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Mekill Wirdis: Vulgarisms in Jean-Jacques Blanchot’s French Translation of the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy

Mekill Wirdis : les formes vulgaires dans la traduction française du Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy par Jean-Jacques Blanchot
Ruggero Bianchin


The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy de William Dunbar est depuis longtemps considéré à la fois comme l’un des poèmes les plus représentatifs du « style bas » adopté dans bon nombre de poèmes en ancien écossais — Older Scots (Macafee & Aitken, 2002, part. 9.3.6; Bawcutt, 1992, p. 222; Corbett, 1997, p. 221‑223), et comme un excellent exemple de flyting, un genre poétique distinctif et typiquement écossais où deux poètes se haranguent l’un l’autre en utilisant toutes les ressources linguistiques à leur disposition. L’allitération proéminente du poème, ainsi que la présence de mots et expressions qualifiés vulgaires ou insultants par les ressources lexicographiques, en font un texte particulièrement difficile pour les traducteurs désireux de transmettre ses caractéristiques métriques et lexicales. En fait, dans l’archive BOSLIT (Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation — « Bibliographie de la littérature écossaise en traduction ») on ne trouve aucune trace de traductions de ce poème dans aucune langue ; néanmoins, une traduction française a été incluse dans une anthologie présentant les œuvres complètes de Dunbar, dirigée par Jean‑Jacques Blanchot et publiée par les Ellug en 2003. Cet article visera à mettre en évidence les principales stratégies de traduction adoptées par Blanchot pour s’attaquer aux gros mots employés : il proposera une vue d’ensemble des caractéristiques stylistiques principales du poème avant de discuter des choix de traduction de Blanchot à l’égard des vulgarités et insultes. Pour ce faire, il s’appuiera sur des ressources lexicographiques et des bases de données (telles que DOST et OED pour l’écossais, Frantext et TLF pour le français), ainsi que sur différents dictionnaires monolingues et bilingues.

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1There is a long-standing tradition, in critical literature, of referring to flyting as a literary genre which is quintessentially Scottish, and The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy as its first exemplar (see discussion on Bawcutt, 1983 and 1992, p. 222). The prominent standing of William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy’s poem might lead to the expectation that translations in different languages would have been attempted along the centuries, particularly considering that Dunbar is, among poets who wrote in Older Scots, the one whose work has been translated the most. And yet, a search on the authoritative Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation (BOSLIT) shows no records of any full translations of this poem having been published in any language, with the exception of French. This notable exception is due to the work of Jean-Jacques Blanchot, whose interest and research in the work of William Dunbar spanned several decades and culminated, in 2003, with the publication of William Dunbar (1460?-1520?) : poète de Cour écossais, a full anthology of all works of William Dunbar that features Blanchot’s own translations in French. The reasons behind such apparent dearth of interest can only be conjectured, although perhaps one could be tentatively advanced: the text’s abrasive linguistic content (earlier criticism framed it as “the most repellent poem” [Lord Hailes, quoted in Bawcutt, 1992, p. 221]), coupled with its highly distinctive stanzaic and metrical form, may have deterred writers and translators from engaging with it unless they made changes so substantial that they would effectively alter its lexical nature altogether.

2Priscilla Bawcutt, to date one of the most important editors of William Dunbar’s works, defined this flyting as a “quarrel, not a formal debate; a contest in abuse and poetic virtuosity. Each poet speaks both as an individual and as a representative of a group, voicing the mutual antagonisms of Lowlander and Highlander” (1998, p. 427). The distinction between quarrel and debate is very useful because it helps to frame this text as a highly skilled linguistic exercise, where each participant’s aim is to disparage verbally the other whilst simultaneously seeking to better them in the creative deployment of lexicon and rhyme. Although the act of flyting could have serious legal and personal consequences (Bawcutt, 1992, pp. 223–4), there is no real animosity between Dunbar and Kennedy, but only “sheer high-spirited fun” as W. H. Auden put it in his Ode to Medieval Poets (1991, p. 863). No topic is considered off-limits: from one’s own bodily functions and familial relations, to ethnic or political affiliations, everything is fair game. For Bawcutt, Dunbar and Kennedy’s Flyting “seems to have initiated the long-lasting popularity of flyting in Scotland” (2007, p. 303), which continued in later texts such as David Lyndsay’s Answer to the King’s Flyting (1536) and Montgomery and Polwart’s own Flyting (1584). The verb “flite/flyte” itself has earlier attestations in Old English and Old High German, and is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as a word of Germanic lineage with the meaning of “strive” and “contend”. Critical literature has identified instances of flyting in texts from the Old English canon—Lenker (2012, pp. 328–9) cites Beowulf’s lines 525–532a, while Cuddon (2013, p. 280) mentions The Battle of Maldon; others such as Meier (2007 and 2008, pp. cviicix) argue that the flytings’ themes and structures drew substantial inspiration from Celtic sources. In his 1979 edition of Dunbar’s works, James Kinsley remarks that “it seems very unlikely that the ‘flyting’ style and vocabulary used here, rhetorically mature and assured, and linguistically rich and varied, are his [Dunbar’s] invention” (1979, p. 283). Indeed, Kennedy and Dunbar may have been following a Gaelic tradition which includes texts such as the aoir, a poetical invective that survived from the medieval Irish period: Nicole Meier details how satirical vituperations in song or rhyme had a long-standing tradition in Celtic society, and so strong was their effect on those taking part that they could “cause shame and desocialisation” (2008, p. cvii) if not even “physical ailments such as boils, perhaps through psychosomatic stress” (McKean, 2007, p. 130).

