French, Feminine Rhymes, and Two 16th-Century Choir Pieces

Have I mentioned that French is the worst?

There are a couple of reasons that dealing with French in my business is such a pain:

  1. Everything, just absolutely everything*, written before 1600 is in French.
  2. English is not French.

*my estimation

English is not any language, in fact, except English — and sometimes, not even that — which is, of course, the challenge and the art of translation. Translating poetry from all languages has its challenges: Spanish has its trochees, Russian its elipsis, Japanese its double meanings, German its absolutely insane-making similarity to English that makes one beat one’s head against the wall in lamentation over the Great Vowel Shift.

But French is the language that I am most often frustrated with, because I deal with it so often.

The most challenging aspect of French is its feminine rhyme. (I’m using “feminine rhyme” here as it is used in English, to mean a rhyming trochee, not in the specific sense in which it is often used when discussing French poetry.) In English, relatively few feminine rhymes are possible, and when they are used, they often inspire a ridiculous atmosphere. But the nature of French makes feminine rhymes exceptionally possible, and they are not at all silly-sounding — and so French poetry uses them all the time.

Oh, and to exacerbate the situation, medieval French poetry has a tendency to simply use the same rhyme over and over and over and over again. It is not unusual for the poet to be required to find, say, 14 or 18 independent words that all rhyme with each other. And as a translator, I’m trying to find words that mean the same thing as the original, which often dwindles the list of rhyming trochees down to… not enough.

Ultimately, this leads me to a conclusion that for a long time I have found infuriating, but must in the end accept as true: A high-quality translation may not be possible for every song. While I would love to put out an amazing product every time, not every piece (if any piece!) can achieve my standards. Compromises must be made somewhere — because there just aren’t, for example, 18 words that rhyme with “happy” (at least not 18 that can be taken seriously. :/  ).

But if I refused to share my work until it is perfect, I’d never be able to share anything.

So, having said that, here are two French pieces where I struggled with feminine rhyme.


“Mon cœur se recommande à vous” is by Orlando di Lassus, with poetry by Clément Marot, a 16th-century French courtier. (One of my favorite composers, Claudin de Sermisy, also set many of Marot’s texts — “Tant que vivray“, which is a little bit famous, is a Sermisy/Marot piece.) As for Orlando di Lassus: It’s impossible to give a summary of his work, since his style is unusually eclectic, and since he was so prolific and influential. He wrote about 150 chansons alone! Like much (but by no means all) of his work, it is tightly organized and succinct. (It’s less than two minutes long in representative recordings.)

Notice in the text the Courtly Love concepts and motifs. It’s interesting to see how Courtly Love continues to influence poetry even hundreds of years after the original cultural context for the philosophy has disappeared — though they have changed somewhat. The speaker’s enemies are the “jealous ones”, an idea that could be directly lifted from a troubadour poem. And love is still ascribed the power to change a person’s morality. However, unlike in a typical troubadour poem, where the experience of loving is always morally elevating, in this poem, the denial of access to love’s object causes the speaker to become morally degraded.

Score of Original Piece
Recording of Original Piece
My Translation

Note: There is a second song with this text, also attributed to Orlando di Lassus. Be alert when you are Googling! 🙂

Key Facts

  • Date: 1566
  • Composer: Orlando di Lassus  (1530 or 1532 – 1594)
  • Poet: Clément Marot (1496-1544)
  • Manuscript: Tiers livre des chansons a qvatre cincq et six parties, nouuellement composées par Orlando di Lassus (1566)
  • Original Language: French
  • Genre: chanson
  • Poetic Form: ababbaba
  • Musical Form: through-composed


“Margot labourez les vignes” is another 16th-century choral piece; it’s by Jacques Arcadelt, a Franco-Flemish composer best known for his madrigals. (We have about 250 of them.) “Margot” is representative of his madrigal style: full of movement, easy to sing, always for four voices, and more complicated than it sounds.

I particularly like the words to this song. They invite analysis that takes into account social class, gender, and the creation of meaning. On the one hand, I assume that the prince is lying and worry that the speaker might be too naïve to realize that she is being taken advantage of; but I also wonder if maybe he’s telling the truth, and my assumption that he’s lying is based on my experience with cultural biases against working class people. Or maybe the speaker herself is lying, and the entire encounter never happened — but in that case, should she be condemned for telling falsehoods or commended for creating a more palatable reality for herself?

Score of Original Piece
Recording of Original Piece (not all of the verses — sorry)
My Translation

Key Facts

  • Date: 1559
  • Composer: Jacques Arcadelt (1507-1568)
  • Manuscript: Mais de quoy sert le désirer (1559)
  • Original Language: French
  • Genre: madrigal
  • Form: strophic

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s