.

Am I, am I beautiful?
Surely my face qualifies:
Forehead pearly bright to rise
Over sweetest lips cerise.
Tell me if I’m beautiful!

Cupid’s brows I have, green eyes,
Rounded chin, nose small in size,
Blonde curls blowing in the breeze;
Am I, am I beautiful?

Firmness my high breasts comprise;
Straightness my back dignifies;
Ivory throat and long arms please;
Tell me if I’m beautiful!

Slender waist and tender thighs
Well-proportioned hips apprise;
Shapely legs and pretty knees,
Am I, am I beautiful?

Little feet can emphasize
Slippers fitting fashion’s guise
And my favored fineries;
Tell me if I’m beautiful!

Fur my cape’s warmth amplifies;
Lace my neckline gratifies;
Silver bangles, look at these!
Am I, am I beautiful?

Fine my bonnets, I surmise;
Lovely robes the world espies,
Silk and gold embroideries,
Tell me if I’m beautiful!

Fifteen years my age belies;
Many treasures, though, I prize,
And intend to guard the keys;
Am I, am I beautiful?

He who for this damsel vies
Must have strength to exercise
Manly virtues worshipful;
Tell me if I’m beautiful!

Godly vows I solemnize,
Faith without a compromise,
If his love be dutiful;
Am I, am I beautiful?

When with courtesy he tries
Speaking gently, valiant, wise,
He will find me merciful;
Tell me if I’m beautiful!

Here is earthly paradise,
Everything that satisfies,
Fresh and new and laughterful;
Am I, am I beautiful?

Coward youth with no replies,
Think of what my words advise:
Tell me if I’m beautiful!
Am I, am I beautiful?

.

Translator’s note: My ending differs a little from the French text. The bracketed next-to-last line in French was written by the French editor to fill the place of a line missing in the manuscript. This is legitimate editorial procedure, as long as the editor does not pretend the line was written by the author. But I think it’s better to fill out the missing line with the alternate refrain (something actually written by the author). It makes sense with what the speaker is saying in the last stanza, and it keeps up the regular alternation of refrains. In fact, concluding with both refrains reveals the careful rhyme-and-refrain artistry of this entire charming virelai.

In syllabic French, the meter of this poem is heptasyllabic. Having translated many octosyllabic French poems into English iambic tetrameter, I wanted this one to be different, but iambic trimeter was not a good choice, because that is the appropriate English meter for French poems of six-syllable lines. For this poem, therefore, I chose iambic tetrameter lines beginning with a “headless iamb” (a metrical foot of one accented syllable alone). In effect, I am counting syllables as well as stresses—but I still have opportunities for metrical variation (as did Deschamps). Examples include the lines beginning with “And,” where that word should receive little or no stress—even though it is in a position that the overall ideal pattern would stress. Variation is the vitality of a poem, even when meter may appear strict.

.

French original

Sui je, sui je, sui je belle?
Il me semble, a mon avis,
Que j’ay beau front et doulx viz
Et la bouche vermeillette;
Dittes moy se je suis belle.

J’ay vers yeulx, petis sourcis,
Le chief blont, le nez traitis,
Ront menton, blanche gorgette;
Sui je, sui je, sui je belle?

J’ay dur sain et hault assis,
Lons bras, gresles doys aussis
Et par le faulz sui greslette;
Dittes moy se je suis belle.

J’ay bonnes rains, ce m’est vis,
Bon dos, bon cul de Paris,
Cuisses et gambes bien faictes;
Sui je, sui je, sui je belle?

J’ay piez rondes et petiz,
Bien chaussans, et biaux habis,
Je sui gaye et joliette,
Dittes moy se je sui belle.

J’ay mantiaux fourrez de gris,
J’ay chapiaux, j’ay biaux proffis
Et d’argent mainte espinglette;
Sui je, sui je, sui je belle?

J’ay draps de soye et tabis,
J’ay draps d’or et blans et bis,
J’ay mainte bonne chosette;
Dittes moy se je sui belle.

Que xv ans n’ay, je vous dis;
Moult est mes tresors jolys,
S’en garderay la clavette;
Sui je, sui je, sui je belle?

Bien devra estre hardis
Cilz qui sera mes amis,
Qui ara tel damoiselle;
Dittes moy se je sui belle.

