IN 1989 THE MIDDLE ENGLISH text of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was published by Norton in the Critical Editions series. It did very nicely, and in 2005 a second edition appeared. Commenting on this text in the Customer Reviews column of Amazon, several readers stressed how essential it was, for anyone wanting to appreciate Chaucer properly, to make the effort to read him in the original. One San Francisco reader (writing under the pseudonym ‘dottikins’) put the case so well that I reproduce it here:
Why the Norton edition … over the ‘translated’ versions of Chaucer’s classic stories? Because it’s only in their original form that they retain the poetry and power of Chaucer’s intent. Before, with translated versions, I had never quite understood why Chaucer was considered so great, so necessary to the canon. Hearing them in the original form, I suddenly understood. The tales are … told in striking, blood-stirring rhyme and rhythm. Hearing them read aloud was like music to the ear. Which makes the smoothed-over versions feel flat and dead …
Presumably the editorial pundits at Norton read this comment. What they made of it can be deduced from the fact that just over five years later they have produced a flat (if not altogether dead) and decidedly smoothed-over Canterbury Tales of their own.
They are by no means alone in this endeavor, which makes the habit all the more puzzling. I have on my shelves (in addition to a scholarly variorum edition, not relevant here) three fat paperbacks of the Canterbury Tales, and they are not the only ones in print. Two—the Oxford World’s Classics version by David Wright, and Nevill Coghill’s Penguin—offer the complete text, but no original. The third, Peter G. Beidler’s revised Bantam, is, like Sheila Fisher’s new volume, a bilingual version offering selections only; both of them clearly omit, though they don’t come straight out and say so, those tales, like the Squire’s or the Clerk’s, that they figure will bore modern readers witless. Wright (himself a poet) Coghill and Fisher all—Wright intermittently—offer rhymed translations in the original metres (most often what came to be known as heroic couplets). Beidler opts for line-by-line literalism in what one can treat, charitably, as either prose or free verse. His is thus the nearest equivalent to a plain trot, and arguably the most useful of the four.
I say this for two reasons. Middle English is near enough to, say, Shakespeare’s tongue to require no more than a little practice and a good glossary to be read. For this reason, it is a misnomer to describe its modernization as a translation. Fundamentally, it is the English we know. Also (our San Francisco reader is dead on right here) its sound and structure—the long, warmly curling syllables, the rich language, the subtly Gallic intonations that multiply rhyming possibilities—are part and parcel of its impact. Remove these, and the words, however close our modern versions come to them, lose much of their force. Consider the well-known opening lines of the General Prologue, sketching the spring weather when ‘longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droghte of March hath perced to the rote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour . . .
There is nothing here—or indeed in most of the Canterbury Tales—that a simple gloss will not clarify, while the ‘translations’ offered are too frequently uninspired rewritings. Here is Coghill:
When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower…
When the sweet showers of April have pierced
The drought of March, and pierced it to the root,
And every vein is bathed in that moisture
Whose quickening force will engender the flower…
When April comes and with its showers sweet
Has, to the root, pierced March’s drought complete,
And then bathed every vein in such elixir
That, by its strength engendered is the flower…
We find forced and impossible rhymes, false stresses, mangled metre, and a flat ironing out of the original’s richness, all allegedly in the service of bringing Chaucer closer to the modern reader.
Thus, while reading Fisher and her competitors (she writes in her introduction as though she was alone in the field) I found myself, too often for comfort, dreaming of a text that would print the original Middle English on the left-hand page while using the opposite side not for a laborious rewrite, but rather simply for the provision of short glosses and interpretations where necessary. The great classical scholar Richard Bentley once said about Pope’s highly popular translation of the Iliad, “A very pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” The trouble with these versions of Chaucer is that they are not only sub-Chaucerian; it is also that, for too much of the time, they are not even pretty poems. As a professional translator myself I am well aware of, and am glad to acknowledge, the huge amount of time, effort, and literary skill that must have gone into a modernization such as Fisher’s, but I wish that her energies had been directed to more profitable ends.
