Lately, I have been looking back on my brief Middle English stint, you know, where I was going through Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in its original language while looking at several translations. That project (which I may continue).
Though I have not any idea when I will be returning to that project, if ever, I have been ruefully, yet playfully, thinking back to how important that short study actually was to my understanding of medievalism and translation. I’m not going to say that it revolutionized my outlook, but it did definitely help expand my horizons.
Before that project, the idea of translation never mattered to me because I never was fluent in a foreign language. I only had my birth language. So when texts were translated, I never cared about any controversy or difficulty or how the original may have held different meanings by virtue of its poetics. Why is simple—I was not going to learn another whole language just to read the same text, but with some variations thrown in. It just didn’t matter to me.
Now, though, that is not my outlook.
During my scant weeks of studying Middle English and examining the magnitude of change between translations of a text whose original was merely an earlier form of my birth tongue, I found my view radically altered. I came to understand that syntax, word order, and definitions, even in what were earlier forms of the same language, held great material; I found this through examining translations: how one person would translate differently from another, and how that affected the understanding of the text as it was viewed from its original incarnation, fascinated me.
In short, what happened was that I realized that translations weren’t something that contained a more or less carbon copy of a product, but something that truly was its own product. That to study the original did matter as different translations of that material—with each iteration supposedly inching closer to the Truth of the text—mattered to our understanding of the period, theory, and how we read.
While I am not someone who takes an etymological approach to criticism, I do pay attention to meanings and how words come to denote different circumstance as both their real materiality changes as well as how their usage is placed within the text. I know how a slight shift produces substantial alterations. This matters to me because often times my thesis rides on but a single word or two, so the idea that this thesis can, in itself, be shifted by examining the original text, if we want to take an intertextual approach, invigorated me.
Aside from all that, my study brought me closer to appreciating the value of poetics—how simple things like word choice, meter, and rhyme matters to not only the translation—since words we use today will lack the same Truth as the similar words of yesterday—but to the language and time. Though small, the idea that Chaucer’s dialect would affect scanning, was something which, not being poetically inclined, I never considered before; so when I dug a bit deeper into dialects and realized that other dialects would change how one scans the line, I then realized that the language itself was connected to the interpretation of the text. If we were to then add in the fact that these dialects have their own materiality about them, with their own history, then what one witness is not merely a text, but an actualized microcosm of a particular time and place.
So, in sum, that is what translation taught me. It taught me that there is more to a text than the translation, that seemingly innocuous details have major consequences, and that we can always know more about a text if we want to scrutinize the language’s history and place. And although these details are not highly relevant in all forms of criticism, they do matter, and it is because they matter that I am grateful to take even those few steps that I did into Chaucer’s work. It may not have amounted to much, but it was formative all the same