Medieval to modern

Professor Gallagher

The tale of the ill-fated lovers Tristan and Iseut may be timeless, but until recently, the only English translation of Joseph Bédier’s version of the legend was 70 years old and not wearing particularly well.

Professor of French Edward Gallagher solved the problem. He recently completed a translation of the Romance of Tristan and Iseut, published this spring by Hackett Publishing.

While revising archaic phrases, such as “Parley you and take counsel,” Gallagher also added a host of explanatory materials to make the work more accessible for modern readers. The additions include essays on the legend written by Bédier himself and a scene found among the author’s papers that he had composed for the novel but never published.

He recently talked about his work on the translation of Bédier’s novel, which offers the modern reader a coherent story reconstituted from fragments of Old French tales.

On the syllabus. For a number of years, I’ve used the French text of Bédier’s Roman de Tristan et Iseut in my French 236 course, “Introduction to Early French Literature.” In 2011, I taught a First-Year Seminar on “Tales from France” and ordered [an English] translation. I thought I could improve upon that translator’s Edwardian prose. I’ll now be able to use my own translation in this seminar.

Extra credit. In the appendix to my translation, I was able to include English translations of the original preface to the Romance by Bédier’s mentor, Gaston Paris; two articles by Bédier on the medieval Tristan legend; and an unpublished episode that Bédier wrote for his Romance but never published.

Style and substance. Bédier’s French is very graceful; his sentences are often short, or, when longer, they flow with a harmonious, classical periodicity. Translating his short novel was a pleasure. Inevitably, there were expressions—feudal, geographic, or religious—that a modern reader might not know. I glossed these in an index of proper names and specialized terms. (For example, Logres for England and Frisia for a region along the North Sea).

Source material. Writing an introduction to the Romance proved challenging for several reasons: the fragmentary nature of the surviving Old French manuscripts; the existence of both “epic” and “lyric” versions of the tale; and the question of the very origin of the story—did it originate in Persia, in the Celtic lands, or was it essentially French? So the “back story” of the medieval legend is a rather complicated one.

Enduring story. It’s the nature, the subject matter, of the tale itself that makes the story of Tristan and Iseut such an enduring one. Of course, Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde introduced modern audiences to this ancient tale. The resounding success of his opera established the lovers’ fatal passion as a given in the modern, popular imagination. Bédier’s award-winning novel, too, offers modern readers a chance to savor this beautiful tale of love and death.