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Floriant et Florete: Treason in Translation
The most important factor in Floriant's obscurity is its complete lack of originality. As an imitative rather than an original work, Floriant holds little appeal for either the academic or the amateur. Yet it is precisely Floriant's derivative nature that shines a new light on the practices of rewriting and reinterpretation when they are taken to their logical extremes. In fact, Floriant can be read as a subtle allegory on medieval practices of translation and adaptation. In this blog post, I will consider the ways in which Floriant dramatizes the popular notions of translation as transportation, treachery, and immortality. I will conclude with a reading of Floriant as a satire on dull and unimaginative translations.
Translation as Transportation
The composer of Floriant would have understood "translation" very differently from the way we do today. During the Middle Ages, the Latin word translatio meant, literally, to transport an object from one place to another. Different types of translatii were classified according to the object that was being moved. Analogous to our understanding of translation today is the concept of translatio studii (literally, the transfer of knowledge or learning), the notion that every medieval romance "constitutes a link in a chain of texts — a textuality — that absorbs and rearticulates its predecessors together with articulating a reading or an interpretation of them" (Freeman 149, cited in Greco). True auctoritas, a word that combines "authority" and "authorship," came only from the Bible, but it was "translated" — transported and re-articulated — through a network of historical sources into the fictional romances, which could also re-articulate and re-interpret other romances. The composer of Floriant was certainly participating in the practice of translatio studii when he stitched together the borrowed themes, episodes, and passages of his romance. In other words, what today we would consider plagiarism — the theft of ideas and words — was viewed in the thirteenth century as the standard practice of translatio studii/"translation"/cultural transportation.
Floriant's prologue deals explicitly with the questions of textual authority and authorship with which medieval translators/adaptors were concerned. After quoting the aphorism, "A fool is wise as long as he stays silent" (1-2), the prologue's speaker suggests that romancers who do not possess a good grasp of literary techniques should refrain from composing because, like the fool who talks, the romancer who attempts a narrative makes his folly and ineptitude known to the world. Shifting gears slightly, the prologue's speaker turns to an apostrophical denunciation of Slander (Médisance, or Mesdires), which strongly implies that the speaker himself has been a victim of unflattering, slanderous criticism. Who is the fool? The speaker, whose romances may have been considered inept, or the slanderers who speak against him? By creating a composite rather than an original work, by "translating" recognized authorities rather than relying on his own invention, the speaker is attempting to protect himself against the possibility of slander from his critical contemporaries.
The portrayal of Floriant's enchanted ship can be read as a metaphor for translatio as intellectual transportation. Four scenes are painted on the sides of the ship. The first contains the firmament, including the stars, the four elements (water, fire, air, and earth), the moon, the sun, and the "seven planets / of which the wise clercs know / from their work in astronomy" (848- 857). The second depicts the formation of Paradise, Adam and Eve's fall, the birth of Cain, and the murder of Abel (858-868). The third portrays the history of Troy from the founding of the city through the Trojan war until Aneas's arrival in Lombardy (870-894), and the fourth holds the God of Love and his fellowship, including the legendary Tristan and Iseult (895-920). The description of Floriant's ship is an example of translatio at its most vertiginous, for what is this description if not the "translation"/rearticulation of the entire history of the universe into the romance of Floriant?
The ship is the focus for several layers of translatio. First, the Arthurian legends that form the subject matter of Floriant were considered by medieval audiences to be a "translation" of the legends of Troy — just as Britain was considered (by the British at least) to be a rearticulation of Trojan magnificence. Second, the Arthurian legends of chronicles and of oral tradition had been "translated" into the literary tradition of romance. Third, the composer of Floriant is "translating" a previous generation of Arthurian romances into his own composite work. Fourth, that composite Arthurian work contains a "translation" of the history of the universe in the portrayal of the ship; and fifth, that portrayal is being "translated"/transported through the Arthurian universe of this particular romance. The description of the ship, then, sets up a multi-layered dramatization of the writer's own practice of "translation."
