The Canterbury Tales

A New Unabridged Translation by Burton Raffel

Geoffrey Chaucer

The Modern Library: 624 pp. $35

Chaucer himself was a translator, people forget, his most important work along those lines being "The Romance of the Rose" and Boethius' "The Consolation of Philosophy." Some of the tales that appear in "The Canterbury Tales" he wrote in his youth, but others were, in fact, translations that he made anew later on. So Burton Raffel, a self-identified poet and professor emeritus of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, is therefore in good company. In his surprisingly brief "Translator's Foreword" for this new translation, he cites no more than the eight opening lines of the famous "Prologue" --

"Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne"

-- to give his reasons for a new version: "There are unfamiliar words, and the metrics . . . are not at all clear." He goes on to say, "Englishmen as late as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries could not follow Chaucer's metrics. . . . Still, native speakers of English, as recently as the first half of the twentieth century, were not particularly uncomfortable with Chaucer's difficulties. Time has, however, continued to move on. . . . As is always the case, what was is now no more." He alludes to "Chaucer's difficulties." A very real question must be asked: Are the difficulties Chaucer's or Raffel's?

Translating Chaucer's masterpiece is a herculean feat, needless to say. It is a work, 24 tales in all, that constitutes almost all of the literary forms that make up medieval literature: parodies, exempla, pious sermons, literary confessions, stately romances, saints' legends, lubricious anecdotes, you name it. Generally, it is "Estates satire," as well -- types. "The Franklin's Tale" is a Breton lai. "The Miller's Tale," that smutty story, is a fabliau. "The Nun's Priest's Tale" is a beast fable. The Parson offers an austerely orthodox treatise on penance. Two tales are in prose: "The Parson's Tale" and the "Tale of Melibee," which is full of legal jargon. "The Monk's Tale" expresses scorn for disrespectful and unruly commoners. Chaucer runs the gamut. There are many Chaucers: funny, gloomy, pious, political, gross. There is the learned Chaucer, the feminist Chaucer, the social Chaucer, the religious Chaucer, the rhetorical Chaucer, the Chaucer who attempts little more than trying to titillate the groundling mind with nothing but farce, foolishness and fart jokes.

He could do many voices. His own native dialect was that of metropolitan London, where he was born, educated and lived most of his life. (Granted, it was a small city at the time, only about 40,000 people.) Although much of 14th century England was a cultural satellite of France (French had been the official language of the English government since 1066), Chaucer was surely sparked by the vernacular with all of its rich, comic possibilities. Victories over the French at Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) had raised the status of the native tongue. Bilingual from childhood, he picked up Latin training as a courtier and court diplomat and chose to write in English. "And for there is so great diversite / In Englissh and in writing of oure tongue, / So prey I to God that non miswrite thee / Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tongue," he declared in "Troilus and Criseyde." A wide diversity of language could be found then throughout England, where dialects often differed from county to county. A reader of Chaucer will encounter idioms, prayers, jingles, puns, tall tales, harangues, narratives, a few inflectional survivals from Old English, words no longer used, slang. It was for such multifariousness that he became "the firste fyndere of our faire language."

"The Canterbury Tales" is a delightful fiction, of course. (A "Canterbury tale" in Middle English slang is a "lie"!) The frame of the poem is a pilgrimage that consists of 30 pilgrims (29 plus the poet), each of them a recognizable 14th century type, taking the 60-mile trip from London's Tabard Inn to the tomb of St. Thomas à Becket at the Canterbury cathedral with each to tell four tales "to shorten the way." The telling becomes a competition, with one Harry Bailey, the Tabard proprietor, acting as host and guide. Chaucer projected 120 tales; only 24 constitute the entire work, and two of these remain unfinished.

"I have tried to give as much of the effect of Chaucer's poetry as I could," Raffel states, explaining as if confounded that in his translation the sound of the original poetry is unreproducible. We are told we are being given a "translation from" rather an "edition of" the poem, meaning simply that he is using the accepted order of the classic from the standard F.N. Robinson edition of Chaucer's poems. (Chaucer neither prepared a full, consecutive grouping of the full, final poem.) When Raffel confesses that he cannot integrate Chaucer's syntax with his own modern version, it is understandable. Although Chaucer's syntax in the original, untranslated, is very much like our own, for a translator to try to save or salvage parts in an otherwise translated sentence would of course cause problems.

Remarkably, Chaucerian English is quite accessible to the modern reader (often downright simple) and in other places asks merely for determination to read it. The language is realistic and oddly modern. It "demonstrates," as John Gardner noted, rather than "explores," and the openness and freshness of imagery has never failed to appeal to the popular and vulgar audience for whom the tales were composed. Take "The Summoner's Tale." How difficult is it to understand the following passage in the original?

"Now thanne, put in thyn hand doun by my bak,"

Seyde this man, "and grope wel bihynde.

Bynethe my buttok there shaltow fynde

A thing that I have hyd in pryvetee."

"A!" thoghte this frère, "that shal go with me!"

And doun his hand he launcheth to the clifte,

In hope for to fynde there a yifte.

And whan this sike man felte this frère

About his tuwel grope there and here,

Amydde his hand he leet the frère a fart.

Ther nys no capul, drawynge in a cart,

That myghte have lete a fart of swich a soun. (Look up capul (cart-horse) and tuwel (hole), and it could be a modern schoolboy telling a snappy whopper to his friend!

Raffel's is a reductive translation, if it is an accessible one. When he characterizes his undertaking by stating that "Comprehension by modern readers is the key," we suspect right off that we are being served up a dumbed-down version. He renames many familiar characters. There is no reason a person would any more know what a "Steward" does than a Reeve, although here the former replaces the latter. The occupation of manciple is changed into "Provisioner." Cui bono? Chaucer's Pardoner becomes by transubstantiation the "Pardon-Peddler," but may not one ask if a reader knows what a pardon is, would he not therefore know what a Pardoner does? What is clarified by denominating the Canon a "Cleric" or the Yeoman a "Magician," and what is gained by the leavening alteration? When Raffel arbitrarily leaves the names Squire and Summoner in the text, moreover, should one assume that (a) these particular two are modern professions and that (b) one is familiar with them? Choices, alterations seem subjective. When we are told, as indeed Raffel rather cavalierly tells us, that "virtually no one, today, understands what a 'canon' is, or what he does, or even where he does it, and much the same may be said of a 'yeoman,' " should one therefore conclude that new translations should now be required, say, of Charles Dickens' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" and Dr. Seuss' fable "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins" in which, respectively, a canon and a yeomen happen to appear? I must say, I was repeatedly struck by how cheap and vulgarized the paraphrased work of magnificent poetry can be.

Consider several comparisons between the original poem and this translation. The Reeve in his tale, recounting the story of a pompous miller, describes that man in part:

"A joly poppere baar he in his pouche;

Ther was no man, for peril, dorste hym touched.

A Sheffeld thwitel baar he in his hose.

Round was his face, and camus was his nose;

As agile as an ape was his skulle."

Raffel's "Steward" says,

"And in his pouch he carried a fine little dagger.

No one bothered him, for fear of danger.

His long stockings were long, and held a Sheffield knife.

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

In feelynge"

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."