Claudia Keelan

Omnidawn, 2015

In order to translate the Medieval Occitanian teenagers known as the trobairitz, the female counterparts of the troubadours, Claudia Keelan takes license from Pound and Derrida to find “all ages contemporaneous” and to “lick” as if a “flame or caress” their centuries-old dialect with 21st-century plain speech and slang. It’s a cliché that literal translation may be impossible, since each word comes with its cultural baggage, but all translators take license across a spectrum of choices. Meg Bogin took a dialogic poem between two trobairitz: “Almucs de Caselnau and Iseut de Capio” and interpreted the opening lines as:

Lady Almucs, with your permission
let me request that in place
of anger and bad grace
you show a kinder disposition

Keelan translates this same passage as:

Girlfriend, I’m begging, don’t be rude.
Drop this bad act and trade in your rage.
Forgive this low-down dude
And put on a good face.

Peppered throughout is more of the same irreverence—slang words like “suss,” “cray,” and “bling,” as well as other present-day vocabulary like “CEO,” “dude,” and “bankrupt,” are substituted in for their Occitanian equivalents. Keelan justifies her choices with the assertion that, like contemporary slang, the language of the trobairitz reflected “the rebellious music of the young” and makes use of “silly and sometimes annoying rhymes.” This appropriation is more irksome than offensive, but Keelan has moments where she takes a long enough break from transliterating into contemporary speech that she is able to land in the delightfully weird—as in one tenso, or debate song: “Your upper town-town skanks my stutter, / your stanky rank rank burns my butter.” Other “annoying rhymes” are genuinely funny in their gaudy juxtapositions between old and new: “he friends me with so many likes, / a horned bull couldn’t post more sweet words; / so now I’m chicken for his woolly bird.”

Truth of My Songs should be commended for showcasing women poets who found relief from the expectations of courtly love in their writing and song by offering an early example of sex-positive feminism in the face of the strictest patriarchies. But unexpectedly, the best lines come not from use of Urban Dictionary, but from moments when Keelan finds sweeter rhymes and real sadness in these girls’ words: “by voyeurs and gossips and lying spies; / my heart a thick thing now, without my boy.”