Translation as Treachery
Another way in which translatio involves itself in Floriant is through the theme of loyalty. Every character in Floriant is situated in regard to the ideal of loyalty; and disloyalty, as in the case of Floriant's father's treacherous seneschal, is severely punished (see Combes and Trachsler lx-lxii). The loyalty of the characters within the text ought to be considered together with the writer's own "loyalty" to his source material, particularly in light of the fact the narrator describes disloyalty and treachery in terms of translatio:
Alas! how base and terrible treason is! But I have often heard it said that baseborn men have never been able to act well. King Darius was murdered, Julius Caesar slain, Alexander poisoned, King Pepin poisoned and his son Charles exiled, and Elyadus dismembered [...] I know well enough that their nature makes them traitors by inheritance: Cain, who killed one of his brothers, was their ancient ancestor; and their felony, falsehood, and treachery continues today. (221-238; translation mine)
Maragot's treachery does not originate with him; rather, Maragot is one of many "translations"/reincarnations of the original traitor, Cain. In fact, each and every traitor is nothing but a "translator"/inheritor of the first Biblical treachery, and each and every act of treason is nothing but a "translation"/rearticulation of the first Biblical betrayal.
The speaker's description of this genealogy of traitors bears a strong resemblance the old Italian adage traduttore traditore, or "translator, traitor": All translators are traitors because it is impossible to create a completely accurate — a completely faithful — translation. In Floriant, the adage is reversed: All traitors are translators because their treachery is always an inheritance and a rearticulation, never an original act. The adage "translator, traitor" denounces the creative translator who "betrays" an original work, whereas Floriant condemns the traitor who is incapable of improving on the flaws of his ancestors. The romance's condemnation of the traitor as a "translator" seems to undercut its own participation in the practice of translatio. If the writer improves on his source material, he is "unfaithful" to his original and therefore a traitor; but if he merely rearticulates the material without reinterpreting it, then he resembles the traitors who commit the same treasonous deeds as their ancestors. For the translator, the dilemma is not whether to commit a betrayal, but how and whom to betray. By constructing his work as a pastiche of pre-existing romances, did the composer of Floriant hope to evade this dilemma or exemplify it? Does the universe portrayed within Floriant provide any hope of an alternative solution?
The Allegory of the Anti-Climax
We can begin to answer the questions of the translator's dilemma by examining the ways in which the characters themselves engage in practices of translatio. Aside from literally exemplifying translatio as transportation, Floriant's travels also include certain motifs that resonate with the image of translatio as "translation." The repetitions of Floriant's voyages between Sicily and Britain dramatize the repetitive nature of translation and adaptation, which always re-articulate, re-interpret, and re-imagine previously-written works. Floriant and Florete's ultimate "translation"/transportation to Mongibel invokes the theme of immortality, which brings us to the notion that translation and adaptation prolong the "life" of a text.
