Interview with Jeff Sypeck

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One of most interesting medieval books to come out in 2006 was Becoming Charlemagne by Jeff Sypeck. His account of how a Germanic king named Karl gets crowned an emperor by the Pope in the year 800 earned great reviews and impressive sales.  Sypeck, who teaches medieval literature at University of Maryland University College, has also written several articles and blogs at Quid Plura? He has a new book now available – The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier – which offers a translation of a 15th century Middle Scot poem ‘The Taill of Rauf Coilyear’.  We interviewed Jeff Sypeck by email:

Becoming Charlemagne is not a biography, but an account of a five year period around the time the Frankish king Karl is crowned emperor by the Pope in the year 800. Why did you want to focus on this particular period?

I was fascinated by Isaac, Charlemagne’s Jewish messenger to Baghdad, and the intermingling of three religions at the dawn of the ninth century. When I finally faced the fact that there wasn’t sufficient documentation for a book about him, a perceptive editor at HarperCollins pointed out that what I was really proposing was a book about Charlemagne’s coronation in its larger context. The five-year span of Isaac’s journey stayed in place because it nicely framed a detailed sliver of the medieval timeline. By “zooming in” like that, I wanted newcomers to the Middle Ages to see distant historical figures not as names or statues or shapes in stained-glass windows, but as human beings.

It is now been just over three years since Becoming Charlemagne was first released. Taking a look back at the book, is there anything you would want to change?

I wouldn’t mind adding more primary sources, especially poems, to help set certain scenes more evocatively. I’d also clarify a couple of broad generalizations, and I might spend more time on some of Charlemagne’s less noble deeds that predate that five-year period. Still, I’m happy to have reached readers who otherwise might never have cracked open a book about the Middle Ages. A gratifying number of people have said that they don’t usually read nonfiction but were drawn in by Becoming Charlemagne. Hopefully, some of them will dig a little deeper; maybe a few will go on to explore the scholarly books on the subject.

You have just released a new book – The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier – which is a translation of a 15th century poem. Can you tell us what you found interesting about this text to produce an edition of it?

I’ve made student-friendly translations of lesser-known English romances for use in my own survey courses at the University of Maryland, and “Ralph the Collier” really jumped out at me as deserving a wider audience, since few non-medievalists are patient enough to read it in Middle Scots. W.R.J. Barron called it the best medieval English romance about Charlemagne, and he was right; it’s an exuberant mixture of folktale motifs, chivalric material, and humor. It’s no Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but it’s highly entertaining, as B-list romances often are. Few people know there’s a medieval tale in which Charlemagne staggers around a dining room after being slapped across the face.

I was also intrigued by its form: 75 thirteen-line rhyming, alliterative stanzas with a “wheel” at the end of each. A few years back, I read a debate among translators who suggested that it might not be worthwhile to mimic the exact form of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Simon Armitage, in his 2007 translation, certainly didn’t. So when I looked at the tricky stanzas of “Ralph the Collier,” I wondered, “How hard would it be to replicate these in modern English?”

Well, I now know that rendering 972 lines of rhyming, alliterating Middle Scots into readable modern English is enough to drive even the most enthusiastic translator around the bend. However, if you love prosody, formal poetry, and diction, there’s great fun to be had in pondering a medieval work, line by line, in an attempt to craft new, modern stanzas that are faithful to the tone of the original.

You also describe this book as an experiment in self-publishing. Can you tell us about the process of self-publishing a book and some of the challenges you faced in getting your work to print?

I couldn’t, in good faith, argue either to an academic press or to a trade publisher that the world was clamoring for a student-friendly translation of a relatively obscure romance, but I did want to send my version into the world in a more slick form than the PDF I posted on my blog in 2007. I hoped to create a book that looked like it belonged on the table of a small press at Kalamazoo.

Self-publishing companies will take you for all you’re worth by trying to sell you marketing and distribution services. You can ignore all that and simply use these outfits–in my case, Lulu.com–as printing services. You can download free templates that set the margins for the interior and the cut lines for the front and back covers, and if you know your way around Photoshop and Microsoft Word, you can make a pretty snazzy book. I have some professional training in book editing, which came in handy when I had to lay out the interior, but I still encountered the unique annoyances of working with medieval texts, like intractable software that insisted on turning the letter “yogh” into a blank space. Then I had to undo all that careful formatting to create a machine-readable edition that looked good on the Kindle, which was an exercise in trial and error.

Of course, few people ever know that a self-published book exists. I have no illusions about the sales potential of a translation of a 15th-century Middle Scots romance, which is the very definition of a niche book, but I imagine that every so often, someone will hear about it, and they’ll either download the Kindle book or order a hard copy from my Web site. Most self-published books sell only a handful of copies; authors need to temper their expectations accordingly.

Finally, can you tell us about any future books or projects that you are planning?

I’m torn between wanting to publish other medieval romances in translation and writing more narrative nonfiction in the vein of Becoming Charlemagne. Whichever project comes next, it’s going to be aimed at students or absolute newcomers to the Middle Ages. I want them to see why some of us find medieval literature and history endlessly rich and relevant.

We thank Jeff Sypeck for answering our questions. Click here to purchase his latest book The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier.

Sharan Newman