3Stylistically, Older Scots flytings are categorised as “low-life verse” (Macafee & Aitken, 2002, part. 9.2.6): these are texts that can include a large amount of abusive expressions and vulgarisms, whose etymology and meaning at times can be obscure. They have also a greater likelihood of featuring hapax legomena, or words that have only one single attestation, making their interpretation even more difficult. As we shall see, Dunbar and Kennedy’s Flyting is a paradigmatic example of such texts, pushing its translators to either omit unknown words or include potential equivalents whose selection relies more on stylistic coherence than on any attestable meaning. Macafee argues that the dense presence of vocabulary unique to Scots is due to the distinctiveness of the flyting:

The poems of vituperation specify directly, in a series of insulting invocations, declamations or descriptive narratives, various repulsive or ridiculous personal traits of the person addressed or described. Since these homely or undignified topics were presumably infrequent in most of the English and other literatures known to the Scottish poets, the only known terminology for them was native, local and colloquial. (Macafee & Aitken, 2002, part. 9.3.6)

4Furthermore, vituperative poems could also employ complex metres: Dunbar and Kennedy’s Flyting is characterised both by tight end-of-verse stanzaic rhyming, internal rhyming within half lines (such as in stanzas 30 and 31), and frequent alliteration. The latter is the most typical feature of medieval Germanic poetry, and a major factor in the selection of the Flyting’s lexis.

5For all these aspects, The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy is a very challenging text for potential translators to tackle: the lack of any plot or development ensures that the readers’ (or the listeners’) attention is constantly focused more on the words themselves than on a sequence of events. The whole point of the poem could be summarised by the closing line, where readers/listeners are called to iuge now quha gat the war: the Flyting was primarily conceived to entertain its audience, who was called to declare a “winner” based on their most unexpected and amusing turns of phrases that relied vastly on the rhythmical and phonetic (if not phonaesthetic) qualities of the verses. Both poets are equally abusive towards each other, and the main difference between the two revolves on their ethnic and social affiliations: they voice “the antagonisms of Lowlander and Highlander” (Bawcutt, 1992, p. 228), with Dunbar as the Inglis-speaking lowlander facing the Erse-speaking Gael, Kennedy, who accuses Dunbar of being a traitor of Scotland and too close to the English. Their vitriol is only apparent though: Dunbar actually admired Kennedy’s poetic skills, and would remember him in his mournful poem Lament for the Makaris, further framing their Flyting as a playful verbal competition, if one particularly abusive in register.

6By engaging with critical literature that analyses lexical obscenities in the Middle Ages, and historical corpora available for all languages discussed, this article will focus specifically on Blanchot’s use of gros mots, or overt vulgarities, to translate Dunbar and Kennedy’s poetic quarrel. It will focus particularly on Blanchot’s treatment of those lexical items that Lord Hailes deemed “repellent” and will take into account Nicola McDonald’s remark that modern analyses of medieval obscenity should “accurately reflect the kind of discursive—or visual—register in which (we can only imagine) it was originally understood” (2006, p. 9), particularly in the production of new translations.

7All verses discussed will be presented in tables that compare the French translation with the original text as printed in Priscilla Bawcutt’s edition, published in 1998 by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies and used as the source text by Blanchot. The tables will also include my own back translations in Standard English to facilitate discussion. To chart the frequency in use and the potential archaicity of words in the French translation, different lexicographical resources have been employed. The main corpus of French used is Frantext, while the principal monolingual dictionary is the Trésor de la langue française (TLF) alongside Le Petit Robert and one aimed at a less specialised audience such as Larousse Compact (2005). The main French-English bilingual dictionaries consulted were The New Collins-Robert (5th ed., 1998) and Larousse Concise Dictionary (1999). To discuss both Older Scots an English lexicon, the online versions of the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST) and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) were consulted, as well as the glossaries of the Flyting’s two reference editions—namely Bawcutt (1998) and Meier (2008).

