In 2007, I translated the 15th-century romance “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear,” a 972-line Middle Scots poem about the kerfuffle that ensues when Charlemagne, separated from his entourage by a snowstorm at Christmastime, seeks refuge in the home of a proud and irascible collier (a sort of medieval Tommy Saxondale). Combining folklore motifs with burlesque humor and elements of chansons and chivalric romances, “Rauf Coilyear” is a lively but rarely-read tale of courtesy, hospitality, and knighthood. To my knowledge, it’s also the only medieval romance in which Charlemagne totally gets slapped in the face.
The translation was an experiment: I wanted to see if I could imitate all 75 of the original poem’s tricky rhyming, alliterative, 13-line stanzas in a translation that was both readable and entertaining. (Check out “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear” in its original Middle Scots to see what I was up against!) I made the translation available as a free, downloadable PDF in 2007, and then in 2008 I sold the occasional paperback directly through the blog.
This year, I decided it was time to put this book into wider circulation. The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier is now available through Amazon as a $10 paperback. There’s also a version specially formatted for the Kindle. (To get a taste of the translation, sample this low-res PDF of the first few pages.)
No one else has ever translated “Rauf Coilyear” into rhyming, alliterative, modern English verse, and I doubt anyone else will be nutty enough to try—so whether you’re a longtime reader of this blog, a student of medieval literature, a fan of old-fashioned poetic formalism, or a collector of truly obscure manifestations of Charlemagniana, I hope you’ll find this translation a satisfying read. Despite what Mamillius claimed, sometimes a sad tale isn’t best for winter after all.
3 thoughts on ““…and every one of them words rang true, and glowed like burning coal…””
Outstanding. I’ll add it to my list.
I looked at the .pdf and was delighted. Why isn’t some national magazine employing Jeff Sypeck to publish witty verse and poem translations? This is what I think economists call a market failure.
Thanks, Alpheus! I wonder, though: How many general-interest magazines publish poems anymore?
(For what it’s worth, I had a rather lackluster magazine-and-newspaper freelance phase from around 1999 to 2002. What I found was that if editors didn’t reject my story ideas as too obscure, they edited out much of what I considered the fun stuff, and the pay was bad. Even plausible venues turned out to be iffy: When Cullen Murphy was editor of The Atlantic, junior editors used to send me notes that read, in essence, “Nice idea, but Mr. Murphy writes medieval stuff for us already.” By contrast, blogging is far less stressful.)