaning ("Overtones are constantly being lost. Let him approach polysemia crosseyed, coin in hand.") He must understand that translation does not primarily involve the preservation of form; he must have a good sense of the audience he addresses and understand that he is doing complicated work; and finally, he must be, in Blackburn's initial definition of a translator, "A man who brings it all back home. / In short, a madman." If this last statement seems to reduce his viewpoint to epigrammatic subjectivity, it does not conflict with the clarity of Blackburn's response to one of the central questions:

What is the difference between free and strict, literal translation? between free translation and outright adaptation?

Very often readability. Strict translation usually makes for stiff English, or forced and un-english rhythms. Outright adaptation is perfectly valid if it makes a good, modern poem. Occasionally, an adaptation will translate the spirit of the original to better use than any other method: at other times, it will falsify the original beyond measure. Much depends upon the translator (also upon the reader).

This late interview constitutes a poet's theory of translation that must have evolved through the decades of work on these and poems from other languages as well. But it is primarily the articulation of what were the definitive practical qualities of the experience and process that yielded the achievements of this collection, most finely realized, in my opinion, in the translations from the works of Guillem IX, Marcabru, Peire Vidal, Bertran de Born, the Monk of Montaudon, and Peire Cardenal. That he got into their heads and let them into his own is one way of saying he did not just translate them but that he gave himself, poet and man, to them. "Much depends upon the translator." Such service does not go unrewarded, and the permanent part of the returns will no doubt be enunciated in future studies of Blackburn's own poetry.

To illustrate the theory in practice, I offer a poem by Guillem IX, "Ab la dolchor del temps novel," in the original with an interlinear literal translation. A comparative reading with Blackburn's translation on pages 21-22, should give us some sense of the process that resulted in the modern English poem. Such a comparative reading should also dispel any notions that original texts (which are quite accessible these days) are aesthetically or educationally essential to this volume; for parallel appreciation of both versions can be done with confidence and edification only by those who already enjoy some proficiency in Old Provençal.

Ab la dolchor del temps novel
In the sweetness of the season new
Foillo li bosc, e li aucel
Leaf out the woods and the birds
Chanton chascus en lor lati
Sing each in its Latin / gibberish
Segon lo vers del novel chan;
According to the verses of a new song
Adonc esta ben c'om s'aisi
Then it is good that a man ease himself
D'acho don horn a plus talan.
With that gift to a man is most to his liking

De lai don plus m'es bon e bel
From there whence most to me is good and beautiful
Non vei mesager ni sagel,
Not I see messenger nor seal(ed) (letter)
Per que mos cors non dorm ni ri,
Wherefore my heart neither sleeps nor smiles / laughs
Ni mo m'aus traire adenan,
Nor I dare to proceed forward
Tro qe sacha ben de la fi
Until I know for sure about the end/peace
S'el'es aissi corn eu deman.
Whether it is such as I ask for

La nostr' amor vai enaissi
Our love goes thus
Com la branca de l'albespi
Like the branch of the hawthorn
Qu'esta sobre l'arbre tremblan,
That is on/above the tree trembling
La nuoit, a la ploja ez al gel,
The night in the rain and the frost
Tro l'endeman, que-l sols s'espan
Til the next day when the sun spreads itself
Per las fueillas verz e-l ramel.
Through the leaves green and the branches

Enquer me membra d'un mati
Still me reminds of one morning
Que nos fezem de guerra fi,
When we made of war end
E que'm donet un don tan gran,
And when me she gave a gift so great
Sa drudari' e son anel:
Her love and her ring
Enquer me lais Dieus viure tan
Yet me let God to live long enough
C'aja mas manz soz so mantell
That I have my hands under her cloak

Qu'eu non ai soing d'estraing lati
I not (have) care for the strange gibberish / Latin
Que-m parta de mon Bon Vezi,
That me would part from my Good Neighbor
Qu'eu sai de paraulas com van
For I know about words how they go
Ab un breu sermon que s'espel,
A brief talk that spreads itself abroad
Que tal se van d'amor gaban,
Such as go around of love boasting/ mocking
Nos n'avem la pessa e-l coutel.
We have the piece (of bread) and the knife

Les Chansons de Guillaume IX, ed. Alfred Jeanroy, Les classiques
français du moyen age (9), Paris, 1967, pp. 24-26.

