Teaching the Wife of Bath through Adaptation

by JONATHAN HSY

Reading Agbabi and Breeze

Reading Agbabi and Watching Breeze

Here on the Global Chaucers blog we’ve addressed how Chaucerian material moves across time and space, and the variety of voices featured in this venue have explored academic research methods, translation studies, artistic creation, and online community. In this posting, I offer some thoughts on how the Global Chaucers project can shape undergraduate teaching.

A few weeks ago (in my introductory survey of literature of the early British Isles), we spent our class session discussing modern-day adaptations of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue (WBP) and Wife of Bath’s Tale (WBT). Here was the assignment posted on the course blog:

This week we discussed the description of the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue as well as her entire performance. Before our next class, please view these short online videos (modern-day adaptations of the Wife of Bath’s performance). As you watch these adaptations, consider these questions: 1. How does each performance invite you to re-consider aspects of Chaucer’s original? 2. Which adaptation is your favorite?

The Wife of Bath’s Tale (1998): animation by Joanna Quinn. Modern English rendition with intriguing visuals.

The Loathly Lady (2009): words by Prof. Wendy Steiner, music by Paul Richards. Very loose comic opera (musical) adaptation of the WBT.

The Wife of Bath in Brixton Market” (2009): poem by Jean “Binta” Breeze. Modernization of the WBP heavily influenced by Jamaican varieties of English, filmed by the poet herself on site in London (more info on this poet here).

The Wife of Bafa” (2013): spoken word adaptation of WBP by Patience Agbabi (London poet of Nigerian ancestry); note also the text of the poem and the poet’s reflections on her composition process. Note: This performance closely follows the text published in Ababi’s Transformatrix (2000); a new version of this work interspersing the WBT itself appears in Agbabi’s Telling Tales (2014).

[OPTIONAL] The Lover’s Confession: Three Tales by John Gower (2014): Machinima adaptations of three of Gower’s Confessio tales. Producer/director Prof. Sarah Higley recorded these cyber-performances live using avatar-actors in Second Life. If you wish, you can go directly to The Tale of Florent (2014), which is Gower’s analogue to the WBT (you can also read the original Middle English text of Gower’s version).

We read and discussed both WBT and WBP (in that order) before moving on to these adaptations. The questions I posed before class were deliberately open-ended, and we opened our discussion by considering the animated version of the WBT by Joanna Quinn. Since the basic elements of the plot remain unchanged, our conversation quickly started to consider what the new visual medium adds to the story. Students immediately noted that the axe- and sword-wielding Queen (and silent reaction shots from the women assembled at court, including the unnamed maiden whose rape launches the story) all work to foreground the importance of female agency throughout this story. The toggling from stop-action animation (for the pilgrimage frame narrative) to a fluid style of drawing (for the tale itself) suggest the Chaucerian work’s concurrent layers of fictionality.

Our conversation about these adaptations became especially lively when we started to compare the reinventions of WBP by Jean “Binta” Breeze and Patience Agbabi. While these interpretations are quite distinct, approaching these two videos as a pair helped us to think more creatively about the performance context of Chaucer’s WBP itself. In Agbabi’s work, students picked up on the comic delivery of this piece as well as its new cultural context: this Nigerian immigrant, named Mrs. Alice Ebi Bafa, reveals much about her life just as she seeks to sell her wares. Equal parts autobiography and sales pitch, this dramatic conceit draws out the economic discourses used throughout the Wife of Bath’s portrait and prologue. At the same time, the audible laughter in response to Agbabi’s performance speak back to the Wife of Bath’s claim that her “entente nys but for to pleye.”

Our discussion concluded with Breeze’s performance of her own version of the WBP in a variety of English influenced by Jamaican oral traditions; the nonstandard spelling in the printed text suggest an oral quality and the performance captures rhythms and cadences of speech that evoke a broader Jamaican diaspora. The site of this performance–Brixton Market, which has been for generations the center of a diverse Afro-Caribbean immigrant community (the so-called “soul of Black Britain“)–provides a new cultural setting for a monologue about sex and marriage. The narrator delivers her performance as she moves through the physical space of the market, passing by produce stands and busy shoppers. Serendipitous reaction shots (note the passing woman’s disapproving and/or amused glance at the speaker at 1:01) suggest the disruptive qualities of the Wife of Bath character. She performs in a way that conspicuously thwarts the rhythms of everyday life and perceived norms of social behavior. The conspicuous headdress she wears resonates with the garments worn by the Chaucerian Wife of Bath but here the clothing also serves as a clear marker of ethnic difference (or, to put it another way, ethnic belonging).

Screenshot from Breeze performance

A passerby reacts to Breeze’s interpretation of the Wife of Bath.

One issue that came up in our discussion was whether Breeze’s revision of the Wife of Bath replaces the problematic medieval Alisoun with new kind of modern cultural stereotype (one of the students remarked that this kind of performance is not too far from the “sassy black woman” archetype described in this encyclopedia of popular media tropes). Another student in class who happens to come from a family of Jamaican ancestry chimed in to observe that the dress and style of speech in Breeze’s performance seemed culturally appropriate (insofar as features of her pronunciation, grammar, and intonation were concerned). Through these student reactions to Breeze’s performance, a new overarching question had emerged. Does such an adaptation risk substituting one set of (medieval misogynist) tropes with a contemporary (sexualized) ethnic stereotype?

Brixton Market panorama

Thinking about space: Brixton Market [photo taken March 2014].

