Chaucer Translations

March 30, 2018

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

In April, we will be discussing two of my favorite things in the Quarterly Discussion: translation and Chaucer. I love Middle English texts because they show such difference between Old English and contemporary English. Old English was originally spoken by Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. As the Anglo-Saxons formed larger communities, Old English began to overpower Latin as the dominant language in Britain.

There are some stark differences between Latin and Old English. For example, English is structured around the subject-verb sentence structure. If we rearrange the word order, meaning may very likely change. In Latin, however, word order matters much less than the form of the words. Nouns are inflected for case, number, gender, and verbs are inflected for person, number, tense, aspect, voice and mood. Since Latin depends on these constant word endings, the language can attain a rhyme scheme that sounds awkward in English.

In fact, the first English poems depended upon alliteration and repetition instead of rhyme scheme and syllable count. As British arts began to commingle with the highly stylized French poetry, the style began to change. As so often happens when languages collide, the arts begin to absorb and reflect the other culture's style. Middle English began to assume some of the words and styles from French poetry. Beginning roughly in the 11th century, it continued into the 1500s. Since Chaucer constructed The Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400, it is important to understand a bit about Chaucer's main dialect: Middle English.

In April, the group of participants in our Quarterly Discussion will review a variety of Chaucer translations. This practice is so interesting because it simultaneously reveals a wide variety of things. First, the Middle English is recognizable in structure (much moreso than Old English). Therefore, reading the original is not impossible. Most originals are now printed with excellent footnotes and background information for those words that have slipped out of the English language since Chaucer's day. Second, we learn about Chaucer himself. What sort of biases, prejudices and experiences he had can be reflected in a work of this magnitude. Finally, we discover cultural clues, such as clothing styles and stereotypes. Since Chaucer was an incredibly playful artist, the reader is required to ascertain tone as well. Is the cultural stereotype, for example, serious, playful or insulting? How will we know through language alone? There will be questions that are impossible to answer, but I find that discussions about Chaucer's works are always entertaining and rewarding.

As a teaser, I have been comparing some of the Chaucer translations, and I find the following bit particularly interesting. Chaucer modeled "The Franklin's Tale" after the French story-telling style of a breton lay. We know, then, that the narrative will be rhymed and involve chivalry. The language is highly stylized and assumes that the speaker is an educated man. Therefore, when the Franklin says “But, sirs, I'm not a cultivated man/ And so from the beginning I beseech/ You to excuse me my untutored speech”, the reader already knows that this is untrue. Chaucer chose the style to fit the speaker, tale and theme. But Chaucer also chose how to deliver the lines. From the very first lines, then, his tale incorporates irony and ambiguity as much as it uses elevated rhetoric.

"The Franklin's Tale" revolves around Dorigen, a fair maiden, who is won over by the knight Arvéragus. They swear their love to each other, but must part soon after their wedding. When Arvéragus is sent away for two years as part of his knightly duties, Dorigen pines away for him. During this time, another suitor approaches Dorigen. Though she rejects him, she does mention that if he can move mountains, she would love him. She says this because it is the mountainous, rocky shore that blocks her husband's safe return. Unfortunately for Dorigen, the suitor finds a magician who eventually moves the mountains. When he proves that he has fulfilled the pledge, Arvéragus consents to the coupling as the only way to save Dorigen's honor. Crestfallen and ashamed, she approaches the suitor and he forgives her debt. After hearing this whole tale, the magician (also called the philosopher), then, forgives the suitor's debt. So, in the end, no one errs other than in words. No crime has been committed, though the magician remains unpaid for his trick.

By looking at the final lines of this tale, we can gain an understanding of some of the tricks with translation.

First, the original reads:

This philosophre answerde, 'Leeve brother,/ Everich of yow dide gentilly til oother./ Thou art a squier, and he is a knyght;/ But God forbede, for his blisful myght,/ But if a clerk koude doon a gentil dede/ As wel as any of yow, it is no drede!

'Sire, I releesse thee thy thousand pound,/ As thou right now were cropen out of the ground,/ Ne nevere er now ne haddest knowen me./ For, sire, I wol nat taken a peny of thee./ For al my craft, ne noght for my travaille./ Thou hast ypayed wel for my vitaille./ It is ynogh, and farewel, have good day!'

And took his hors, and forth he goth his way./ Lordynges, this question, thanne wol I aske now,/ Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?/ Now telleth me, er that ye ferther wende./ I kan namoore; my tale is at an ende.