8Terms drawn from Translation Studies, such as Lawrence Venuti’s taxonomy of “domestication” and “foreignisation” (for a useful summary see Munday, 2016, pp. 225–9), will be used throughout. This classification refers to Venuti’s identification of a continuum in translation processes: “domestication” is the silent omission, in the target text, of linguistic and cultural references present in the source text, to create a translation which minimizes all foreign elements to obtain maximum reading fluency; conversely, “foreignisation” is a strategy whereby the target text privileges, in vocabulary and syntax, the language and cultural references in the original text, resulting in a translation which reads less fluently but makes the reader more aware of the source text’s foreignness. Also, the expression “source text” will refer to the original poem, while “target text” will be the translation. It will also employ the concepts of surtraduction (“overtranslation”), and soustraduction (“undertranslation”), as discussed by Jean Deslisle in his textbook La traduction raisonnée. For Delisle, surtraduction is the literal, word-for-word explicit translation of all items found in a source text that results in a forced, “unnatural” and redundant target text; conversely, sous-traduction is the non-literal, modulated translation, which results in a target text that departs, in varying degrees, from the wording originally used by the author (Deslisle, 2013, pp. 682–3).

9Lastly, the text adopts the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) system1 whenever it discusses phonetic features. Accordingly, sounds will be indicated between forward slashes—e.g. the initial “c” in “cloud” is /k/.

The Flyting: structure and dating

10The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy is composed of 552 lines distributed within sixty-nine stanzas of eight lines each. The stanzas follow two rhyming schemes: ababbccb for all Kennedy’s parts, and both ababbccb and ababbcbc for Dunbar’s. As mentioned above, alliteration is a very distinctive feature of vituperative poems, and in the Flyting it is very prominent, particularly in verses which display a pile‑on of insults and vituperative terms; but contrarily to rhyming, it is not employed in a consistent way.

11Similarly to the majority of Dunbar and Kennedy’s poems, it is difficult to establish the Flyting’s exact date of composition. Nevertheless, a terminus ad quem can be given with relative certainty: Walter Chepman and Andro Myllar established in 1508 the first printing press of Scotland, and the Flyting is one of the first items they published (Meier, 2008, pp. xixxx). Only one incomplete copy survives from these early prints, but the poem was copied in later manuscripts, allowing modern editors to collate full versions.

The translator: Jean-Jacques Blanchot

12As mentioned above, Jean-Jacques Blanchot spent many years researching and writing about William Dunbar and his work. He was a steady contributor to the triennial International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature since its inception in 1975 down to 1984, and his papers all focused on William Dunbar. His PhD thesis, discussed at La Sorbonne in 1987, was an extensive study called William Dunbar (1460?-1520?), rhétoriqueur écossais, in which Blanchot attempted a systematic linguistic and stylistic classification of Dunbar’s entire oeuvre by applying statistical methodologies and quantitative analysis. A few years later Blanchot joined the considerable team of translators that worked on the multi-volume anthology Patrimoine Littéraire Européen; his contributions, published between 1994 and 1995, were translated extracts from the works of major Older Scots poets such as John Barbour, James I, Robert Henryson, Sir David Lyndsay and indeed William Dunbar—and preluded to the later publication of his own curated monograph on Dunbar.

13This short summary of Blanchot’s publications demonstrates that he had great familiarity not only with William Dunbar, but also with Older Scots literature in general. It is reasonable to assume that his renditions of Dunbar (and Kennedy) will have been greatly influenced and enriched by years of extensive research, resulting in translations that undoubtedly reflect a thoughtful choice of words and meanings. In order to recreate the colourful and rich linguistic palette of those poems rich with informal and coarse expressions such as the Flyting, Blanchot indicated in the book’s Introduction that he would use contemporary argot as a close register equivalent (Blanchot, 2003, p. 13), and in a footnote to verse 43 in the poem he explains that he thought it would be suitable to franciser culturellement (“culturally Frenchify”) one of the many insults exchanged by the two poets (ibid., p. 99). It should be noted that this approach may have been somewhat aided by the publication being exclusively in French, with no facing parallel text showing the original text in Older Scots. Thus, his footnotes are the only peritextual section where samples of Dunbar and Kennedy’s original lines can be seen within the overall text itself.

14His careful selection of words, coupled with the extensive work made on alliteration, arguably signals that Blanchot kept the Flyting in high regard, and sought to further a modern appreciation of Dunbar and Kennedy’s work among francophone readers.

The translation (1): low-style features of the Flyting

15Before discussing the translation, it might be useful to list briefly the characteristics which identify a low style text in Older Scots literature according to John Corbett in his study Language and Scottish Literature. These texts generally feature:

  1. Comedy and satire.

  2. “Peasants and vices” as characters or main topics.

  3. Immorality and vulgarity.

  4. A virtual absence of anglicisation.

  5. Marked vernacular diction, or “northernisms”, with comparatively few Latinisms.

  6. Simpler rhyme schemes, with less complex sentence structures.
                                             (Adapted from Corbett, 1997, pp. 222–5)

16To test whether this systematization applies to the Flyting let us look at stanza 63, which is part of Kennedy’s last answer to Dunbar towards the end of the poem:

Table 1.

