The Partly Cloudy Art of Chaucer Translation

eChaucer ¤ Chaucer in the Twenty-First Century

It is impossible to translate Chaucer. There is no way that any translator can repilcate, represent, or capture the art of Chaucer's language. The best that one can do is to try to present a homely cousin to those who are still preparing to meet the real thing.

This translation began years ago as I was hoping to find a reliable text that I could use in my introductory literature classes. Early in the process, I realized a couple of things. First, I realized that many readers have verse anxiety: as with math anxiety, the visual arrangement of the symbols on the page causes the scholar to lose focus on the meaning of the symbols. With this in mind, I set out only to find a prose translation that would be clear and accessible. This led to my second realization. I realized that almost all translations were in verse and these tended to twist Chaucer by the arm in order to make his lines fit the meter or rhyme. I thought that I had found a solution when I remembered Tatlock and Mackaye's translation. I set out immediately to reproduce it for use on the web. Unfortunately, I soon realized that the language was antiquate, often for effect, and that they had translated only the parts that they saw suitable for their audience.

At that point, I had in front of me a shell of a translation (T&M), the Riverside Chaucer, and shelves of editions of Chaucer. Though there is practically no trace of T&M, the many other books and electronic resources have aided me along the way, especially Cawley's edition of The Canterbury Tales, Fisher's The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer, and Davis, Gray, Ingham, and Wallace-Hadrill's A Chaucer Glossary.

What I set out to do was to make Chaucer readable for intelligent people who were not Chaucerian scholars: I wanted to present all of his words accurately and unapologetically in a language that would not seem unnecessarily foreign or affected. If I could not hear these readers' voices in the translation, I had to keep revising. Yes, I hope that Chaucerian scholars will also read the text, but more as a way of refreshing their memories, as presenting Chaucer to their students for the first time, as a way of checking their own understanding of a line with another colleague (however limited that colleague may be).

I hope that you will read these texts much as you would experience a partly cloudy day in autumn, that is, I hope that you will appreciate the sunshine and see the beauty in the clouds.

Though the translation presented here has, I believe, achieved much of the goal I set, it still needs further revision. A year from now I hope to present, with your help, what I hope will be the final revision. Until then, I offer to you this imperfect translation with my humble apologies.

For my sister Christina