‘En translacion de langage francoiz’. French targets in the Burgundian translation zone

Dirk Schoenaers
Leiden University

The Burgundian Low Countries are a textbook example of a translation zone – or are they? In this conglomerate of highly urbanized borderlands, opportunities for ‘intense interaction across languages’ were manifold and diverse. Multilingualism was part and parcel of mutually interconnected networks in administration, commerce, religion and culture. But translation zones are also defined by ‘a relentless to-and-fro of language’. Nonetheless, the two-way nature of Franco-Dutch language exchange in the Burgundian Low Countries was long eclipsed by a unilateral focus on the supposedly detrimental effects of francophone Burgundian court culture and supraregional administration on the language of Dutch literature and official writing. 

In recent scholarship, this skewed and at best incomplete evaluation of the admittedly asymmetrical balance between the vernaculars has been reconsidered and adjusted. Instances of code-switching in French and Dutch have regained interest, as have the Dutch versions of Burgundian court literature printed in Holland. On the other hand, contemporary translations from Dutch into French have largely escaped scholarly attention. Since all communication with supraregional government was in French (or Latin), the incorporation of principally Dutch-speaking regions into the Burgundian conglomerate came with a spike in translation activity. For instance, on 4 September 1462, Charles of Charolois issued new directives to the Court of Holland, which ordained that all procedural documents written in Dutch should immediately be translated into French or Latin. 

Notwithstanding that beyond administrative and jurisdictional spheres instances of translation from Dutch into French are few and far between, the surviving texts present an interesting corpus. Apart from Harau Martin, a French rendering of Jacob van Maerlant’s verse dialogues, printed at Bruges by Jean Brito circa 1477, a modest group of historiographical texts translated into French invites further scrutiny. A first exploration of the people involved in the coming about of these translations, their motivation and what purposes these out-of-the-ordinary French texts should ultimately serve, yields a riveting tale replete with all-consuming personal ambition, long-drawn-out bitter conflict, and quite possibly even some cultural ricochet.