Table 1.

*luschbald – no translation supplied by Bawcutt in her glossary. For DOST it is “an abusive term of doubtful meaning”.

17Although no poem can be expected to fit neatly within retrospective classifications devised by later critics, this stanza arguably displays most of the features identified by Corbett:

  1. The hyperbolic insults and threats hurled by Kennedy at Dunbar are purposely meant to be extreme for satiric purposes and to elicit laughter from the audience.

  2. Dunbar and Kennedy are most certainly not peasants, but the scatological references as well as the mention of parts of body reserved to “low” functions are semantically related to the trope of eliciting disgust (see Larrington, 2006, p. 141).

  3. The language is vituperative, and sometimes overtly obscene and vulgar in form and content (see the scatological reference in line 499, or that to spanking in line 502).

  4. The Chepman & Myllar print (CM) shows that processes of anglicisation (meaning the gradual erosion of Scots words in favour of Southern English equivalents and forms [see Macafee & Aitken, 2002, part. 2.5 for a full discussion]) were still not fully in place at this point. The spelling of greit and gude in line 497 may be cited as proof, though it should be noted that CM occasionally shows internal variation and forms commonly found south of the border.

  5. Latinate words are indeed very few, and those present seem to be used more to enhance the speakers’ sarcasm and mocking intentions than to elevate the tone as they would in “aureate” poems (for Macafee, the few Romance words present attest to the contestants’ education [Macafee & Aitken, 2002, part. 9.3.6]); there are also words whose etymology and meaning are obscure, and whose sense is deducted from the overall context—again, that of abusive language (e.g. luschbald in line 501). Macafee & Aitken (2002, part. 9.3.6) provide a list of northernisms found in the Flyting to prove this point.

  6. The Flyting’s rhyming scheme is certainly more intricate than simple couplets or of those quoted in Corbett’s study, making this the only fully divergent point from his indicative classification. It is worth noting that alliteration itself should be added to these features, as that is another distinctive feature of low-style/low life verse at this stage—see R. D. S. Jack’s comment on how full-blown alliteration “invades” Dunbar’s The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo to mark that poem’s bawdiness (Jack, 1997, p. 50).

The translation (2): alliteration

18Establishing how the Flyting aligns to the low-style genre helps to explain Blanchot’s strategy to represent its lampooning spirit, both in register and in its playful and insistent alliteration. The latter plays a significant role on the target text’s lexical make‑up, and should be briefly commented on. Even at a cursory glance, the stanza included in Table 1 shows its noticeable influence, with lines 497, 499 and 500 featuring examples of Blanchot’s adoption of viable equivalents. In these verses, the insistent alliteration on the sounds /g/, /k/ and /r/ is equally prominent in both Scots and French, and Blanchot manages to make direct use of the shared Latinate/Greek origin common to the words in line 500 (rymis/rimer “rhymes/to rhyme”, rethory/rhétorique “rhetoric”, rose/rose “rose”) and line 498 (with its mirror use of poetry/poesie and prose). These are rare exceptions, as the poem has generally few cognates that can be borrowed between French and Older Scots. Thus, lines 497 and 501 (the French text of the latter adopting words alliterating in /f/ instead of /l/) show how Blanchot managed to select words that alliterate whilst loosely keeping within the same semantic field, but completely avoiding any attempt to translate literally the Older Scots text. Blanchot’s strategy to favour alliteration can also be noticed in line 497, whose French translation consists solely of terms of abuse that have no literal lexical connection to the original verse, save for the use of the same alliterating sound /g/. In light of the discussion in the subsequent sections, it is interesting to find here dated insults now almost endearing such as filou (“crook”), guignol (“clown, puppet”), grognon (“grumpy”) and ragoteur for “gossip” (incidentally, the latter is a word with just five attestations in Frantext, and is unrecorded both in bilingual French-English dictionaries consulted and in Larousse Compact).