Next, the same section of text from the Great Books series version (translated by Nevil Coghill) reads:

Then the magician answered, “My dear brother,/ Each of you did as nobly as the other./ You are a squire, sir, and he a knight,/ But God forbid in all His blissful might/ That men of learning should not come as near/ To nobleness as any, never fear.

“Sir, I release you of your thousand pound/ No less than if you'd crept out of the ground/ Just now, and never had had to do with me./ I will not take a penny, sir, in fee/ For all my knowledge and my work to rid/ The coast of rocks; I'm paid enough for what I did,/ Well paid, and that's enough. Farewell, good-day!”/ He mounted on his horse and rode away.

My lords, I'll put a question: tell me true,/ Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?/ Ere we ride onwards tell me, anyone!/ I have no more to say, my tale is done.


While this translation has a lot to offer, I want to look at just one line for the sake of brevity. Coghill translates: “Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?” as “Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?” According to a variety of Middle English sources, “fre” can be translated as noble, free, of noble status, gracious, and generous. Which word best fits the syntax, meter, meaning and author intention? These are difficult questions, made particularly difficult in a translation of something that may also be tongue-in-cheek. I think it is important to note that Chaucer's original leaves open the possibility that Dorigen may have been the most “fre”. The translation, however, does not because instead of the ambigious “mooste fre”, it asks who was the finest “gentleman”. In my mind, that single word changes the passage quite radically.

Translations are never perfect, but they are fun to explore. I think we will gain much insight from our comparisons. Feel free to join us! Email for more information and to join the conversation!

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From Chaucer to Chappelle

January 12, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post: from Chaucer to Chappelle

“Let fancy fly, with all her lofty graces,/ Pack wisdom in, with tenderness and passion,/ But never put good fooling out of fashion.” - Goethe

Chaucer's wit still resonates today. In The Canterbury Tales he developed characters that might also fit straight into contemporary society. Whether read in the original or a translation, Chaucer is simply fun to read. He is funny, irreverent and poignant. I want to demonstrate just two of the possible ways in which Chaucer filters into the present. My ideas may not square with your understanding of Chaucer and if that's the case, post a comment and let's start a discussion of humor's qualities all the way from Chaucer to today!

First, stand-up comedy is a fairly new form of comedy. The routines make us laugh (hopefully) but also search for a larger point (hopefully). Stand-up often contains a raw quality that makes us laugh about an uncomfortable truth, just as Chaucer does in something like the “Miller's Tale”. A comedian's craft relies heavily upon the combination of language, word choice, subject matter, rhythm and narrative. None know this lesson more intimately than stand-up comedians whose feedback is immediate and face-to-face with an audience. Reliance upon recognized narrative techniques brings the joke, punchline or story toward a harsh truth which we must communally face. Chaucer developed a sort of humor based upon these uncomfortable truths through the lens of a pilgrimage. His brilliant scheme combines a random assortment of odd personalities who perfectly reflect society's variety. This scheme enables him to poke fun at a wide array of cultural differences (among other things). Literally, everything is ripe for a joke in Chaucer – from potty humor to personal faith to corruption. I believe that Chaucer's success has affected the path of comedy in general, and stand-up comedy more specifically.

First, irreverence. Chaucer did not shy away from uncomfortable narratives. In the introduction to the 1958 Everyman edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Professor Cawley writes, “[S]olemnity is avoided by virtue of Chaucer's unfailing sense of proportion and unerring eye for the humorous incongruities of life”. In other words, Chaucer's study of human nature included those parts which often make us uncomfortable, but he balances these with equality (he makes fun of everyone) and also proportion (not everything is a joke). In a similar way, Dave Chappelle, actor and comedian, recently finished a three-part Netflix series in which he continued to push hot-button issues. Chappelle could not be more forthright with the fact that, at some point, he will offend everyone. And that, according to both Chaucer and Chappelle, might just make us realize something important about ourselves. The Canterbury Tales pokes fun at everyone, even Chaucer himself. Chaucer traveled the world in a way that was rare for his time. He met all sorts of personalities, and I wonder if this is what drove him to write the way that he did. Was Chaucer inspired to write of morality through stories of bawdy embarrassment because he recognized humor's ability to equalize awkward situations? Humor of this type is just, fair and equally unsettling. However, this article in The National Review claims that no comedian can be universally embraced because even comedy is partisan. I think perhaps the author misses the point of Chappelle's comedy, which is not necessarily to push a single agenda, but rather to draw out the ironies present in our lives. Chappelle claims that Americans' heightened sensitivity began to intrude upon his comedy sketches in a negative way. I think a comedian like Chaucer or Chappelle would likely claim that we all participate in these ironies, unwitting or not, and that doesn't make us political, it makes us human. For them, humor is one way in which we can gain a better understanding of our own biases. Laughing at others is insensitive, laughing at ourselves is uncomfortable, but laughing together is social and redemptive.

