No one bothered him, for fear of danger.
His face was round, his nose was stubby and wide.
His skull was bald, as naked as any ape."
The translation is wordier, flatter, less succinct, dependent on clichés, comparatively imprecise and even redundant. Crispness has been sacrificed for clarity. (It should also be pointed out that Raffel doesn't follow the standard Chaucerian line-numbering, beginning every tale with line 1, making it almost impossible to compare his translation with the original.)
I found the same problem throughout the revised and paraphrased poem, bold poetry giving way to compromised narrative. In "The Wife of Bath's Prologue," the randy narrator confesses:
"Gat-toothed I was, and that bicam me weel;
I hadde the prente of seinte Venus seel.
As help me God! I was a lusty oon
And faire, and riche, and yong, and wel bigon;
And trewely, as myne housbondes tolde me,
I hadde the beste quoniam myghte be.
For certes, I am al Venerien
This becomes in Raffel's translation:
"My teeth were wide apart, which is a sign
Of Venus, and I bore her birthmark on my body.
So help me God! But surely I was lusty,
Pretty, rich, and very well situated.
And truly, as my new husband often stated
My crotch was just as perfect as that part can be.
I'm truly born of Venus, most certainly,
In all my feelings"
Preference matters, of course. I myself have a hard time imagining any reader who is interested in Chaucer in the first place having trouble reading the original lines. It is personal taste to gauge whether flavor is lost.
Flavor is everything in Chaucer. Words, images, passages. Beyond all else, his flavor must be kept in any translation. The poem, which is found prevailingly in pentameter couplets, needs that continuing bounce or beat for its rude, narrative value. As a college student, but even in high school, I read "The Canterbury Tales" in the original Middle English in Robinson's edition. All sorts of editions (abridged and unabridged) are available. There are prose format translations for easy readings. There are interlinear versions. There are duncical translations that turn the poem into a different entity altogether.
Surely no one can doubt that this splendid work should ideally be read in Chaucer's own words, even if it means occasionally glancing at a marginal gloss or a footnote. "Glosynge is a glorious thing," the Friar tells in "The Summoner's Tale." It is undeniable that such odd Middle English words like "hende" and "joly" refuse translation. Strange words proliferate: gypon, lixt, cloutes, lymytour, artow, mooder, kiken. (I say: look them up!) Chaucerian variants can also confuse. As A.C. Cawley points out in his well-annotated Everyman edition of the tales, one can dredge up something like 10 variants in the work for the word "horse" alone: ambler, hackney, caple, dexter, palfry, rouncy, stot and more. Theological terms can be arcane, as well. There is no end of feudal terms and topical allusions. It is Cawley who also sagaciously observes in turn that "glosses and paraphrases can be just as harmful as a modernized version of the whole, if they are allowed to take precedence over the original." He advises that where footnotes or marginal notes are not needed, they should be ignored. I personally love footnotes simply because I yearn to know. When I was teaching, I tried to assure my students that the day they started reading rather ignoring scholarly paraphernalia was the day they were becoming what a good student should be.
I commend Raffel for his ambition to get folks to read and understand this complex poem. But the problem is that, in so doing, while giving readers access to the mysteries, he ironically robs those mysteries of their beauty. The genius of this magnificent poem is precisely in its original words. The fault is not in the concept of the undertaking but rather in the nature of it. Translating Chaucer is hazardously compromising at best. Technical words become ordinary. Puns can lose their significance. Rhymes are lost. Colors fade. Substitution can seem like a violation. There is a rough equity to a degree, but it is what critic George Steiner refers to as "radical equity."
Chaucer is the crown, the full flower, of English medieval verse. As Ezra Pound declared in "ABC of Reading," "Anyone who is too lazy to master the comparatively small glossary necessary to understand Chaucer deserves to be shut out from the reading of good books forever."
Theroux is the author of many books, including "Laura Warholic: Or, The Sexual Intellectual."