The translation (3): scatological and body parts references

19As highlighted whilst discussing Corbett’s taxonomy, the poets make many scatological references, and in Table 1 we find the verb cuk “to void, or foul with, excrement” in line 499 and tone “the buttocks, the anus” in line 502. For DOST, tone is a Gaelicism—from Gaelic tòn—and registers only three occurrences: two are from this text (in lines 502 and 520), and one is from the translations of Rabelais works by Sir Thomas Urquhart, whose unique use of language has been well discussed elsewhere (see Smith, 2018). Blanchot, probably relying on the verse’s main alliterating sound /k/ translates it as cul (“arse”), which to this day is still filed in the category of words “liable to offend in any situation” (for the Collins-Robert) or simply “vulgar” (for the Larousse). It is difficult to assess whether Kennedy used tón because it was an overt vulgarism, or just for the semantic associations which that part of the body carried. Tón is still attested in modern resources such as Angus Watson’s The Essential English-Gaelic Dictionary, which translates it as “arse”, “backside” and “bottom”; but as a full historical dictionary of Gaelic is still in the process of being assembled,2 it is more difficult to assess what register it signalled at the time. The bilingual Collins-Robert suggests a similar range of English equivalents for cul, which demonstrates that it might be comparable to modern “arse”. Altogether, Blanchot uses cul eight times in his Tournoi to translate items either written by Dunbar or Kennedy: ers “buttocks” (56, 131, 358), go naikit “walk about naked” (120), dok “arse” (248), brekeles “without breeches” (384) and tone “arse, bottom” (502, 520). The analysis of the diachronic development of ers raises interesting issues, as tokens from corpora support the idea that it went through a significant semantic and register shift in its long history: Mohr (2013, pp. 94–7) illustrates how that was the standard term for “buttocks”, and indeed for the OED arse would only be “generally regarded as coarse after the 18th century”.3 OED citations include one of the earliest medical books printed in English (Andrew Borde’s Breviary of Health, ca. 1547), where it seems that arse was just the standard word used to identify that part of the body; earlier tokens such as arse-ropes, used before the introduction of the Latinate “intestines” appear both in the Wycliffite Bible and in the 15th century Middle English translation of Guy de Chauliac’s Chirurgia Magna, testifying to the word’s use in high-register contexts. On Dunbar’s use of ers as a term of abuse towards Kennedy, Blanchot adds an interesting footnote: since ers is a homophone of Erse “Gaelic, Irish”, Dunbar would enjoy “using this not very euphonious word, which is close to arse” (Blanchot, 2003, p. 102, my translation) as an added coarse wordplay. Leaving aside for a moment discussion on register, it should also be noted that the consistent use of cul to translate both Dunbar’s ers and Kennedy’s ton prevents a francophone reader from noticing the purposeful use of distinct markers of linguistic identity by the duelling poets (see the Introduction). Of course, there are several passages in the poem which make the Highlander/Lowlander difference explicit, as well as Blanchot’s numerous explanatory footnotes, so this observation applies specifically to the treatment of these items.

20Line 99 offers another example of a French term of abuse morphologically, if not semantically, related to the field of scatology, as well as gluntoch, which is one more hapax legomenon:

21Similarly to luschbald in Table 1, gluntoch is another word of uncertain origins, which is unrecorded in DOST and apparently derives from Gaelic glúinteach meaning “with big or protuberant knees” (see Bawcutt, 1998, p. 434). To translate it Blanchot dismisses possible paraphrases and opts for minable (“pathetic/shabby-looking”), an adjective which makes explicit one of the underlying medieval prejudices towards people with physical deformities (see his identical use of minable in line 177 to translate schulderis narrow [Blanchot, 2003, p. 105]). In the second half-line, Dunbar uses giltin hippis to create a direct metrical and rhyming contrast with goldin lippis in line 99 above, and draws its effectiveness from the parallel between the physical appearance of someone showing symptoms of jaundice, whose hips may yellow due to their medical condition, and the rhetorical image of someone whose impressive oratorial skills turn their lips to gold. Blanchot dispenses entirely with this parallelism and simplifies the line by using the insulting merdeux (“shitty”), perhaps to contribute to the alliteration by adding another word with a voiced nasal articulation after ne, un and minable. Merdeux reoccurs later in Kennedy’s last reply to translate dirt in verse 519, which Bawcutt glosses with a standard “excrements” (see Table 3 below). Further examples of surtraduction here include innombrables chiasses (“innumerable shits”) in verse 188 instead of ourhie tyd (“over high tide”), and crotte (“droppings”) in verse 211 for clay (“clay”).

22Verses 517–20, again part of Kennedy’s last intervention, feature further points of great interest :

Table 3.

Table 3.

*flend – no translation supplied by either DOST or Bawcutt.

23Whereas the figurative fasert is translated by Bawcutt in her glossary as “hermaphrodite fowl, coward”, Blanchot turns it into pédé, which is also the most widespread homophobic insult akin to English “fag/faggot” (see discussion in Tin, 2003, pp. 424–8). Its ubiquity in current French has somewhat eroded its univocal meaning, leading partly to a process of desemanticization whereby it has become for Tin the “quintessence” of French insults (ibid., p. 427). Arguably, that is the meaning which Blanchot used it for in this passage, especially considering how he dealt with verses that refer overtly and insultingly to homosexual practices just a few lines below:

24Both Dunbar and Kennedy call each other sodomyt(e) in the poem (verses 253 and 527 respectively), and Kennedy also calls Dunbar buggrist abhominable (“abominable buggerer”) in verse 526. Blanchot may have certainly had the chance to “overtranslate” again: instead, he used sodomyte’s direct equivalent once (sodomite in verse 253), and then omitted it altogether in the rather unpalatable passage in verses 526–7: buggrist abhominable is turned into a milder détéstable dépravé (“detestable depraved”), while sodomyte insatiable in verse 527 becomes assoiffé de simonie (“thirsting for simony”), using once more the mention to simony made just two lines above—a reference to Dunbar’s numerous petitionary poems addressed to the king (see chapter 3 in Bawcutt, 1992). Blanchot’s treatment of verse 527 exemplifies his confidence in tackling the task of translating Dunbar, as he silently excises from these two lines all mentions to sodomy and replaces them with a well-attested reference to Dunbar’s begging-poems (perhaps supported by the lack of the original text on a facing parallel page: had it been there it may have led him to translate this passage differently, or at the very least explain it with additional footnotes).

