<Previous      Next>
A conversation with translator Claudia Keelan

Who were the trobairitz and what inspired you to translate these poems?

The trobairitz were twenty or so young women who lived and wrote from the mid-twelfth to mid-thirteenth centuries. They wrote in the tradition of fin amor, a form of chivalric poetry invented by the troubadours, their male counterparts, which idealized the lady. The trobairitz were the ladies to whom they wrote, and they were the wives of the feudal lords. Now, the troubadours were very clever. They were vassals, almost a slave but not quite, of the feudal lord, court poets, who needed patronage to survive in pretty lean times. So they derived the notion of “fine” or pure love in poems, which honored the lady for her purity, while at the same time debating with her about her chastity, beauty, attitude, etc. Scholars believe that the poems were sung in court, which was full of gossips or lauzengiers also dependent on the feudal lord, who were eager to sniff out any scandal between the troubadour and the lady. The trobairitz co-opted the tradition of fin amor, and their poems became the first sustained instance of women’s writing, where the subject speaks back, so to speak, to the self-serving fiction of “the lady.” They were teenagers, after all, and they were married to men who they mostly didn’t love, being courted by other men who asked them for favor, only to impress their husbands. The trobairitz called the troubadour’s bluff. They lived in what was then Occitania, now the south of France, in the region where the Cathars, sometimes called Alibigensians, were massacred at Pope Innocent III command for practicing a Christianity considered heretical. This period in Occitania has been described as a very liberal period; the Cathars believed that women and men were equal. Though the lords often were called to leave and fight in the crusades, this region which borders what is now France and Spain, was a place influenced by the love poetry of Andalusia, early Arabic work that predates Muslim influence; at the same time, the mysticism of the Jewish Kabbalah was also in currency. So, it was a relatively open period between inquisitions, and you can hear the active voice political and social inquiry in the poems of the trobairitz. They speak candidly; they are angry or sad; they opposed their roles. They are my sisters.

Previous translations of trobairitz poems seem far more stately and reserved. What led you to this slangy, saucy translation style?

All of the “translations” I’ve read of their poems are essentially transliterations—literal word for word renderings of the Provenšal, which use the prevailing language of the courtly tradition. One of the definitions of translate is to “transfer from one place or condition to another.” I’ve said they were teenagers, and women, and as such, they speak from a position of powerlessness. What they have is their truth, and they speak their truth to power. I hear the trobairitz as the rappers of their time.

While some of the trobairitz are reserved, mostly they are not. They are candid, and what you’d call “in your face.” The troubadour tradition comes from the word trobar, which essentially means to find. The troubadours “found” their forms experimentally, i.e. they set a pattern after the first stanza, so each poem was original.

Could you walk us through a particularly tricky passage to translate, and your solution?

I’ll tell you something that’s true. It took me 20 years to start this translation, I was so daunted by the distance between the 12th century and my own, until the day I realized the distance wasn’t that great. Their issues – heartbreak, gender dynamics and power, loveless marriages, trying to live an authentic life – are our issues. Once I really listened to the voices of the people in the poems, I heard them, and while they were different from each other, they shared the idioms of their age.  My job as I saw it, was to translate their idioms into our idioms.

Most of the corpus of the trobairitz are tenso poems, poems which debate the politics of love, clothing, social milieu, etc. In the debate between “Alais, Iselda and Carenza,” Iselda and Alais are asking Alais’s advice about motherhood, i.e. why should women have babies? They have to flatter her in terms she’ll accept, which are social and economic, so that she’ll give them the benefit of her experience, which is a highly valued commodity in court poetry. Though nothing is known historically about Carenza, her figure exemplifies a typical matron in troubadour and trobairitz poetry. She is aristocratic and beautiful, ie. she has kept her body beautifully in spite of the obligation of motherhood, which means she knows something about the dynamics of exchange in the feudal system, which were often brutal. The pure lady of the poems was also one who was owned by her husband, and who in the crowded world of feudal reality, could be subject to rape by any of the itinerant vassals and subsequently divorced without question. Negotiating the misogynist terrain took savvy and skill, in personal and economic terms. Carenza’s “bel cors avienen” (lovely, gracious, body) was a currency. Where does our currency go, like it or not? It goes to the stock market, where we win or lose based on a system of exchange outside our control. Alais and Iselda want to know if they should marry someone they all know (marit a nostra conoissenza?) or stay single, which seems preferable to them since having babies seems scary, and “wife” or marriage (maritz) worse. While we don’t often think of a feudal courts as neighborhoods, they were, and as gossipy as a lot of urban street corners.  All I had to do was translate their concerns into a language recognizable by popular culture today, since marrying or not, who and why, is still the stuff that sells mainstream magazines.

This translation has an extensive critical apparatus, still in process, which explains choices, gives history, etc. My job as a poet translator was to transfer the poetry to English. The names and histories – what little are known – of the trobairitz are referenced. In the translations themselves, I often initialize the names of the characters in the poems, as well as the place names of the regions they lived. First of all, there are too many syllables in Alamanda, or Carenza, etc.  Secondly, the things they are fighting about are not bound by their times. Giraut, or G, in the poem, wants the benefits his girlfriend through her status can give him, but he doesn’t love her. Alamanda, or A is an intermediary, friend to both G and the nameless girlfriend. G wants A to help him get back into nameless’ good graces, even while he chats her up. The tenso employs the dynamic of the schoolyard, the eternal adolescence of western civilization:


Na Carenza al bel cors avinen,           
donatz conseil a nnos doas serors,
e car sabetz meils triar lo meilors,
conseillatz mi segon vostr’ escien:
penrai marit a nostra conoissenza?
o starai mi pulcea? e si m’agensa,
que far filhos no cug que sia bos;
essems maritz mi par trop angoissos.



Lady C., your body stocks Wall Street,
so sally up for two sisters and please
bank it straight from your know how,
since you have more clout than the rest;
should I hitch with that boy in the hood
or stay solo? That sounds ok to me
’cuz making babies doesn’t seem so good
and “wife” sounds misery.