Et par Dieu je li plevis
Que tresloyal, se je vis,
Li seray, si ne chancelle;
Sui je, sui je, sui je belle?

Se courtois est et gentilz,
Vaillans après, bien apris,
Il gagnera se querelle;
Dittes moy se je sui belle.

C’est uns mondains paradiz
Que d’avoir dame toudiz
Ainsi fresche, ainsi nouvelle;
Sui je, sui je, sui je belle?

Entre vous a couardiz,
Pensez a ce que je diz:
[Cy fine ma chansonnette;]
Sui je, sui je, sui je belle?

.

.

Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others.  


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23 Responses

  1. Sally Cook

    Dear Margaret –

    What a joyous, lilting song of a translation! In addition it shows so many similarities/derivation between the two languages. Thank you for sharing it.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      The girl and her language have quite a lilt to them. I’m glad I was able to bring that into English. Thank you!

      Reply
  2. Peter Hartley

    Margaret,- she’s certainly convinced me she’s beautiful. I only wish I could comment on this translation other than from the standpoint of a complete ignoramus, but it does stand up remarkably well in itself by ignoring the fact that it is a translation of anything at all. The only mediaeval French I know is “Honi soit qui mal y pense” and even that, my I pad is having awful problems with. What you have achieved for me though is to send me off listening to “Le Chansonnier Cordiform” which I’d nearly forgotten I had, about four hours of exquisite music, songs by Dufay, Binchois, Ockeghem and Busnoys and others all near enough contemporaries of your Eustache Deschamps. Thank you for sending me haring off, rooting through my 30-year-old vinyl collection!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Peter, I’m glad the English poem stands well on its own, because that’s the fun of it for most readers. And I’m glad it inspired you to go on to the music. Deschamps was the nephew and student of the great Machaut, and I feel some influence of that in his poetry. However, when he wrote a double ballade on the occasion of Machaut’s death, he commissioned someone else to write music for it. That must have been some job, especially if it involved a double choir singing the two distinct parts of the poem in polyphony, or even in some kind of elaborate alternation such as we hear in Machaut’s music.

      Reply
  3. Gail

    Sorting out the French out loud is a blast. It’s a bit like having a go at Chaucer in the original. (What happened to all the ‘i’s’?) Love that last line in the French–sui je, sui je, sui je belle. I wish my French was better–we moved school districts when I was ready for my 3rd year, so I was at the bottom of the waiting list for the only section. So I took Latin! Then Spanish . . . Jill-of-all-trades, mistress-of-some! (I’m an amazing housewife and mom!) HA!

    Thanks for the translation, Margaret. I’d certainly never have found this on my own.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      It’s a joy to know that I brought this sprightly French poem to your attention! If you’re wondering why it has more “je’s” than the English has “I’s,” it’s because the French “belle” is so much shorter than the English “beautiful.” I’m translating as closely as possible to the French form of seven syllables per line. Had to take out a “sui je” to get “beautiful” in the English. You’ve certainly had good language exposure that helps a lot with close reading of poetry in our own language. I too had a school district problem and had to switch from French to Spanish for a year–and no ancient classical language until college. But it’s all worthwhile. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Reply
  4. Brian Yapko

    Margaret, this is a marvelous poem of timeless beauty which also feels remarkably contemporary (am I reading it correctly to detect more than a little narcissism in the young lady who is the speaker? And only some lip service to her faith? ) I have enough fractured French to be delighted by your choices and to observe that it was probably much more difficult to find suitable rhymes in English than in French. You have succeeded admirably.

    Question: Was this originally a song? The repeated refrain of “Sui je, sui, je, sui je belle”/”Dittes moy si je suis belle” sounds quite musical to me.

    Thank you for a most enjoyable read!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Sorry, Brian, my reply to you somehow posted below Joseph Salemi’s comment!

      Reply
  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    A great job of translation, Margaret, the like of which can’t be done by too many of our current clubfooted academics.

