Poor Rutebeuf (excerpt)


Your Majesty, hear my appeal:

I haven’t the means to buy bread:

Wealth is everywhere in Paris

But none of it belongs to me.

What I see and take is paltry;

I think most about Saint Paultry

Of all the other apostles.

I know Pater, but not noster.

Since living costs took all I owned,

Emptying so much of my home

My Credo requests were declined.

All that’s left is before your eyes.



The Drifters of Grève*


Drifters, you always are on point:

The trees, undressing, shed their leaves

And you bare yourself to the point

Where, down on your haunches, you’d freeze.

You’d do well to wear pourpoints

And fur-lined surcoats with long sleeves.

In summer, dancing is life’s point,

And in winter you drag your feet.

To shine your shoes is a waste of coin:

Your heels are what protect your feet.

The blackest flies have made their point

And now white ones sink in their teeth.  


*The place de Grève in 13th-century Paris is known today as the place de l’Hôtel de Ville.

La pauvreté Rutebuef (excerpt) 


Sire, je vos fais afavoir

Je n’ai de quoi do pain avoir:

A Paris fui entre touz biens,

Et n’i a nul qui i foit miens.

Pou i voi & fi i preig pou;

Il m’i fouvient plus de faint Pou

Qu’il ne fait de nul autre apôtre.

Bien fai Pater, ne fai qu’eft notre,

Que li chiers tenz m’a tot oftei,

Qu’il m’a fi vuidié mon hoftei

Que li Credo m’eft dévéeiz,

Et ie n’ai plus que vos véeiz.



Li diz des ribaux de greive 


Ribaut, or eftes vos à point:

Li aubre defpoillent lor branches

Et vos n'aveiz de robe point;

Si en aureiz froit à vos hanches,

Queil vos fuffent or li porpoint

Et li feurquot forrei à manches.

Vos aleiz en eftai fi joint,

Et en yver aleiz fi cranche,

Voftre foleir n'ont meftier d'oint,

Vos faites de vos talons planches.

Les noires mouches vos ont point,

Or vos repoinderont les blanches.

Translators' Note

Considered a trouvère (as opposed to a troubadour from southern France), Rutebeuf’s poems were not set to music, but they are considered lyric due to their rhythm and rhyme. While translating, we made a conscious choice to honor the end-rhyme patterns in these poems, though we also made liberal use of slant rhyme and playful internal rhymes that contribute to the comic effects of the texts. For the most part, we were able to stick closely to Rutebeuf’s octosyllabic line, characteristic of that time period. 

In order to honor the musicality of the original texts, we applied the strategy of “sound mapping,” analyzing and making note of all the salient rhyme and alliteration patterns in the Old French. We also were on the lookout for any salient wordplay, especially when it seemed to be the heart of the poem. For example, in the excerpt from “Poor Rutebeuf,” we felt driven to replicate the French wordplay on lines five and six, by pairing “paltry” and “Saint Paultry” (a playful way to bring Saint Paul into the poem) and using slant-rhymed couplets throughout. In “The Drifters of Grève,” the salient sound pattern was a riff on the French word point and its multiple meanings, which we brought into the English, as follows:  “on point,” “to the point,” “pourpoints,” “life’s point,” and “made their point.”

As you will notice in this note’s use of “we,” translating these poems by Rutebeuf was a collaborative effort. The two of us were no strangers to the collaborative process, having just completed our first co-translation, a book by Cuban author Wendy Guerra. The exigencies of translating Old French—so distinct from the modern tongue as to be considered a language of its own—required our combined knowledge of Spanish, French, English, Latin, and Catalan to first decipher the difficult language and then come up with creative and humorous wordplay. The process proved to be rather challenging, but now, looking back, we can say we had fun.

Nancy Naomi Carlson
Esperanza Hope Snyder


In the Classroom