Dr. Jenni Nuttall is a fellow of St. Edmund Hall at the University of Oxford. She has recently translated the late medieval poem The Kingis Quair, and published it herself. She was kind enough to discuss the poem with me, as well as how she published it and the joys of medieval Twitter. Jenni blogs on medieval poetry at Stylisticienne and tweets as @Stylisticienne. Her translation of The Kingis Quair can be bought here.
What is The Kingis Quair?
The Kingis Quair is an early fifteenth-century dream vision written (almost certainly) by James I of Scotland whilst he was held prisoner in England. The poem describes the moment he fell in love at first sight with a noblewoman seen from his prison window, and what he learned in a vision about love and fortune from the goddess Minerva and from Fortune and her wheel. James had read a lot of Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate during his imprisonment, and so the poem has lots of familiar dream vision motifs, but it also has its own charm.
What prompted you to translate it? How does this project connect to your previous works?
It connects more with my current project, a study of Middle English poetics and its technical terms. The Kingis Quair describes its own form (rhyme royal stanzas) in several places and so I was interested in using translation as a way to understand the poem for my research. I also think it is a really brilliant and quirky poem which deserves to be more widely known. I also enjoy translating Middle English as a kind of hobby for spare moments: the medievalist’s equivalent of doing sudoku or playing Candy Crush.
Why did you decide to go for a prose translation? Is this connected to the intended uses for the book?
I am no poet, so decided to stick with prose. I like the freedom prose gives to try to be really accurate in reproducing the poem’s content idiomatically. I have more fun trying to find exactly the right contemporary word or phrase to correspond to the original Middle Scots (and puzzling over editions trying to decide, using my experience as a teacher of Middle English literature, between different editorial interpretations of a word or line) than wrangling with formal constraints.
Who do you hope might read the book?
I hope it might be useful for undergraduates and graduates who are studying dream visions, but who find the Middle Scots offputtingly difficult. There is an online open-access scholarly edition of the original poem on the TEAMS website, with great glosses, but it is still quite hard linguistically in places. I also hope that a wider audience (perhaps especially those interested in Scottish writing) might find it of interest, and might be able to use a stanza-by-stanza prose translation as a crib to read the Middle Scots.
Why did you decide to publish it yourself?
It’s a relatively short poem (46 pages as an e-book), so too short for a stand-alone print volume. I couldn’t easily think of a home for a short scholarly translation. I did wonder about a chapbook or pamphlet with a small press, but have enjoyed the process of learning about e-book formatting and production. E-book self-publishing seemed a fast, direct way to get the translation out there, allowing me to be in control of the standards of production. One could argue that a translation like this should be open access, but (as I’m employed on a part-time teaching contract, though I do get excellent research support from my college, St Edmund Hall) I feel as if this is work done on ‘my’ time. Self-publishing is therefore a good way to sell a hobby production direct, a bit like Etsy for academics?
You mention the online medieval literature community in the dedication, could you explain a bit about that?
I blog and tweet about my academic research, and have become part of a really friendly community of academics, poets, readers and writers on Twitter. Asking for help with the Kingis Quair project on Twitter produced a volunteer professional copyeditor, an academic reviewer and a student test-reader for the translation in about 10 minutes. The engagement I’ve had on Twitter has shown me that medieval poetry interests people outside of the academy, for all sorts of different reasons. I can tweet small snippets of 600-year-old poetry, and they are retweeted and liked and commented on just for their language and form – that makes me really confident that the translation will find readers.
Are you planning any other translations or other books of this kind?
Yes, though I really must finish my book on poetics first! I’m translating two short poems which will live on my blog, ‘Somer Soneday’ (already on the blog) and ‘Three Dead Kings’ (in progress). Again, these are poems which are really quite hard to read in Middle English even with heavy glossing, but whose content is, I hope, of interest: the former describing Fortune’s Wheel and the latter an encounter between the Three Living and the Three Dead. I’d like to translate another longer Scots poem, ‘The Buke of the Howlat’, next summer. I have a vague idea of collecting together enough translations for a print anthology eventually.