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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Refractions, Ideas in Translation

March 16, 2018

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

In a global society, we are bound to read many works in translation. Quality literature from around the world is being produced at an increasingly fast pace. In fact, it is impossible to keep up with the literature in one's primary language, let alone international texts. This proliferation of material presents an opportunity for anyone interested in translation. More than simply studying translations, students often find it a valuable exercise to attempt a translation. Experiments in translation can be extremely difficult, but also very rewarding.

Language is ever-evolving. As such, translations continue to change. Take, for example, Dante. He wrote The Divine Comedy in the 14th century. From the beginning, Dante's verse clearly demonstrated mastery, but for years, it was available in the original only. It was not until 1802 that the full text had been translated into English. Since then, it has been translated into English more times than any other language. In fact, since 1802, there are now more than 100 full translations (this does not include translated portions, which number too many to list). Translators such as W.S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky, Dorothy Leigh Sayers, Charles Eliot Norton (Great Books version), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have provided very different versions of the same primary text. Why are there so many versions? Should we be satisfied with any one of these translations, or attempt to read a number of them?

Unless one is a scholar, there is very little reason to read a number of translations of the same text. However, when selecting the text you want to read, you might browse a variety of them. You may find one that sounds better to you than the others, or that contains more helpful notes, for example. In other words, when reading classics, it is a good idea to know who the translator is and what type of style they use.

On the other hand, one reason to read a variety of texts is to demonstrate the ways in which language evolves. For example, terms that Longfellow used may carry very different connotations now. The word gay, for instance, has evolved into a variety of meanings which may complicate a contemporary translation, particularly for younger readers. Rhyme schemes, cultural norms and style will illustrate some very different tendencies.

Working in the 1980s, André Lefevere proposed the idea that translations should be viewed as “refractions”. By this, he meant that the translated texts have been (re)produced in a way that aligns with some sort of ideology. In the same way that classics have been rewritten for young children, for example, translators also rewrite texts in a way that ensures success. More importantly, this “refraction” then becomes the “norm” for people who are unfamiliar with the content. In other words, a one time reader of Dante's Divine Comedy will only have access to their version. This will be their “norm”. It would surprise most readers, however, to find that the translations differ radically not only in word choice, but in the eventual meanings as well. Some versions have more supplemental notes than text and other versions leave it to the reader to do the research. Using the term “norm” in this case feels very misleading, and would be better represented by the idea that the texts we read in translation are, in fact, “refracted”. Susan Bassnet explains how some translations of Dante's “Inferno” completely miss the mark, unbeknownst to the reader. She writes, “The problem they share, here, of course, is that these lines are deliberately written in a particular style and are consciously ambiguous in their structure. It is not only the character of Francesca that emerges from these lines, it is also an autobiographically framed moral statement about the role of the writer. This aspect of the text has disappeared. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the courtly love ideal and the medieval notion of sin and repentance have ceased to have meaning, except as intellectual curiosity itself” (73). In other words, as the culture evolved away from the ideals of courtly love, Dante's statements about authorial intention also lost importance and were, therefore, missed or avoided in translation altogether.

In other instances, Lefevere demonstrates that, at times, translators elect to leave out sections which will be unsuccessful to target audiences. He claims that the first translators of Bertolt Brecht intentionally missed the mark, but that introduction opened the door for following translators (213). Once Brecht's name gained popularity, translators had more room in which to push the envelope and add foreign elements back into the text. When dealing with a common name, the text gains a sort of authority. Familiarity simultaneously elevates a work. Older texts, then, have an even stronger authority. The names Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante or Homer carry a certain stigma or prestige that may allow a translator more leeway than in tackling contemporary literature. In addition, these texts discuss ideas of continued importance and relevance that they deserve the attention they receive. Translators struggle, then, to create a language that effectively communicates old ideas to the dominant power sources and ideologies.

Because culture continually evolves, these pieces of literature will also continue to evolve. It is worth noting, however, the structures at play in them may demonstrate more about our the target society than the original text. It is not merely about poetic diction or mimicking the original (which is extremely difficult in itself), but in presenting a successful text to a new, and probably unfamiliar, audience. In April, we will host a discussion about a handful of Chaucer translations. Though the Middle English is fairly readable, there are a wide-range of translations which offer a variety of readings. It is worth our while to understand the ideologies behind them.

To join in April's Quarterly Discussion or for more information, email

Bassnett, Susan and André Lefevere. Constructing Cultures: Essays on Literary Translation. Multilingual Matters Ltd., 1998.

Lefevere, André. “Mother Courage's Cucumbers.” The Translation Studies Reader, Third Edition, edited by Lawrence Venuti, Routledge, 2000, pp. 203-219.