Fisher is an academic, a professor of English literature, and her sparkling introduction to the Canterbury Tales and Chaucer is by far the best thing in a fat book. As a verse translator she is an amateur, with a hit-and-miss sense of metre and rhythm (“my mother taught me how much fun it is to write iambic pentameter couplets” she tells us); but in setting the scene for an informed understanding of Chaucer and his background, Fisher shows herself a true professional.
We get, first, a neat sketch of this “civil servant in royal service,” rising up the ladder from Controller of Customs to end as Clerk of the King’s Works, whose life spanned the tumultuous second half of the fourteenth century, who was the first burial in what became Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, and yet, in the plentiful records concerning him, is never once mentioned as a poet. There follows a masterly short analysis of the major social factors of Chaucer’s day: the ubiquity, absoluteness, and incidental official corruption (cf. the Pardoner’s Tale) of Christianity (Fisher tends to avoid the word ‘Catholicism’); the disruptive impact of the Black Death in 1348-9, which by killing off a third of the population put the surviving peasantry in a stronger bargaining position and encouraged agrarian unrest; the gradual emergence of a genuine middle-class; the slow strengthening of women’s rights.
The wide-ranging cast of individuals who populate the Canterbury Tales act as a mirror to their age. They offer tantalizing glimpses, through their persons and stories, into the realities of daily life and popular assumptions during the reign of Richard II. They keep, on the whole, very strictly to their proper stations in the rigid class hierarchy then dominating England (and indeed Europe as a whole), though there are hints—as the Wife of Bath, among others, makes clear—that the old rules, social and religious, are slowly beginning to loosen. The gentry still live in the part-mythical world of the troubadours and ideal courtly love, though as the Arthurian tradition of Lancelot and Guenevere makes all too clear, upper-class urges in this world could be anything but platonic. Officially, sexual shenanigans, the raunchy equivalent of French bedroom farce, belong strictly to the lower orders, giving rise to the popular fabliaux we can trace behind delectably vulgar Chaucerian riffs such as the Miller’s Tale.
These last raise problems in America, euphemistic home of ‘shoot’ and ‘heck’, which still has trouble with the C-word. Where Chaucer says of Nicholas with Alison, “And privily he caught her by the queynte”, Fisher comes up with “Privately he grabbed her Mount of Venus.” Oh dear. Wright, in the European tradition, is more direct. But here, surely, is a classic instance where an explanatory note would be far more to the point than any translation, reminding us, among other things, that ‘queynte’ was not only a noun signifying a woman’s vulva, but could also be an adjective meaning ‘odd’ or ‘quaint’, and that Chaucer took great pleasure, more than once, in working the double entendre.
In the last resort, of course, what matters is getting people to read the Canterbury Tales for themselves, and, ideally, in Chaucer’s own words. Here the General Prologue is the best place to begin: there is an irresistible fascination about this parade of sharply drawn characters, as vivid today as seven hundred years ago when they were created: the Knight who “loved chivalrye,/ Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye,” the Yeoman with “a sheef of pecok arwes brighte and kene,” the Prioress who sang the liturgy “entuned in her nose ful seemly,” the jovial outdoor Monk that “yaf not of that text a pulled hen/ that seith that hunters ben nat holy men,” the Merchant with his “forked berd,” the Wife of Bath with her five husbands, “withouten other companye in youthe,” the Plowman “that hadde y-lad of dong ful many a fother,” the Summoner “lecherous as a sparwe,” his friend the Pardoner (“Swiche glaringe eyen hadde he as an hare”). Their stories, rich and varied, form a cornucopia of medieval life. However you choose to get there, read them: their author was not only the Father of English Poetry, but a wise, humane, and timeless student of human nature.
Peter Green is an emeritus professor of classics, a professional translator, and an occasional poet and novelist.
Please read a note from Isaac Chotiner, executive editor of The Book.