Making Your Memory Mine: Marie de France and the Adventures of the Bretons


  • Jeffrey S. Longard University of Alberta



Translation, Marie de France, Lais, Hermeneutic Motion


The twelfth-century Anglo-Norman poet Marie de France undertook to preserve for posterity the adventures and romances embodied in a vanishing genre, the old Breton lais as she had heard them recounted by minstrels. That she succeeded is evidenced by the popularity of these lais for more than eight hundred years; that she perhaps succeeded too well is suggested by the fact that, within a century of her lifetime, the Breton lais had become exclusively a French form of literature, and whatever might have been the original form, linguistic structure and cultural content in Breton has been relegated to the realm of hypothesis. This raises questions about the relationship between translation and cultural autonomy. Marie’s purported memorial to the Bretons became instead an institution of French language and culture. Had the Breton features been totally effaced, this could be called assimilation; had they been preserved intact, it would have been literal translation. In fact, Marie’s work can be reduced to no such simple binary. Nor can her aims be analyzed through any single lens, whether political, religious, cultural or artistic. Rather, I argue that her unsettling and robust positioning of contradictory elements—sorcery, sensuality, feudality, religion—results from her strategy of adopting the memory of the Bretons: neither glossing over its strangeness nor highlighting it as foreign, but making its distant and exotic characteristics part of her own invented heritage. I conclude that her translation project is more effectively analyzed as an ethical process of incorporation and restitution (Steiner) than as a placement along the spectrum of foreignization versus domestication (Venuti).


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Author Biography

Jeffrey S. Longard, University of Alberta

Jeffrey S. Longard is a doctoral candidate in Translation Studies at the University of Alberta. His fascination with the French language seems innate, while his acquaintance with Marie de France is the result of pure serendipity: a copy of the Lais in Old French with an accompanying modern French translation, discovered early in his student days at a used book store. He enjoys teaching language, literature and translation and delights in digging back to historical explanations for some of the enduring oddities of his adopted language.