Friday 20 February 2009

The Canterbury Tales

Next Thursday’s reading at the Calder Bookshop will be from a new, modern-English adaptation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales by the translator Chris Lauer, which is soon to be published by Oneworld Classics. As well as helping to organize and publicize the event, I did a great deal of the editorial work on this book myself, and as a result I am particularly excited about hearing the wonderful work it contains performed at the shop for the first time.

However, having read Chaucer’s entire oeuvre in the original Middle English at university, I have to confess to having been until recently a bit of a snob where modern-language translations of these works are concerned. I suppose there were three reasons for this. The first reason was that I felt that the purely aesthetic experience of reading – and especially hearing – a text like The Canterbury Tales would be compromised by encountering it in anything other than its own crunchy, alien-sounding language. It might be difficult to understand, but at least when listening to Middle English we are aurally sensitized to the actual material of the words, in a way we often are not when listening to the transparent, weightless tokens of our everyday usage. The second reason was that I am a subscriber to the view that the meaning of any text is determined by its historical context: updating a work like The Canterbury Tales could be interpreted as implying that inside every medieval text is a modern text struggling to get out, as thought the “true” text resided somewhere other than in the actual words committed to the page by the “maker” himself. This is certainly not true of Chaucer’s work: if the past of the narrator's childhood in Hartley’s The Go-Between is a foreign country, then the England of the late fourteenth century is another planet entirely.

The third – and real – reason, of course, was simply that I’d had to work bloody hard at university to get my head round Middle English, and I couldn't see why anyone else should be allowed to have such an easy ride. Indeed, as anyone of a similar academic experience will tell you, Chaucer’s language is the tip of the iceberg: something like ‘The Reeve’s Tale’ is a doddle compared to an early Middle-English text like La3amon's Brut, or even to the work of Chaucer's near-contemporary the Pearl Poet, author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. At least Chaucer restricts himself to the Latin alphabet: in his day some English poets were still peppering their verses with runes.

However, working on Chris Lauer’s witty and imaginative rendering has completely changed my mind. The translator himself has made the case for a modern-English retelling of these Tales in the following terms:

“Why ‘translate’ Chaucer at all? It is perfectly clear to me that anyone capable of enjoying Chaucer’s stories and his clever insights in a modern version would also be able to learn to read the Middle English original, but the fact is that many such readers simply will not do so. I hope some readers may read this attempt at modernization and be prompted to make that effort. Perhaps the greatest reward in modernizing the text is not so much for the reader as for the translator; it’s surely the best way to oblige oneself to read this poetry closely, word by word, and line by line, while trying to keep a perspective on the larger patterns as well. In any case, I do apologize, especially to those wise readers who will be offended by any presumptuous attempt, even those much more successful than mine, to retune Chaucer’s instrument.”

When it came to making a selection from the Tales for the reading at the bookshop, I was very keen to choose a range of material that, as I have said in the publicity material that any subscribers to the Calder Bookshop mailing list will have seen, would “showcase the staggering generic and thematic breadth of Chaucer’s work”. After all, I reasoned, the genius of The Canterbury Tales is in its juxtaposition of generically contrasting material. That’s why this work has been so popular with Marxist literary critics over the years, the argument being that the tales present us with what the Russian formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin called “heteroglossia”: a babble of competing voices, in this case drawn from every stratum of medieval society, which subversively undermines the claim of any one voice to authority. Thus, the churlish Miller’s bawdy fabliau is deliberately chosen by the Host to follow, and thereby “quite” (or match), the grandiloquent romance presented by the perfect, gentle Knight. Therefore, I thought, if I’m going to represent the true spirit of Chaucer’s masterpiece, I have to be sure to get the balance right. In ‘The General Prologue’ the Host asks the twenty-nine pilgrims for “Tales of best sentence and most solaas”, and therefore for tales that are instructive as well as entertaining, and that’s what I would give the audience at the bookshop.

However, I was, as ever, pressed for time, and so what I ended up with instead was a hastily cobbled-together medley of the dirty bits. I don’t suppose anyone will mind.


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