We might note at the outset that Blackburn does not attempt to preserve the formal elements of the poem, just as he had said in the interview on translation. He never tries to "xerox" such features as line length or rhyme scheme. Yet each strophe is rendered fully, its meaning intact, as he breaks the lines according to his own voice. The addition of a word like "softest" in I.5, or the paraphrasing of II.1 as "But from where my joy springs," are characteristic of his technique, which is always faithful to what is happening and being suggested in the original. Responding to the importance to the poem of the memory that is evoked in IV, he begins the strophe with "Remembering" and emphasizes it with repetitions in the fifth and last lines. The addition of "as sign" as the entire preceding line, besides having an important rhythmic function, explains the significance of the Lady's gesture of giving her ring. In the literature of courtly love such a gift betokened her willingness to grant her love—in word and eventually in deed. Thus, the translator makes literal in his version what was metaphorical in the original in order to insure its meaning and to prepare for the poem's moment of greatest intensity and sensuality: "I pray to God I live to put my hands/ under her cloak, remembering that."

The rhyme scheme of the original employs three rhymes which are distributed in two different orders but in a single pattern throughout: AABCBC (first two strophes) BBCACA (last three strophes). The shift in order in III attends the poem's turning from the description of spring (a standard opening), its effect on the lovers and his feeling of insecurity, to a description of the nature of their love in the past and his confident hopes for the future. The shift constitutes a variation on what was probably the most common and one of the least difficult of troubadour rhyme schemes (which could be quite intricate), coblas unisonans, the same rhyme scheme with the same end rhymes throughout. It could be argued that this variation suggests—along with other evidence—that Guillem, the earliest troubadour with extant work, was working within a tradition that was already well-developed. Whatever its literary, rhetorical, semantic, or musical implications, the rhyme scheme of the original poem cannot transcend the historical contingencies of its performance(s) in Old Provençal. Blackburn knew not only this but also the audience for whom he was remaking the poem. He gives up what can never be reclaimed anyway; but then he preserves meaning through an equivalence that is shaped by his sense of himself as a poet and by his understanding of the needs of his readers and listeners.

In the final strophe of "Ab la dolchor," see how he uses apposition and description to emphasize the role of the bitter talkers, the divisive gossips of the courtly lyric; yet he incorporates a literal translation of the essential "d'amor gaban." These are the mockeing, two-faced enemies of love and lovers whom Chaucer calls "losengeours." Blackburn neutralizes them with the phrase "No ma+,:r evoking the Chaucerian "No fors," which asserts the supremacy of all fine lovers over their jealous detractors. This negation of the enemy is brilliantly counterbalanced by the positive note in his rendering of "Nos n'avem," the emphatic double pronoun in the last line:

"We are the ones, we have
some bread, a knife."

It should be evident by now that the art of translation as practiced by a poet like Blackburn is also an act of interpretation. "Much depends upon the translator." That is why his scholarly credentials are important, too, for each of his versions is the result of a complex blending of creativity and scientia. It is in this context that his work must be accepted and evaluated. In this context we can accept his occasionally resorting to an anachronism (see his note on Peire d'Alvernhe, page 284, and mine on Marcabru, page 279); we can applaud his tendency to concretize and illustrate what his Provençal original presented generally and as common knowledge. This kind of interpolation is well exemplified by the opening of Peire Vidal's "Ab l'alen tir vas me l'aire" (page 108). (The poem celebrates the origins and self-consciousness of the poet, praises Provence as a country and as the home of his lady, who in turn is praised as the source of everything excellent he has and is.) Blackburn introduces into the poem's first strophe those "dockside taverns" where the poem's narrator hears "travelers' gossip told" in order to satisfy the greater craving of the contemporary reader than of his medieval counterpart for an immediate and concrete setting and starting point. But most of all, the first line of this poem reveals the poet who is always at work in these versions. The first two lines of Vidal's poem, "Ab l'alen tir vas me l'aire / qu'eu sen venir de Proensa (With my breath I draw towards me the air / that I feel coming from Provence)," are combined into one:

I suck deep in air come from Provence to here.

As we read the line we become conscious of our own breathing; the sequence of the words and the cadence of their syllables makes us draw in the air of our own present reading of—and thus physically implicates us in—the praise of both poets for the homeland of trobar.