25On the other hand, going back to line 520 in Table 3 above, we can observe that carlingis (“old women”) has been turned into pétasses, ie “sluts” (like in verse 247, but not in 221, see Table 6 below). Dunbar uses elsewhere in other poems the words harlot and hure, both meaning “whore”, and hursone (“son of a whore”) in the Flyting itself on verse 359 (which Blanchot regularly translates as fils de pute), with the specific meaning of “prostitute”. The entry for “unchaste/loose woman” in the Historical Thesaurus of English displays an extensive list of nouns used both in English and Scots literature dating back to the Old English period;4 and yet, it holds no instances of carling, which is filed under the more neutral categories of “woman” and “old woman”. This leads to the impression that Blanchot here may have effectively “overtranslated”, increasing the Tournoi’s quotient of vulgarisms.

26The category of body parts also includes mentions of testis. Both bawis, “balls” (104) and bellokis, “testicles” (119) are translated with couilles (“bollocks”), as an avowed citation from the chansons grivoises (Blanchot, 2003, p. 101). Similarly to ers, the OED records that ballok was in standard use in earlier stages of English and only became coarse slang after the 17th century—it too is in the Wycliffite Bible and in medical treatises. DOST first attests it in Scots in Robert Henryson’s satirical poem Sum Practysis of Medecyne, which Fox describes as “a parody of a quack’s promotional speech” (1981, p. 475). Although purported remedies in Henryson’s poem can be “violently scatological” (ibid., p. 476), it could be argued that Henryson used bellokis only as the more appropriate term at his disposal to identify that specific part of the body, rather than as a vulgarism.

The translation (4): speech-like patterns

27Macafee and Aitken discuss how works in the category of low-life verse generally had low-life settings and featured homely characters and contexts (Macafee and Aitken, 2002, part. 9.2.6), whereas Dunbar and Kennedy were both educated, well-connected members of the court. Clearly, they may have purposely code-switched to flyte with each other, but it is arguably very difficult to make a full sociolinguistic comparison between their speaking patterns and that of the more general populace only based on surviving poetical texts, and to assess how and where their register, however extreme the insults, may have been leaning “downwards”. Lines 218 and 221–2 feature a passage that includes the only instances of the reported speech of speakers other than the two flyters. Here, Dunbar depicts a group of youths and older women taunting Kennedy as he walks along the streets of Edinburgh:

28Here Blanchot adopted an overt domesticating approach adding a transcription-like reproduction of colloquial French, the kind generally stigmatised when discussing correct usage (see Lodge, 2004, p. 168). Markers of orality include the elision of unstressed vowels (v’là for voilà), the elision of post-consonantal /r/ before final schwa (not’ for notre “our”, pauv’ for pauvre “poor”), and apocope (intello, marked in Le Petit Robert as the pejorative and derogatory form of intellectuel). Notably, a close back translation of line 218 shows that the expletive foutu, “bloody, damn” (but also “fucking”, depending on the collocation), was deliberately added by Blanchot, as queir is glossed by Bawcutt as “base, rascally” and by Meier as “rascally, worthless”. DOST also specifies that from the year 1663, queir is used with the meaning of “strange, odd”, a sense which the OED attests in English texts at least from 1551.

The translation (5): obscure terms

29Sections above have already shown the poem’s inclusion of obscure terms unattested elsewhere. The presence of such words, of uncertain meaning and etymology, makes the assessment of the register used by medieval authors even more challenging. Going back to stanza 63 included in Table 1 above, Blanchot’s interpretation of luschbald follows the overall style of the verse. Given that lunatike lymare (“lunatic rascal”) is translated with fou furieux (“furious madman”), the only possibility to keep the alliterating pattern in translation would be to include a word that starts with /f/. Interestingly, Blanchot increases the effect by using two with foireux filou (“cowardly crook”). It may be coincidental, given that Blanchot has no set metre, but all lines in this particular stanza are hendecasyllables: this might partly explain Blanchot’s inclusion of the extra qualifier foireux, to place beside filou, a word marked as vieilli (“antiquated”) by the TLF which has lost its abusive potential becoming yet another almost endearing epithet. The inclusion of foireux adds one further item that draws the translation’s metre nearer to the original text, since it adds an internal rhyme with furieux.

