Sunday, November 16, 2008

Alexander Theroux on Burton Raffel's Chaucer

One of my favorite contemporary writers (currently I'm reading his essays on "The Primary Colors") reviews one of anybody's favorite medieval authors, as modernized by the skilled translator Burton Raffel. I happen to favor Raffel's over Edith Grossman's version of "Don Quixote," and sympathize with those who find daunting the shapes and sounds of Middle English. Along with Theroux, I sense less need for a translation of Chaucer, even though I do understand the difficulties presented by "The Canterbury Tales." Even if, as so many asked me when they found out I was studying Old English way back, it's not the same as Chaucer!

Theroux diminishes, as a man of vast learning and wit, the reasons why translations of the comparatively easier dialect of Chaucer need to be rendered into our English. I'm in the middle. Certainly I'd encourage anyone to take the trouble to look up the terms and figure out the original. Small effort for great gain. After all, I might add, it's not "Sir Gawain" or the Wakefield mystery plays. Still, he may underestimate the lack of preparation even English majors (if in America at least) will likely have when facing CT. Still, it's hard to recommend a totally modern version rather than an interlinear or dual-text edition. (Even when ordering a copy the other day of Dafydd ap Gwilym's poems, often argued by at least a few Welsh lovers as surpassing even Geoffrey's verse in their medieval poetic dexterity, I sought out Rachel Bromwich's bilingual presentation, to strain for an echo in Cymraeg of their packed power and intricate daring.) Therefore, I support Theroux's argument for rigor and the pleasures of navigating the original. He advises judicious attention to footnotes or glosses rather than a complete reworking-- given syntactical changes that twist awkwardly-- of the English of six hundred years ago into our vernacular.

Here's the conclusion to Theroux on Raffel about Chaucer. I recommend
the entire review in its expanded online form (the newsprint-- speaking of dumbing down-- tellingly cuts chunks from Theroux's review to make room for a supersized stylized drawing of our chubby customs man on his groaning horse):
"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."

(Photo: A better illustration than that in today's LA Times book review pages. Its inspiration, too, as a detail from the "Ellesmere Chaucer" MS, The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.)

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