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Pascal's Memorial

March 25, 2016

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

Blaise Pascal composed his "Memorial" during a transcendent experience, a 'night of fire'. I find this a fitting poem for discussion considering all of the religious holidays that fall during this time of year. I also recently attended a community seminar about Pascal, and as usual, was extremely pleased with the depth of discussion. From this discussion, I add my own thoughts here regarding Pascal's “Memorial” (both the original and the English translation can be found here).

I find it difficult to believe in only a single thread of truth. Instead, truth for me contains various hues, many experiences and mountains of compiled moments. If we are talking about a religious 'truth' then I feel even moreso, the natural truth, the Truth, is something infinitely more inexplicable. Though they may be inexplicable however, I feel that discussion of these large truths is vital to humanity.

For this reason, Pascal's “Memorial” captures my attention. Pascal dates this experience as: “The year of grace 1654/ Monday, 23 November, feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology./ Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others./ From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,/ FIRE.” Remarkable the specificity in his entry. Even more remarkable, however, is the fact that this moment, this fire, stuck with Pascal so intensely, that after jotting down this poem, he sewed it into his coat and carried it with him for the rest of his life. Obviously, whatever experience, feeling or development Pascal stumbled upon between ten and midnight, it struck a deep chord of truth within him.

For example, in the midst of his poem, Pascal wrote: “Deum meum et Deum vestrum./ 'Ton DIEU sera mon Dieu.'” In nearly every French version that I come across, this passage is presented with the quote marks around the second phrase. Yet, in nearly every English version, the quote marks are missing as is the Latin. In the original document, I cannot find evidence to support or omit the quote marks. And my conundrum is this: I believe Pascal's “Memorial” to be more than a single transcendental experience. I believe that it IS a conversation. Perhaps, it is a conversation from the exterior Pascal to his interior self. Perhaps it is more. Regardless, the importance he places on this single conversation (if you will indulge me the use of conversation) is overwhelming. He sewed it into his clothing and wore it daily. I believe that on this night in 1654, Pascal wrote himself a roadmap to transcendence. He wanted more of these moments, and more than just savoring the experience, he wanted to have it again and again. These words continued to guide him, this FIRE continued to control his thoughts for the rest of his life. Why?

Reading Pascal's Pensées after reading the “Memorial” reinforces my belief that his single experience reinforced his desire to continue scribbling thoughts as they passed. Pascal's deep, penetrating questions regarding God show his intellect. Yet, the meaning of Pascal's “Memorial” continues to evade me. I feel that I understand a section only to lose it again as I fumble with the next. So, I have written a few questions that seem to me to be of least if we are trying to figure out Pascal in English (and I am). These questions deal mostly with translation from the original language. But I also think of it in larger terms than that. Pascal's roadmap attempts to translate a transcendent experience. In the end, any language will most likely fall short of this lofty goal. (Perhaps for this reason, Pascal hid his poem and carried it close to his chest, among the things in his soul, privately.) However, the two versions do differ, and they offer some speculation.

Therefore, my questions are:

1] Why does the English translation often translate the original Latin phrases? There are only three phrases in Latin, and all of them have been rendered into English. Not so with the French, which maintains the original Latin phrasing. Why? If the Latin phrasing was important to Pascal, shouldn't it be important to the reader? If Latin is the language of science, do the Latin phrases represent the questions that Pascal pursues in this short piece? Is the Latin stronger in some sense or does it carry more meaning?

2] Why does Pascal combine John 20:17 in Latin with Ruth 1:16 in French? Not only is he having a conversation with himself through himself, but he's using different languages and different translations. Pascal was a serious mathematician and this is his most serious equation.

3] Who inserted the quotation marks into the printed copies of Pascal's “Memorial”? Are they evident in the original somewhere?

4] Can we view this poem in the sense of a Trinity: three Latin phrases, which act as the frame of the entire document? Three seems to be important here (obviously important Biblically), but also for Pascal's mathematical mind. More than the three phrases, Pascal repeats Jesus Christ and joy three times.

All of these questions get me to my final point: the Latin quotes are, of course, Biblical quotes. However, they transcend the Bible, they transcend the language, they are being used by a mathematician during a moment of religious enlightenment. “Your GOD will be my God” is Ruth, but it is not just Ruth. It is Pascal speaking to himself about Pascal. In his mind, writing down these two hours of fire gave him a solid moment worth pursuing. His Pensées, then, endeavor to reinforce this same kind of spirituality.

Pascal's "Memorial" via Wikimedia Commons

Pascal's "Memorial" via Wikimedia Commons

Find this image on Wikimedia here.


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