Category: Narrative/Verbal Art

The Lays of Marie de France

Translated by David R. Slavitt. 2013. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press. 122 pages. ISBN: 978-1-927356-35-7 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Karra Shimabukuro, Independent Scholar

[Review length: 528 words • Review posted on October 8, 2014]


David R. Slavitt is a well-known and respected poet, and in the introduction to his latest translation work, The Lays of Marie de France for Athabasca University Press, he states that he “saw in these lais an opportunity to show off” (xi). There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting to challenge yourself as a poet and translator to reproduce the original feel of the lais. But Slavitt’s statement in the introduction places this text clearly in the realm of artistic exercise, which to a certain extent limits its usefulness as a course text. For some students or scholars, a comparison of this translation to others could be helpful. This translation’s language is accessible, and colorful. In many of the lais, such as “Guigemar,” “Equitan,” “Lanval,” and “Yonec,” the sexual nature of the romances is emphasized, which might catch undergraduates’ attention. There are shades of Chaucer in some of the phrasings, which could provide some interesting class discussions on mimicry and authorship, both of which are relevant to a discussion of Marie’s work. The imagery is vivid, the descriptions are detailed, and the rhyme is catchy and easy to follow. While the emphasis on sexual innuendo and catchy rhyme-scheme were the two characteristics that stuck out to me, as a whole there is nothing unique or radically different in this translation. There are no places in which the translation challenges or deviates from other standard translations.

However, as much as I enjoyed reading this new poetic translation, I did not see what this edition gave me that other ones did not. The Penguin Classics edition of The Lais of Marie de France gives more detailed background on the lais themselves, as well as on the time period. The prose translation is accessible to students, particularly undergraduates, who might find the prose more conducive to understanding the lais. Hanning and Ferrante’s poetic translation provides footnotes on translations, as well as detailed notes after each lai making it a better text for upper-level undergraduate or graduate students. Also, the Penguin edition retails at $13, with the Hanning and Ferrante retailing at $13 for the Kindle edition, and $21 for the hardback. Slavitt’s edition is priced at $17, and given the lack of explanatory material and footnotes, this seems a bit high.

Whether or not this edition would be a good fit for use as course reading depends completely on what your particular course is. This edition would be useful to an introductory course on the Middle Ages where the professor has the knowledge to fill in the gaps this edition does not fill. The style of the writing is certainly accessible to undergraduates. If, on the other hand you’re interested in teaching this as a poetic text, or in a context other than medieval work, the writing style and accessibility of this text would also be useful. It might also be useful in a course that looked at different translations, and discussed the impact of translation. However, if you’re looking for an edition for an upper-level medieval studies course, or need an edition that provides detailed background and notes on the text, you’re better off with another edition.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.