Second, potty humor. We all remember the Miller's Tale which ends with a kiss on the backside and some fart jokes. Basic human nature was funny then, and it is funny now. One can find these jokes anywhere, but it might surprise you to see it in children's literature. This is another rapidly expanding space in contemporary society. It often combines poetics and morality since children enjoy rhythm and rhyme, but also have many lessons to learn. The sing-song sounds are intended to develop a child's language skills, but are a bit too formal for speech. Therefore, these sorts of rhyme schemes have mostly fallen out of modern-day speech, but are very useful in portraying a message. Chaucer too uses these techniques which is why they would be best spoken aloud. In fact, he uses poetic voice to further distinguish one character from another (something that Shakespeare quickly picked up on). Andrea Beaty is a contemporary author of children's literature. Her book, Iggy Peck, Architect, published in 2007, was an instant success. Written in rhyme, it includes funny, silly details such as the fact that Iggy Peck can build with any material – even soiled diapers. This type of potty humor is funny to kids, but also adults. It's not high-brow, but it is pretty universal.

Humor illuminates incongruities in a unique way. Sometimes we do not know the right emotion to accompany a joke. Often jokes pass our personal comfort levels – and this is the time when we should transition to discussion. The time when we have reached a sensitive point is the best time to develop informed and open conversation. And this is just one reason why I am grateful for Chaucer!

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Comedians in Cars

August 11, 2017

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

Before we even begin, I feel that I have to's post takes the fun out of humor. In analyzing what makes a joke funny, we are pretty much surgically separating humor from the joke. So, having said that, let's dive in.... To better understand today's conversation, you might take a peek at the following video of Jerry Seinfeld talking with Alec Baldwin in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (about 11 minutes).

Jerry Seinfeld started Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee after a successful career as a stand-up comedian and television star. Each episode highlights a car which he uses to pick up another comedian. The show documents them discussing what makes a good joke. Sometimes, however, humor is best left to demonstration, as in the episode with Alec Baldwin. Instead of defining what makes a joke funny, they demonstrate how to tell a humorous story. The viewer is along for the ride, and hopefully, attentive to the demonstration. It's the old adage of show, don't tell. Of course, it helps that Baldwin also does impersonations. The ability to reenact a story is one aspect that enhances the stand-up routine. In other words, reading the story off of a page would probably be funny. But seeing the story, and hearing a variety of accents from a single actor, transcends funny. Baldwin makes the humor come alive.

The episode with Alec Baldwin begins with an inside joke. Since Seinfeld and Baldwin grew up in the same neighborhood, they share a personal history that the viewer does not. In this case, we laugh along with a discussion of their shared hometown. As they recreate a physical setting based upon their shared reality, the viewer constructs something similar. Though they are not identical settings, the jokes work because of a shared narrative. We each know a little bit about the dividing line between poverty and wealth. We envision the poor kid spying on the rich kid (who is, by the way, squandering his wealth and toys by singing into a fake microphone). This type of joke may require less foregrounding between the two speakers because of a shared history. In other words, the joke works on a meta-level that includes everyone, but is perhaps more powerful to those within the circle. So, while Baldwin and Seinfeld grew up with different circumstances, they have a literal terrain in common. Yet, the story works for us too because: a] we are included in the dialogue and b] most of us share some basic communal terrain and c] the delivery is well-crafted. This last part is, without a doubt, an art form. Knowing how to deliver, how to read, how to create a persona that gets a laugh and underscore it with some harsh truth, is, as Seinfeld indicates, probably unteachable.

