January 5, 2012

The Canterbury Tales

Picking an edition is one of the most challenging parts of reading any work from Middle English. ME is not totally unreadable, as Old English is. Nor is it easily readable, as Shakespeare is. For The Canterbury Tales, the premier piece of Middle English literature, there are three approaches to the language problem.

The first is simply to reproduce the original language. With notes, if you're lucky. This is the approach of the Norton Critical Edition, and the first lines read like this:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droughte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;

Thankfully for the reader, Norton provides modern translations of difficult words in the right margin as well as explanatory notes at the bottom of page.

The second approach is to update the spelling, which seems to be the case in the seventh edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature:

Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendered is the flowr;

The third approach is a complete modern English translation. The one by Nevill Coghill in the Penguin Classics edition strikes a nice balance:

When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower

A 2008 translation by Burton Raffel seems unnecessarily extreme:

When April arrives, and with his sweetened showers
Drenches dried-up roots, gives them power
To stir dead plants and sprout the living flowers
That spring has always spread across these fields

Missing among these choices is an edition that thoroughly updates the spelling while strictly adhering to the word choices and order. Something like this:

When that April with his showers sweet
The drought of March hath pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such licour,
Of which virtue engendered is the flower;

No comments:

Post a Comment