30Verses 517–20, shown in Table 3, offer further examples. Flend (518) is not translated in English by either DOST or Bawcutt, and both just label it “obscure”. With no help from any of the available sources, Blanchot concentrates instead on phisnom (“countenance or expression of the face”) in the same line, and uses ingrate (“ungrateful”), a derogatory term which is not in Dunbar’s text, potentially as a substitute for both flend and fule. To increase somewhat the abuse quotient he also adds fouine (“beech-marten”), a weasel traditionally considered rather badly due to its tendency to kill hens in its search for food (see the examples in its TLF entry5).

The translation (6): attenuation and archaisms

31So far, this article has discussed examples of Blanchot’s “overtranslations” of lexical items semantically linked to scatological or vulgar and abusive tropes, as well as words that in later stages of the history of both English and Scots would be resolutely filed under the category of overt vulgarisms. However, it would not be correct to say that Blanchot adopted this approach consistently. We have already seen how he toned down homophobic abuse, and adopted very mild taunts such as grognon, and there are several other instances which testify how he fluctuates between the inclusion of overt vulgarities and affected, less common terms throughout the translation (one example among many is traine-savate “bum, good-for-nothing” literally “slippers-dragger” for wallidrag (43) “good-for-nothing, slovenly person”). The Flyting features other significant instances of words that later on developed into overt vulgarisms such as wanfukkit, “misbegotten” (38), cuntbittin, “impotent” (50, 239), skitterand, “defecating” (58), skittand, “shitting” (194), and beschittin, “befoul with excrement” (195, 239). With the exception of chié (“shat”) for beschittin in line 195, these items are all translated with non-vulgar standard French equivalents, signalling Blanchot’s awareness that a semantic shift had not taken place yet for all of these. Other words which may have been made overtly vulgar such as skaldit (37) i.e. “scabby”, labelled in DOST as a term of abuse and translated as échaudé (“scalded”) could have been “overtranslated” in an abusive way, but they are certainly not as strong as other terms Blanchot employs elsewhere. Line 499 includes the verb cuk, which DOST translates with “to void, or foul with, excrement” and records only in another text—appropriately another flyting, that between Alexander Montgomery and Patrick Hume of Polwart from later in the sixteenth century. Blanchot translates cuk with conchier, a verb which the TLF labels as vulgar, similarly to the online version of Le Robert for which it is at the same time vulgar and literary and that Larousse describes as “vieux, par plaisanterie”; but both bilingual dictionaries such as the Collins-Robert and the Larousse Concise, as well as monolinguals such as the Larousse Compact, do not include it at all. Furthermore, Frantext reports only 116 occurrences of its various forms attested from the 12th century onwards, which would prove that in spite of its continued if occasional use, it is a learned word uncommon in informal or overtly vulgar current French. In short, the examples raised in this section might prove that Blanchot did not intend to aim consistently at an overtly vulgar register.


32This article has shown a brief sample of Jean-Jacques Blanchot’s impressive French translation of The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy. It has sought to present Blanchot’s strategy in translating the poem’s terms of abuse and vulgarisms by analysing the two texts’ metrical and lexical content, using lexicographical resources and discussing the semantic evolution of different words observed in their diachronic development. The main findings could be summarised thus:

  • Blanchot adopted a domesticating approach, which includes both overt vulgarisms and features of spoken French.

  • Words that can be ascribed to the categories of scatology and low bodily functions, such as ers and bellok, are often translated with a vulgar equivalent, even if corpora interrogated show that the same words were also used in formal contexts at the time of the Flyting’s composition. This might suggest that Blanchot purposely adopted an approach favouring the addition of overt vulgarisms.

  • This strategy was not implemented consistently: other words, considered obscene in contemporary Scots, were correctly translated according to their intended meaning and register.

  • The “overtranslation” of specific items could have been facilitated significantly thanks to the publication’s peritext, which does not include the original text, making it inaccessible to readers wishing to compare the two.

  • Blanchot’s attempt to keep alliteration as much as possible had a significant impact on the lexical make‑‑up of the final translation.

  • The translation of terns of abuse shows great variety, with overt vulgarities or gros mots coexisting with archaic, literary and affected terms.

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Auden W. H., 1991, Collected Poems, London, Faber and Faber.

Bawcutt Priscilla, 1983, “The Art of Flyting”, Scottish Literary Journal, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 5–23.

Bawcutt Priscilla, 1992, Dunbar the Makar, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Bawcutt Priscilla, 2007, “William Dunbar”, in T. O. Clancy and M. Pittock (eds), The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature. Vol. 1: From Columba to the Union (until 1707), Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, pp. 295–304.

Blanchot Jean-Jacques (ed.), 2003, William Dunbar (1460?-1520?) : poète de Cour écossais. Poèmes présentés, traduits et annotés par Jean-Jacques Blanchot, Grenoble, Ellug.

