Today, we will be examining lines 11-15 of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales; our investigation will be focusing only on the original Middle English and how the passage has been translated. Previous exercises, such as phonetic inscriptions and scansion, have been omitted for this post and likely many future posts simply to gain a better focus on the actual text of the CT. Some posts, however, will feature those exercises, as I have not abandoned them wholly, just on a day-to-day basis.
But, at any rate, the text reads:
So priketh hem nature in hir corages—
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende (3)
A literal translation would read:
So pricks them nature in her heart—
Then desire folk to go on pilgrimages,
And pilgrims for to seek strange times,
To distant shrines, famous in separate lands
And especially from every shire’s end
A literal rendering of this passage actually makes a decent amount of sense. At least in compared to the other literal renditions, however. But, even so, we should examine how professional translators have rendered this passage and if there is alterations worth commenting upon.
Starting off with David Wright:
(Nature so prompts them, and encourages);
Then people long to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers to take ship for foreign shores,
And distant shrines, famous in different lands;
And most especially, from all the shires (3)
So, the obvious question first: where is he the mention of ‘ship’ in the original Middle English? Answer: there is none. Why Wright chooses to translate ‘seken,’ or “to seek” or simply “seek” as “take ship” is baffling. But we can infer that it is connected to the “foreign shores” (‘straunge strondes’). So, it is hardly absurd but it is also far from a genuine translation. But, other than that, I don’t see anything truly worth commenting on as the rest of the translation appears straightforward.
Moving on to Peter Tuttle’s translation:
So pricks them nature in their souls—
Then folks yearn to go on pilgrimages,
And pilgrims for to seek strange strands,
To far aware shires in sundry lands;
And specially from every shires end (3)
Okay, I’m just going to say it: I now loathe the amateurish, half-assed, and quite frankly, lazy and pathetic Tuttle (CT) translation. It is garbage. Why, for God’s sake, is Tuttle translating ‘strondes’ (or “time”) as “strands”? They are completely different words! Then there is his retention of aspects of the literal translation; as I said, in this passage the five lines are actually well-suited for a literal translation, but they still do not make a lot of sense and there are moments which really take you out if you attempt to read it as it stands; Tuttle’s nonsense has somehow combined this literal aspect with his strange insistence on rendering words for their phonetic instead of semiotic quality. In this respect, he decided to use ‘shires’ twice, despite it only appearing once and to translate ‘sondry’ as ‘sundry,’ as if the two words (separate-sundry) had any connection to one another. Tuttle’s delusional belief that he is making Chaucer more “comprehensible” (xl) to the modern reader is a pitiful and laughable attempt at self-aggrandizement. When this investigative project is finished, I look forward to either burning* my copy of Tuttle’s pitiful attempt at translation or pushing back in my library and never glancing at its horrid, yet ineffectual, contents again.
Regardless, and moving on to a translating who, hopefully, has their mind in the right position, we engage with Ronald L. Ecker’s version:
(So nature pricks them in each little heart),
On pilgrimage then folks desire to start.
The palmers long to travel to foreign strands
To distant shrines renowned in Sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end (1)
Nope! Ecker, unfortunately, retains much of the absurd translation which Tuttle leeched off (Ecker’s translation was published in 1993, Tuttle’s in 2006). Now, I am willing to compromise that ‘sundry’ is, perhaps, being used in its morally ambiguous definition in order to render the foreign, and by extension un-Christian property of these distant lands. Okay! I accept that wholesale and was too quick to dismiss it out of hand when I read Tuttle’s version. But “strands” still makes little sense and appears as an oafish attempt to retain some rhyming scheme. You could argue that a “strand” is like a moment, an instance in the sense of a brief microcosm which was split away from the whole temporal foundation; it is a strand in the sense of a strand of time… but, is that not a bit too great an undertaking of mental gymnastics? What is wrong with simply using time, moment, or occasion? For rhyming purposes? If so, why not use the modern word “stints,” would this not be close to the “st” sound which translators are obviously attempting to retain while also retaining the actual semiotic quality as meaning “an outing or journey”? I think so. Regardless, I understand that at the time of these translations certain linguistic and professional expectations were to be followed, lest the project as a whole is disregarded or taken as only a semi-serious attempt at translation. Even so, the blame only shifts slightly to the publishing and academic establishment while the actual translator retains blame for their unwillingness to strike at the heart of Chaucer’s writing.
So, this third investigation is done. I have no more plans to rant and rave, so you are free to resume whatever your day was like before stumbling upon my odd fits and ends concerning a medieval poet. Lucky you; I have to return to this the next day! But, you know, I wouldn’t have it any other way. A testament, perhaps, to my academic depravity. In any case, I will see you all soon.
*After much thought, I decided on donating the book to my university’s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta. The volume, despite many deficiencies, could still at least help someone get exposed to medieval literature, even if it is an incorrect translation which hacks and spews vomit all over Chaucer. I figured that was better than acting like a Nazi– sorry, Alt-Right– and burning it.