Claudia Keelan: Female Troubadours and Feminism


As a Creative Writing major, I’ve written poems, plays, prose. As an Italian minor, I’ve studied language extensively, including literature in other languages. Despite that, before studying it in my poetry workshop, I’d never given translation much thought. I never considered translation a form of creative writing; if the original was the creative writing piece, the translator seemed to be merely the messenger.

However, studying translation and the work of Claudia Keelan gave me a new perspective. Keelan takes the poems of the trobairitz, the female troubadours of the 1100s and 1200s, and translates them into modern day English, bringing them into this century with words like “swag,” “dude,” and “girlfriend” featured prominently. Clearly, these are not direct translations of poetry from the 12th and 13th centuries. A lot of choice and intentionality goes into translating a poem – aside from the liberties one can take with diction, there are line breaks, punctuation, and a rhyme scheme or lack thereof to consider. For Keelan, one of her major focuses was maintaining the musicality of the pieces, and so rhyme and rhythm characterize the verses.

Her passion for the topic made both the poetry and the reading compelling – when she spoke to our poetry class, she referred to the trobairitz as her “sisters” and lamented that she “missed them.” Interesting, given that when she was introduced to the poems, Keelan didn’t like them and felt they were flat and bland. After some research, however, an initial disdain turned into a twenty year endeavor. In the end, she wrote the poems of the trobairitz in a period of about six months, but the preparation and language learning took much, much longer. Keelan mentioned that she feels she “participated in a canonical American English translation,” given that the poetry of the troubadours has been translated into music countless times. However, the trobairitz, the female troubadours, have not been translated as frequently.

And that’s why these translations are important. Claudia Keelan took these young women from a distant time, these women so defined by the social systems they were forced to work with, and revitalized their voices. From a “feminist” point of view and a “heretical Catholic – as in, no one’s going to define my Catholicism” point of view, Keelan greatly respected what the trobairitz had to say about their places in society and their “religion of love” at a time when marriage was seen as a social transaction and marrying for love, as is the social norm today, was a nonexistent concept. Though the male troubadours used more wit and vocabulary in their poems, Keelan commended and admired the trobairitz for their honesty. When asked why she chose to modernize the language, Keelan explained that “their problems, difficulties, pains, and happinesses are modern.” And so they are. Claudia Keelan took those modern sentiments, that raw honesty, and reworked them into terms and a language we are able to understand. Her decisions make these translations uniquely hers; her commitment to this art enabled the trobairitz’ voices to reach new generations.

Thanks to Claudia Keelan, I now understand the difficulty of translation, the art, the originality, the creativity – and, perhaps most importantly, the sheer power.

Kinsey Cantrell