Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Defining English Work Rendered Spectacularly Into English: Burton Raffel's Translation of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales



I nearly forgot to post this. Tomorrow's post will be more timely for all you cubicle lit-warriors out there.

Today we'll be tipping our hats to one of the more epic offerings in literature this year. Burton Raffel's very accessible translation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

I can only imagine your chagrin if I failed to post this, he says tiredly.


The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. A New Translation by Burton Raffel. The Modern Library. Hardcover (deckle edge!). $36. By clicking the picture above and buying the wonderfully large hardcover edition of Chaucer's masterpiece you support the DA.

Born in 1343 (or so the prevailing wisdom states), Geoffrey Chaucer predates William Shakespeare by over two-hundred years. His seminal work predates the first English novels by fifty to one-hundred years, depending on who you think wrote it. Besides his claim to primacy, there is the matter that after Chaucer we find a quick rise in quantity and complexity of English writing.

Why? It’s simple: Chaucer’s creative collection of tales portraying Medieval England’s facts and foibles assembled a useful and coherent language. Chaucer standardized our English.

If you can think back to your first experience reading The Canterbury Tales you will undoubtedly remember how vaguely English it was. Here, take a look at our first great English poet’s language.

“This frere bosteth that he knoweth helle,
And God it woot, that it is litel wonder;
Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder.
For, pardee, ye han ofte tyme herd telle
How that a frere ravyshed was to helle”

That is most likely what you read in class. It is the original Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer, and like Dante’s Italian before him, this nascent language would come define the culture. Language after all, is culture.

Most of you die-hard English lit types will without a doubt disparage what Burton Raffel has done by "translating" Chaucer's still nascent English into our modern coin, but I will cast it in a different lyte.

See how I did that?

Raffel's new rendering is not truly for everyone. Not in the way that J.U. Nicolson's "update" from first half of the 20th century was. That was a truly modernized work. Word substitutions were made with enough liberalism to warrant the labeling of "retelling."

In Raffel's case it is a true translation, seeking and finding the best words to communicate the original's meaning, style and rhythm. Raffel is a startling talent, whose translations are as varied as they are convincing. We are talking about a poet and linguist who has successfully rendered works as diverse as Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais (from the French), The Nibelungenlied (from the German) and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (from the Spanish).

Add to the list Chaucer, Stendhal and a host of early unattributed works like Beowulf as well as the five rhyming works of Chrétien de Troyes. This is not a minor talent at translating.

As I was saying though, before I so rudely digressed, this is not a translation for everyone in the very same sense that Chaucer, though it pains me to say it, is not for everyone either. It takes a great deal of patience and fortitude to press through the more slowly paced moments of Chaucer's massive and incomplete work. What Raffel's work excels at is rewarding any stout reader who decides to pick it up.

In Raffel's hands the ironies, slapstick humor and picked boil honesty of Chaucer's original come to life.

Originally issued in a handsome hardcover door-stop (with deckle edge), Raffel's translation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is now available in a more comfortably managed paperback edition in Random House's Modern Library.

Such a massive and meritous undertaking is worth doffing a hat or two.

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