Seineld notes his friend's story-telling talent when Baldwin retells a story of Rip Torn's bar fight. As Baldwin knows exactly what details to add (or more likely, what details to remove) in order to create a suspenseful and hilarious story. He re-enacts the bar fight, imitating Torn's voice and expressions. Narrative alone cannot create humor. Rather, a joke is shared. If something gets a laugh, then two people have held a single truth, at least momentarily.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines humor as something “absurdly incongruous” or “ludicrous”. Much like Rip Torn, a man in his 70s cracking jaws in a bar fight. Though the two actors know Torn better than the viewer, we definitely share in the joke. It seems very important to highlight the places where humanity connects like this. These absurdities enlighten our view of the world while also removing elements of fear. One can, of course, describe a bar fight in any number of ways. This version certainly aims to draw out the humor of the situation. But to what end? What is the point of creating a shared space, especially one that is funny?

In response to his reenactment and imitation of Torn, Seinfeld comments: “This, by the way, is your curse... you're a gifted, gifted actor who is cursed with the mind of a writer.” I have been puzzling over the idea that Baldwin is, in some way, cursed. I can see how it would be difficult to act if one disagrees with the vision of the director. I can also see how the character that one envisions no longer fits into the play with other dramatic interpretations. But I am not exactly sure how Seinfeld intends to separate actor and writer. Obviously they are different, but in what ways? People publish and read novels at rapid pace. Likewise, we consume television and movies at fast speeds. So, what exactly is the difference, and how does it affect our interpretation?

There are many types of humor. Slapstick can be overplayed successfully, whereas other jokes require subtlety and finesse. In most episodes of Seinfeld's show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee he asks for more than a chat. Seinfeld is trying to understand how humor works, and it is worth our attention, because humor may very well be an essential form of human connection.

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Recap of April's Quarterly Discussion

April 22, 2016

This April, a group of students, staff and friends of Harrison Middleton University discussed Kafka's Metamorphosis. The following thoughts were compiled by Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, from the input of all of the participants. It was a wonderful conversation!

The Metamorphosis centers on Gregor Samsa and it begins: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.” And that's just the first sentence. Samsa (and an omniscient narrator) continue, for the rest of the story, to offer opinions and details of his family, his environment and his past, all while locked in his room, in the shape and skin of a large cockroach.

Instead of being horrified at his own appearance, Gregor responds to the change calmly. He says: “At the same moment, however, he didn't forget to remind himself from time to time of the fact that calm (indeed the calmest) reflection might be better than the most confused decisions.” And then he decides that he'll try to open the door to the family room and gauge their reactions to see how he himself should react. Kafka writes, “He was keen to witness what the others now asking after him would say at the sight of him. If they were startled then Gregor had no more responsibility and could be calm. But if they accepted everything quietly, then he would have no reason to get excited and, if he got a move on, could really be at the station around eight o'clock.” Gregor bases all attempt at self-reflection upon his family's observations. The tight, constrained and controlling environs of his room make for difficult reflection, especially in the shape of a large bug.

Quickly, Gregor realizes that he has no idea how to move his many legs and thick abdomen. He struggles in bed and comes to the conclusion that he should call for help. But the idea sounds ridiculous to him. He says, “Now, quite apart from the fact that the doors were locked, should he really call out for help? In spite of all his distress, he was unable to suppress a smile at the idea.” What is it that makes Gregor smile? Possibly he finds it ridiculous that helpless people who depend upon his financial support should actually try to help him. Is he laughing at their utter ridiculousness, belittling them when, in fact, he is the one who has become a cockroach? Or, has Gregor become the thing that HE most abhors, which he finds ironic and slightly humorous?

Then, Gregor's manager arrives, wondering where his employee is. Gregor attempts to get out of bed and, of course, he falls. The noise startles the manager and he says, “Something has fallen in there.” Though Gregor knocked himself down and made a loud noise in the process, he also has fallen: fallen from esteem, from grace, from the bed. He has simply fallen. Is Gregor most worried about having let down his manager, his family or himself? The narrator interjects: “Gregor tried to imagine to himself whether anything similar to what was happening to him today could have also happened at some point to the manager. At least one had to concede the possibility of such a thing.” Despite his horrifying physical appearance, Gregor cannot make out his own character. Instead, he relies on the reactions of others. With this question, though, Gregor allows the narrative to include everyone – even the reader. Is it possible that we may someday turn into the thing we least desire? Gregor thinks that one must concede the possibility.

