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Translations of Chaucer

May 4, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week’s Quarterly Discussion focused on Chaucer in translation. I opened the discussion with the question as to how one would determine what elements make a “best” translation. This seemingly generic question is actually really difficult to answer. Some authors excelled at rhyme schemes, while others performed better with word choice, for example. Truly, there is no single response and my intent in opening (and closing) the discussion with this question was to explore the benefits of having access to the primary source (and primary language).

Necessarily, translation contains many layers. First, there is the original language barrier. Most people who read a work in translation do so because they cannot access the language of origin. Secondly, translations must navigate not only word choice, but also context and cultural information carried within a language. Stylistic issues present a third difficulty. These are things such as alliteration, rhyme scheme, line length, etc. And finally (though this list is hardly exhaustive), the translator faces the issue of the target audience. By that I mean that the translator must weigh all of these decisions by postulating how successful the translation will be in the target language. In other words, there is a very delicate balance between risk-taking and minimizing risk, all driven by the target audience.

I selected Chaucer in translation for a couple of reasons. First, I was surprised that the Great Books version was Neville Coghill’s translation. My initial introduction to the Canterbury Tales was twenty years ago in an undergraduate class where we worked slowly and diligently (if impatiently) through the Middle English. I think this text is still fairly accessible with footnotes. Having said that, I do understand the amount of labor involved in combing through a footnoted text. (Personally, I believe that Gibbon’s texts include more footnotes - and more foreign languages - than the Middle English Chaucer, but that is perhaps just me.) Since I study the idea of poetry and occasionally attempt translations, I have become very interested in the differences (and similarities) between the original and translated versions of Chaucer.

For this discussion, we compared four different texts of “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”: Nicholson (Librarius version, published 1934); Neville Coghill’s translation (published 1951; this is also the Penguin Classics text as well as the Great Books version); A. S. Kline’s version (dated 2007); and the original. Below is a short passage from all four texts which will hopefully illuminate many struggles both from a translator’s standpoint, as well as the audience’s.

First of all, Chaucer writes in rhymed iambic pentameter. Since this sounds archaic to the modern-day ear, the translator first has to decide if they will stick with that same rhyme scheme. Secondly, Chaucer includes jokes throughout, using words with double meanings that may have faded away over time. In some cases, the translators chose to create a new joke, one that would work with the contemporary audience. In other cases, the translator ignores the joke. What license does a translator have in making these decisions? How much introduced content is actually new content? For example, in order to replace the Old English forslewthen, which means slow to act, or to delay, Coghill adjusts the metaphor and loses the layered meaning of a man about to set sail who is incapable of stemming his own “tyde”. Coghill writes, “But as I see you mean to stay behind/ And miss the tide for willful sloth of mind” instead of the original line: “But sith I see that thou wolt heere abyde/ And thus forslewthen wilfully thy tyde”.

Analyzing translations can be a tedious process, but it is the most enriching language experience I can imagine. In studying these texts, we gained insight into: root words, etymology, cultural adaptations, similes and metaphors (both new and old), effects of acculturation, and more. Furthermore, when translations of Chaucer differ, then the moral, main idea, character or understanding of Chaucer and his times, might also change. The stakes may be even higher when thinking about something like Tocqueville’s Democracy in America or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, in which the moral is educational. The following passage demonstrates just one (of many) deviations that we analyzed during this discussion.

 

“Ful sooty was hir bour, and eek hir halle

In which she eet ful many a sclendre meel.

Of poynaunt sauce her neded never a deel.

No deyntee morsel passed thurgh hir throte;

Hir dyete was accordant to hir cote.” – Original

 

“Right neatly was her bedroom and her hall,

Wherein she'd eaten many a slender meal.

Of sharp sauce, why she needed no great deal,

For dainty morsel never passed her throat;

Her diet well accorded with her coat.” – Librarius (Nicholson)

 

“Sooty her hall, her kitchen melancholy,

And there she ate full many a slender meal;

there was no sauce piquante to spice her veal,

No dainty morsel ever passed her throat.

According to her cloth she cut her coat.” – Coghill

 

“Full sooty was her bower, all melancholy,

In which she ate full many a scanty meal.

No pungent sauce was needed for her veal;

No dainty morsel ever passed her throat.

Her diet, her cottage struck a single note.” - Kline

After reading through these passages, we wondered: Do we have the same impression of the widow after reading these four lines? Why do Coghill and Kline introduce the term melancholy? Did Chaucer intend for the widow to be surrounded in dirt, or simply soot from the ever-burning fireplace? Did the widow feel impoverished? How does “veal” change the passage, if at all? If we assume that Chaucer is intentionally including words from Latin, French and Old English, does the word “piquante” fit here, or does it distract (since we no longer navigate language tri-lingually or are, at least, not aware of it)? “Cote” is the Middle English term for cottage, so is the introduction of “coat” appropriate?

Basically, if this is the character that Chaucer uses as the introductory frame for his morality play, how much change still maintains the same message? And, is it important to aim for the same? At the end of our discussion, we still struggled to state precisely what is “best”. The translator must make value judgments and so must the audience, thus complicating the very business of translation!


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