'The Canterbury Tales'
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?