Sunday, April 25, 2010

Chaucer in DC (Modern English Translation)

Yesterday I popped into the DC Public Library, SE Branch and noticed an intriguing decorative motif: April-themed lines from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales adorned the bookshelves (original Middle English along one set of bookcases, and a modern English translation on the other). Above, a snippet from the original text. Let's take a closer look at the translation, shall we?

"What that Aprille with his shoures soote/The droght of March hath perced to the roote" = When in April the SWEET SHOWERS FALL/And pierce the drought of March to the root, & all [I don't know why random words are in italics or capital letters. Overall it's pretty good; interesting that "the sweet showers" are now the grammatical subject, not April itself (himself)].

"And bathed every veyne in swich licour/Of which vertu engendred is the flour" = The veins are BATHED IN LIQUOR of such power/As brings about the engendering of the flower [seems pretty good - nice translation of "vertu" as "power" in order to make the lines rhyme].

"Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth/Inspired hath in every holt and heeth" = When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath/Exhales AN AIR IN EVERY GROVE and heath [the words "breath" and "heath" don't rhyme in modern English, but otherwise this works].

"The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne/Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne" = UPON THE TENDER SHOOTS, and the young sun/His HALF-COURSE IN THE SIGN of the Ram HAS RUN [the "in the sign of the Ram" clarifies things for modern readers but the capital letters have gone crazy!].

"And smale foweles maken melodye,/That slepen al the nyght with open ye" = And the small fowl are making melody/That SLEEP AWAY THE NIGHT with open eye [here "melody" and "eye" no longer rhyme - not quite sure why "fowls" or "birds" wasn't used].

"(So priketh hem Nature in hir courages)/Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages" = (So nature pricks them AND THEIR HEART ENGAGES)/Then PEOPLE LONG TO GO ON pilgrimages [creative translation here; "engages" works relatively well to set up the word "pilgrimages"].

"And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,/To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondy londes" = And PALMERS LONG TO SEEK the stranger strands/Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands [the phrase "stranger strands" and insertion of "saints" here is slightly odd, but I like the reincorporation of longing in this couplet].

"And specially from every shires ende/Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende" = And specially, from every shire's end/Of England, down to Canterbury THEY WEND [I think it would have made more sense to translate "specially" as "especially" or "particularly"].

Overall, quite good - some awkward moments, but the modernization does attempt to preserve the original rhyme pattern.

P.S. Note that the final couplet to the opening lines has been omitted: "The hooly bilsful martir for to seke,/That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke" [To seek the holy blissful martyr, who has helped them (pilgrims/palmers) whenever they were sick]. Not quite sure why these last two lines have been left out. Did the library simply run out of shelves? This is a public library, and I wonder (this being DC) if the lines were left out in order to preserve a more secular, nonsectarian theme and avoid the appearance of endorsing any particular religion.

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