    My one objection: You translate “bon cul de Paris” with the somewhat mincing “well-proportioned hips.” The absolutely literal “a good Parisian ass” would have fit the meter just as perfectly, and been truer to the medieval context. There’s no need to translate for the Dauphin edition.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      And after I missed “hault assis” in line 10, where my sentence structure was otherwise occupied! Joseph, your suggestion might fit the meter, but not the grammar or syntax, and I would have to re-do the rhyme scheme. You might be mollified to know that I considered “buns” for “hips” (it is plural), but I am satisfied at having spoken of all the body parts mentioned in language that suits my poem as a whole. “Thighs” is much better than the medieval “kidneys” in line 14.
      My local medievalist specializes in farce not to represent the Middle Ages well, but because we are bawdy and vulgar, and medieval farce is just like us! I don’t compete with him. But I do appreciate your attention and commendation!

      Reply
  6. Margaret Coats

    Adolescent girls tend to worry about whatever is NOT perfect in face, figure, or clothes. The only problem for this one is that no one is giving her the attention she finds she deserves. A judicious gentleman might certainly wonder if he could rely on the fidelity of a woman with such a high opinion of herself. But although we have narcissism here, I think the refrains, as questions, focus on adolescent insecurity. That’s how Deschamps makes the girl and the poem appealing–and it is one of his best known works.

    That’s a very interesting question about whether this was a song intended for singing and instrumental accompaniment. It probably has settings and singers, but from Deschamps’ own poetic theory, these would be unnecessary. He wrote the first treatise on French versification, where he says quite clearly that natural music is what we find in words. Any other music he calls “artificial.” That’s not necessarily pejorative; artificial music is art that he studied and appreciated. But to his mind, the music of nature is found in poetry by itself. This should give us great respect for words and their sounds!

    Reply
  7. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, the voluptuous, melodious language lifts this poem to aural ecstasy. I simply had to read it aloud. French is a language that is naturally seductive and you have managed to seduce this reader with your incredible ability to choose the right combination of words to make the poem sing in English. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Susan, when I first read this poem, years ago, I thought it was untranslatable. I could see its meaning (with a little help from a medieval French glossary), but didn’t understand how its playful loveliness could be approximated in English. Therefore everything you say is a high compliment. Thanks!

      Reply
  8. Yael

    This is an amazing translation Margaret. This German who used to be quite fluent in French a long time ago, would have also thought this poem to be untranslatable, due to the differences in character between the two languages. But you didn’t only translate it, you also created a perfectly beautiful English poem which is a work of art in its own right and can stand alone by itself. I really enjoyed reading both of them, thank you. In fact, not being very familiar with most poetry and poets, if you had left out the French original and told me the English text was a poem from the Victorian era I would have believed you without a doubt, as I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Yael, for this great compliment from a reader of French. One of the joys of publishing translations here is that a few readers can also thoroughly appreciate the original. There is so much good but unknown or forgotten poetry in our multiple poetic traditions! I am very happy to know that you enjoyed both poems in this post.

      Reply
  9. David Watt

    Margaret, you did a beautiful job of what appears to be a difficult translation.
    Your English translation retains a definite French style due to the choice of appropriately elegant words.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, David. Word choice is very important to present this girl who wants elegance and desirability to go together–and to evoke a response! I’m glad she comes across sounding French. The rhyming demanded non-English word order for many sentences, and that too probably helps give her a foreign accent!

      Reply
  10. C.B. Anderson

    But really, Margaret, did the girl wonder whether she was “beautiful” or “pretty?”

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      You’ve read her well, C. B. She has plenty of evidence to be confident about being attractive. But she’s also true to that adolescent insecurity I mentioned above, needing confirmation from others so much that every stanza ends with a question or a demand!

      Reply
  11. Tom and Laurence Rimer

    My wife Laurence, who is French, was absolutely delighted both with the original poem and with your (as she put it) “joyous” translation. Like a couple of your other readers, she noted that some of the original French is a bit salty. Human nature being what it is, the poem has something of a contemporary flavor — perhaps you should send the translation in to the Style section of the New York Times!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      I am delighted that Laurence found the translation “joyous.” I think you are right, Tom, that there is a contemporary flavor here with youth culture being very much self-absorbed, yet craving notice from others. Part of human nature, indeed, to which style and fashion cater in any age. The New York Times at present might have problems with a piece like this, however, as direct speech about the beauty of female body parts could be seen as politically incorrect.

      Reply

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