Corbett John, 1997, Language and Scottish Literature, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Delisle Jean, 2013, La traduction raisonnée, Ottawa, Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa.

Fox Denton (ed.), 1981, The Poems of Robert Henryson, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Halliday Michael Alexander Kirkwood & Hasan Ruqaiya, 1976, Cohesion in English, London, Longman.

Jack Ronald D. S, 1997, The Poetry of William Dunbar, Glasgow, Association for Scottish Literary Studies.

Kinsley James, 1979, The Poems of William Dunbar, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Larrington Crolyne, 2006, “Diet, Defecation and the Devil: Disgust and the Pagan Past”, in N. McDonald (ed.), Medieval Obscenities, York, York Medieval Press.

Lenker Ursula, 2012, “Old English: Pragmatics and Discourse”, in A. Bergs and L. J. Brinton (eds), English Historical Linguistics: An International Handbook, Berlin / Boston, De Gruyter Mouton.

Lodge R. Anthony, 2004, A Sociolinguistic History of Parisian French, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Macafee Caroline & Aitken Adam Jack †, 2002, “A History of Scots to 1700”, in A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, vol. XII, pp. xxixclvii. Accessed online at <>.

McDonald Nicola, 2006, “Introduction”, in N. McDonald (ed.), Medieval Obscenities, York, York Medieval Press.

McKean Thomas A, 2007, “Tradition and Modernity: Gaelic Bard in the Twentieth Century”, in I. Brown (ed.), The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, vol. 3, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Meier Nicole, 2007, “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy in context”, in N. Royan (ed.), Langage Cleir Illumynate, Amsterdam / New York, Rodopi.

Meier Nicole, 2008, The Poems of Walter Kennedy, Edinburgh, Scottish Text Society.

Munday Jeremy, 2016, Introducing Translation Studies, 4th ed., London / New York, Routledge.

Smith Jeremy, 2018, “The inventions of Sir Thomas Urquhart”, in A. Petrina and I. Johnson (eds), The Impact of Latin Culture on Medieval and Early Modern Scottish Writing, Kalamazoo, Western Michigan University.

Lexicographical resources and corpora

BOSLIT – Bibliography of Scottish Literature in Translation, <>.

DOST – Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, <>.

Frantext, <>.

Larousse: Dictionnaire compact, Français-Anglais, Anglais-Français, Paris, Larousse, 1999.

Larousse: Dictionnaire de français compact, Paris, Larousse, 2005.

Le Petit Robert, <>.

OED – Oxford English Dictionary, <>.

The Essential English-Gaelic Dictionary, compiled by A. Watson, Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2005.

The New Collins-Robert French Dictionary, 5th ed., London, Collins, 1998.

TLF – Trésor de la langue française, <>.

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1 See <> for a full chart.

2 See Faclair na Gàidhlig’s website at <>.

3 “arse, n. and int.”, OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2022, <> (accessed 11 February 2023).

4 Historical Thesaurus of English: <> (accessed 8 February 2023).

5 <[…]>.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1.
Légende *luschbald – no translation supplied by Bawcutt in her glossary. For DOST it is “an abusive term of doubtful meaning”.
Fichier image/jpeg, 345k
Titre Table 2.
Fichier image/jpeg, 127k
Titre Table 3.
Légende *flend – no translation supplied by either DOST or Bawcutt.
Fichier image/jpeg, 180k
Titre Table 4.
Fichier image/jpeg, 137k
Titre Table 5.
Fichier image/jpeg, 222k
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Ruggero Bianchin, « Mekill Wirdis: Vulgarisms in Jean-Jacques Blanchot’s French Translation of the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy »Études écossaises [En ligne], 22 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2023, consulté le 10 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Ruggero Bianchin

University of Glasgow
Ruggero Bianchin est chercheur doctorant en linguistique anglaise à l’Université de Glasgow, où il travaille aussi comme assistant d’enseignement. Sa recherche porte sur l’analyse linguistique des traductions en langues romanes des poèmes écrits en ancien écossais parmi les xive et xvie siècles, et il a présenté des résultats préliminaires de sa thèse à plusieurs conférences (parmi elles, FRLSU 2021 et WCSL 2022). Il a aussi une longue expérience de traducteur et auteur de chansons, et pour donner suite à sa traduction complète du poème The Buke of the Howlat en italien, réalisée pour sa thèse de master, il est en train de planifier une anthologie de traductions italiennes de poésie écrite en ancien écossais.
Ruggero Bianchin is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow’s English Language & Linguistics department, where he also works as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. His doctoral thesis focuses on the linguistic analysis of Romance translations of Older Scots poetry, and has presented preliminary findings of his research at a number of conferences (among these FRLSU 2021 and WCSL 2022). He is also an experienced translator and published songwriter, and after completing a full Italian translation of the alliterative poem The Buke of the Howlat for his MA thesis, he is planning a collection of Older Scots poetry in Italian translations.

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