This story begins long before Gregor turns into a bug, however. It actually begins with the father's failure to make enough money to support the family. Gregor, then, assumed all family debt. It appears that Gregor did not enjoy his job, his responsibilities, or his coworkers. He rarely socialized and spent more time in his room than elsewhere. Gregor became stuck on the idea of responsibility and the family became accustomed to Gregor's financial 'care'. However, the family relationship devolved into one of convenience and monetary support. From there, unhealthy dependences grew. What was once convenient, necessary and appreciated devolved into mere responsibility, like a monetary transaction. Perhaps this is why the family never questions whether or not the thing inside Gregor's room is, in fact, Gregor. Wouldn't it be more plausible to think that the bug perhaps ate Gregor? Yet no one asks this question. Instead, they react with horror, and eventually, disdain. No one, not even Gregor, asks for a reason. They merely accept it as true.

It is important, however, that Gregor feels trapped. And so does his family. We learn: “Gregor later earned so much money that he was in a position to bear the expenses of the entire family, expenses which he, in fact, did bear. They had become quite accustomed to it, both the family and Gregor as well. They took the money with thanks, and he happily surrendered it, but the special warmth was no longer present.” What is it about growing accustomed to something that also allows it to lose value? Gregor rescued the family in his own mind, in his own way. It just happens that nothing in his own mind is actually rational and his own way left a lot to be desired.

An example of problems in the family's relationship arrives when Gregor's sister and mother decide to move furniture out of Gregor's room, ostensibly to help him move around. He thinks they are too weak and frail. Clearly, he has always thought this and his superiority is palpable. Yet the women do move everything. He continually underestimates his family and thinks them incapable of difficult tasks. The sister took to taking care of Gregor, though she hated it. He notes that she walked into his room “on tiptoes, as if she was in the presence of a serious invalid or a total stranger.” After she begins with such care as trying to figure out what he would like to eat, he determines to be 'less sensitive', and it is for this reason, perhaps, that he has donned the roach-like appearance, the thick shell.

The family lived with the bug-like Gregor for a long time. Why no one left, why Gregor never escapes, is indecipherable. The mother kept hoping for Gregor's return. Gregor casually mentions changing shapes again too, as if to change forms is always possible. It is unclear who controls the shape-shifting: fate, one's own mind, a supernatural being? It is possible, however, that denial and hope can assume the same form. By denying the permanence of this current form, Gregor (and his mother) gives into the idea that we can simply change back. This denies the present experience and yet also, ironically, offers hope for the future.

The ultimate irony arrives at the moment when Gregor's sister begins to play a mini-violin concert for her family and the lodgers. Clearly, she enjoys playing, though she lacks any ability. Gregor listens from within his room. He feels less like an animal as the music plays. This allows him to rationalize that since animals are not able to appreciate music with such spirit, therefore he is not an animal. Fully absorbed with the music, Gregor moves into the living room where everyone notices him and they all freeze. As a result, the lodgers decide to leave without payment and the sister decides that Gregor is no longer worth protecting. The sister demands that the family get rid of Gregor. Of course, Gregor is still listening. Though this was Gregor's attempt to show genuine appreciation and love for his sister, her words leave him unhurt, unfazed. Instead, he simply and slowly turns around to go back into his room. Gregor's next thoughts are of complete contentment. And then he dies at dawn. Released from their burden, the family determines to move immediately. The father and sister have jobs and everyone seems relieved.

However, the story's final sentence leaves many questions for the reader. The enigmatic words read: “And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey the daughter first lifted herself up and stretched her young body.” This sentence is a complete inversion of the opening scene, in which Gregor (a young and healthy salesman) attempts to stretch in his bed only to discover that he is a bug. It is hopeful that the family has new dreams and good intentions – but the reader is unclear on how these are different from the pattern established by Gregor, who also had good intentions to fulfill the dreams of his family. He failed. But who is to say that the sister will succeed? Having said that, Gregor chose to make decisions for his family believing them incapable of work. He belittled their existence while supporting it and enabled them to an idle lifestyle.

It is important to note that Gregor is not evil, selfish or mean. He truly believed that he was acting in the family's best interests. Yet, Kafka portrays the absolute disintegration of love and relationship in this story through Gregor's unreflective eyes. The reader is left perplexed, undecided as to whether this pattern will repeat. Perhaps the family (now with love and compassion and, hopefully, communication) will be able to make a better life. Again, the irony appears that the family can only regain happiness (or attempt it) once Gregor has died.

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