Floriant and Florete are not the only entities granted immortality in translation: the narrative of the romance itself lasts far, far longer than it should (much like this blog post}. Medieval readers familiar with the romances of Chrétien de Troyes would probably have been satisfied if the romance of Floriant had ended with Floriant's wedding and coronation. There is one passage embedded in the celebration scene that might well have functioned as an epilogue, had the writer been so inclined:
There were also storytellers, and the flower of chivalry was there, for they willingly listened to those who told the stories of the ancient deeds of noblemen of long ago (who behaved themselves just as they should), of the great battles they fought, and how they conquered their lands. The storytellers told all this, and the knights willingly listened to them, taking the lovely stories as models and thereby growing more wise. For he who willingly listens to romances and takes lovely stories as his models, it would be extraordinary if he did not improve, at least as long as he understands them: Words that go misunderstood are as worthless as words that go unheard. (6231-6248; translation mine)
This passage forms a counterpoint to the complaints expressed in the prologue against unskilled romancers and slanderers. Unlike the romancers of the narrator's present day, the Arthurian storytellers performed their task well; and unlike the slanderous audiences before whom the narrator is wont to perform, the Arthurian knights eagerly listen to the stories and appreciate them morally and aesthetically. Medieval readers, who were accustomed to "matching" epilogues and prologues, might have reasonably expected the romance to end with these lines. But instead, the romance continues. Where the character Floriant's immortality begins, the romance Floriant's immortality ends — whereat we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
I want to hypothesize that the composer of Floriant intended his romance to exemplify the translator's dilemma rather than to evade it. By "translating"/prolonging his narrative into a miniature version of itself, only to conclude abruptly at Mongibel, the narrator betrays his readers by offering them short-term satisfaction and long-term discontent. In the short term, he satisfies the eternal question of "What happened next?" But in the long term, the composer leaves his audience dissatisfied with the following "ending":
They brought her [Florete] to Floriant's side at Mongibel. And you should know that from then on, no man has heard tell of them. And here I want to end my story. Explicit Floriant and Florete. (8274-8279; translation mine)
The narrator draws a veil over the ensuing scene, leaving his audience just a moment away from Floriant and Florete's happy consummation. Shouldn't Floriant and Florete at least wake up before the story ends? It in this way, by extending the narrative to the point of monotony, that Floriant exemplfies the translator's dilemma of whom to betray. That is to say, the composer chooses to betray his audience into boredom and anti-climax rather than to betray his original material by abridging it.
Given Floriant's thematic context, certain aspects of the manuscript's material history seem surprisingly significant. One owner assigned the text the title of "The Romance of Elyadus" (Roman d'Elyadus). Combes and Trachsler speculate that this owner had probably not read the entire narrative, since the first section tends to give the impression that the hero of the story will be King Elyadus (xix-xx). We can read this lack of foreshadowing as another betrayal of the audience. Another owner scratched out part of the manuscript's only illumination, perhaps out of prudishness, since the image in the historiated initial shows a couple embracing in a bower (Combes and Trachsler (xviii). This betrayal of future readers, coincidental though it may be, highlights the ambiguity of the image: which couple does it depict? Are the man and the woman Elyadus and his wife, Floriant and Florete, Gawain and Blanchandine, or perhaps Arthur and Guinevere? Like the text, the manuscript is dissatisfying.
It is worth emphasizing that the effect of the allegory depends entirely on what literary theorists call "reader-response," which in this case refers to the audience's feeling of disappointment after a long and boring tale. Floriant is badly-written because its composer intended it as a spoof of "translations"/adaptations that remain faithful to their original material while betraying their audiences. A good translation, according to this argument, not only re- articulates but also re-imagines.
The discontents of Floriant, including the length of the narrative and the brevity of the ending, do not make it the ideal story for the common reader. Nonetheless, they are the whole point of the text, which creates what we might call an aesthetic of discontent, an artistic study of treachery in translation. Further close readings of Floriant should prove illuminating (no pun intended) to scholars of translatio in medieval romance, in that Floriant's anonymous composer explores the questions of textual treason that continue to occupy translators today.
Busby, Keith. "The Intertextual Context of Floriant et Florete." French Forum 20.3 (Sept. 1995), 261-277.
Combes, Annie and Richard Trachsler, eds. Floriant et Florete. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2003.
De Ricci, 1686, and Supplement, 329. New York, New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, NYPL MA 122.
Greco, Gina L. "From the Last Supper to the Arthurian Feast: Translatio and the Round Table." Modern Philology 96.1 (Aug. 1998) 42-47.
Sturm-Maddox, Sara. "Arthurian Evasions: The End(s) of Fiction in Floriant et Florete." eds. Keith Busby and Catherine M. Jones. Por le soie amisté: Essays in Honor of Norris J. Lacy. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2000. 475-489. 1