Blog Question 4/7

Religious figures such as Archbishop Arundel were very concerned that translating texts could change the meaning of them. Do a close reading of the first 18 lines of the General Prologue in Middle English and then read the same lines translated into modern English. ( provides a line by line comparison)

Read the lines aloud and notice how the words sound and flow. Do you notice any differences? Do you think any meaning or literary impact is lost in the modern translation? Which version do you think sounds better out loud? Is it dangerous to translate such influential texts?


7 thoughts on “Blog Question 4/7

  1. When I was in high school, my English teacher, Mr. Myers (who has since relocated to Berlin to pursue a career as a techno DJ), required us all to memorize these lines of Chaucer’s General Prologue. Having once taken the time to learn the lines, I know for a fact that a verbal delivery of the prologue has a certain flow that is enjoyable to say out loud. It also makes a distinct impression within the mind of speaker–I can still recite most of it today with decent accuracy. If I was asked to memorize the modern English translation of Chaucer’s prologue as a ninth grader, I doubt I would have retained any part of the poem. I personally found very little poetic attractiveness in the lines: “When April with its sweet-smelling showers/Has pierced the drought of March to the root, And bathed every vein (of the plants) in such liquid…”etc etc. As any English student can intuit, a bulky translation will rarely capture the same emotional response the original poem might.
    In my interpretation of the General Prologue’s original lines, the pleasing elements of the rhyme scheme also contribute to a feeling of excitement and apprehension for the coming springtime. Chaucer’s prologue is so enjoyable to read not only because it is an example of flawless poetic verse, but because it creates an emotional response in the reader that almost certainly parallels that of medieval readers and listeners. In this sense, the poem becomes an affective link to the past that we probably would never achieve with a bland translation.

    If you’re into techno please enjoy some of Mr. Meyers’s (aka Benoit) finest work:

    • I think Rob is definitely onto something here. While I think that modern translations are useful for getting the gist of things, I don’t think they should be seen as an effective replacement (even though Chaucer is also probably doing something similar, but that doesn’t change my opinion). I was especially noticing the replacement of words and the change in connotations. The word “buckler”, for example, is replaced with “small shield.” While this is true, it provides a more superficial image than I feel like “buckler” does. A buckler is a small shield, yes, but it’s usually round and strapped to the forearm or held by a handle. It’s a pretty specific image and suggests that its wearer valued movement in the battlefield over stability. Or maybe that was just the only shield he had. In line 199 I found another word change that I thought shifted the meaning of the poem. The monk’s face is shiny, “as he had been enoynt”- as if he had been anointed. The translator here, however, changes it to “as if he had been rubbed with oil.” This removes the religious connotations of anointing, possibly silencing a very specific word choice on the part of Chaucer. The real danger of translation, in my opinion, seems to be our preference to the new version over the old and our acceptance of it as the more valuable text because we can more easily connect with it. We risk blocking ourselves from insights that the author is presenting, though we may also find or create new ones that were not intentional.

  2. The middle english version of the general prologue is definitely more fluid than the translation. Like Robert, I also had to memorize the first lines of the general prologue and although I did not understand what the words meant at the time in 9th grade, I still can recite many of the lines by memory. The literary devices used throughout the poem in middle English really help enhance the overall feeling and meaning of the poem. The rhyme scheme and the alliteration were both very strong within the general prologue, and while reading out loud, these allowed the words to flow much easier than the translation.
    I believe that the translation is very dangerous to such an influential piece. The rhyme scheme and the meter of the poem help create the importance to many of the parts of the poem. These devices enhance parts that are important, and without them, it makes it much more difficult to pull out the important points. Overall, middle English is just much more memorable than a translation, and it really brings out the meaning of the prologue and gives the reader a sense of what Chaucer intended when he was writing.

  3. I agree with what Rob and Sydney are saying. In poetry, every word is intentional. Even a slight change of word can alter an entire piece’s meaning. This is incredibly clear in the translation of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The beauty of the original language is made so bland by the translation. A clear example of this is seen in line 4:
    Original Tex: Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
    Translation: By which power the flower is created;
    The word “vertu” is substituted for the word “power”. Although these words may have a similar connotation, the difference in strength of these words is obvious. The word “power” doesn’t offer the same amount of impact. The translation also substitutes “engendred” for “created”. Even though these words mean the same thing, the beauty of the line is lessened incredibly.

  4. Right off, the most noticeable thing to me when reading the different translations is the original form sounds more like a poem. The lines are couplets, a fact lost in translation. The poetry aspect aside I don’t feel like there is much missing with the translation. In middle English I understand the gist of the story and I get a feel for the poetry of the story. Alternatively, in modern English I understand more of the details of the story and get a clearer picture of the character flaws. I know, from other people telling me, that there are puns and plays on words that are only noticeable in the original version but not being largely familiar with medieval history and politics I didn’t catch any of those. Over all, I don’t find anything dangerous in translating the text. The danger, instead, lies in only looking to the modern translation and ignoring that it is a translation and not the author’s original words.

  5. There are a number of things going on here. First, we have personal possessive pronouns changed to (non-personal?) possessive pronouns. For example, line 1’s translation changes “Aprill with his” to “April with its.” The same “his” for “its” change is made in line 8, as well. This switch discounts the contemporary use of gendered pronouns for proper nouns like months, an idea that might contribute a sense of intentional agency to the time or natural elements around our speaker. When we encounter a similar case in line 11, the pronoun “her” which modifies “Nature” is completely dropped in order to make for a more readable syntax. These pronouns would otherwise show a continuation of ebb and flow between human’s and nature’s agency. Next, the original speaker invokes purposive references to Classical gods that are altered by the translation. Line 5 invokes “Zephirus” to apparently mean “West Wind” according to the translation, but again the natural world loses agency by demoting an intentional entity to an inanimate force. Finally, the meter is completely lost. For example, line teeter-totter movement in line 18 is changed from “That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke” to “Who helped them when they were sick.” Thus, the hypnotic sing-song-like flow to Chaucer’s verse.

  6. There is definitely a poetic element that is lost in the modern translation. Personally, the reason I enjoy the Middle English version more is because it’s not trying to hold my hand through anything. The modern translation feels like it’s trying to hard to make sure I understand the images and the meaning, without leaving any of the work for me. For example, line 8, “Hath in the Ram his half cours yronnne,” is translated to “Has run half its course in Aries,” which I feel is spelling it out so much that it loses its poetic nature. It could be translated to “Has in the Ram his half course run,” I and would still understand the general meaning of the line, but I would have to do a little work myself to make the connection between Ram and Aries without having my hand held through it. Another example is line 17, originally phrased as “The hooly blisful martir for to seke,” and translated to “To seek the holy blessed martyr.” The order of the words is changed between these two versions, which makes the modern translation far too straightforward and bland. It’s as if the translator wanted to save the reader the work of thinking. Poetry is supposed to be work.

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