Discussing the unintended consequences of Breeze’s performance in Brixton Market also gave our class an opportunity to consider some of this work’s possible connections to the broader context of life in Washington, D.C. (where my institution is located). Brixton Market, known as the “soul of Black Britain,” has recently been rebranded as “Brixton Village” with shops that once sold African and Caribbean groceries or textiles increasingly replaced by trendy hip(ster) bars and restaurants. The panoramic photo above (which I took during a visit to Brixton Market earlier this year) offers some indication of how this market has changed since the time Breeze filmed her video. In the photo above, a traditional produce shop with colorful awning (center) stands next door to a stylish new artisanal cheese shop/bar (left). In a conversation with some students after class, we ended up talking about a similar process of “gentrification” occurring in historically black and Afro-Caribbean neighborhoods within in D.C., and local blogs are increasingly voicing concern over whether the historical character of these neighborhoods can be preserved as they continues to change. By “updating” the medieval Wife of Bath by transplanting her to Brixton Market, Breeze’s recorded performance had posited yet another unanticipated question. What does it mean for an ethnically marked voice to embody the authentic character or spirit of a given place? How does the word “gentrification” take us back to the discussions of gentillesse and urban identity explored in the Wife of Bath’s performance?

In the end, no clear “favorite” emerged from the discussion of these videos (indeed, students recognized that these works had disparate audiences and motivations). What emerges most strongly from conversations like this how adaptations can reacquaint us with well-known works of the past. In addition to showcasing features of texts that we have forgotten, ignored, or dismissed (as Candace notes so well in her earlier posting on translations), adaptations can challenge our received readings of texts we think we know well.

I encourage members of the Global Chaucers community (or anyone who happens to come by this site!) to consider integrating postmedieval adaptations when you teach Chaucer. Thinking across time and media does more than show how historically-distant texts might be “relevant” to contemporary audiences. Such a process has the capacity to make us more mindful of how profoundly our readings of medieval texts are actively shaped by the social environment of our own time and place. Bridging the gap between the present and the past isn’t just about making the medieval seem familiar (or, as undergrads in the US are wont to say, “relatable”); a cross-temporal approach also requires the capacity to disrupt our thinking about the present, to move us outside of our own comfort zones and customary frames of reference.

Further Reading:

Candace Barrington and Jonathan Hsy, “Global Chaucer,” in Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture, ed. Gail Ashton (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2015).

Kathleen Forni, Chaucer’s Afterlife: Adaptations in Recent Popular Culture (Palgrave, 2013), Ch. 4, “The Canterbury Pilgrimage and African Diaspora” (with particular interest in diasporic and postcolonial renditions).

David Wallace, “New Chaucer Topographies,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 29 (2007): 3-19.

Michelle R. Warren, “‘The Last Syllable of Modernity’: Chaucer in the Caribbean,” postmedieval 6.1 (2015), forthcoming.

Michelle R. Warren, “Book Review Essay: Classicism, Medievalism, and the Postcolonial,” Exemplaria 24, 3 (Fall 2012): 282-92.

Trans-Medievalisms at BABEL (Santa Barbara)

by JONATHAN HSY

Spanish Chaucer and BABEL Program

View from the moderator’s table. “Trans-Medievalisms” session at BABEL in UCSB, October 2014.

It’s been about a month since the Third Biennal Meeting of the BABEL Working Group at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Candace Barrington and I (on behalf of the Global Chaucers project) organized a session entitled “Trans-Medievalisms.” This session considered what happens when “the Middle Ages” (whatever we mean by that term!) traverses different cultures, languages, material forms, and media. The call for proposals and/or manifesto (previously posted on this blog) was as follows:

What happens to the Western Middle Ages when it crosses into diverse, concurrent times, languages, and cultures? How does “medievalism” take shape in multiple spaces across the planet—including cultural habitats where the Western Middle Ages are no longer the “‘zero point’ of orientation” (to reroute a phrase from Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology)? What cultural work do “the Middle Ages” perform as they infuse modern-day modes of global media and cultural production—textual, visual, musical, performative, cinematic? Our session is inspired by our work on the Global Chaucers project, a utopian scholarly endeavor that seeks to gather, back-translate, and analyze all non-English translations and adaptations of Chaucer’s work. Our scheming with scholars around the world has so far revealed Chaucerian adaptations in places as far-flung and interconnected as Latin America (Argentina, Bolivia), East Asia (China, Japan, Korea), Europe (Denmark, Flanders, Spain, Hungary), the Middle East (Israel, Iran), and Africa (Nigeria, South Africa), as well as works in re/invented languages (Esperanto, Neo-Latin).

For this session we aim to gather participants working on Chaucerian adaptation in non-English contexts or any aspect of medieval appropriation in “global” contemporary culture (however conceived). How might plurilingual, transoceanic, and intercultural orientations provoke new modes of engaging with the past? How can we create a dynamic, multi-site community of cross-temporal scholars and enthusiasts, a fluid collective that thrives across disciplines and borders? We welcome non-medievalists, amateurs, and enthusiasts, including creative work by poets, playwrights, musicians, and/or interpretive dancers. We highly encourage collaborative submissions.

The session at UCSB resulted in four strikingly divergent yet enticingly intertwining presentations.

  • Raúl Ariza-Barile: Chaucer’s Spanish Accent: Impossible Poetry? Raúl’s paper offered a brief background of Chaucerian translation into Spanish, suggesting (among other things) how a careful consideration of Latin American contexts might shift our conversations about the aims and practices of modern translators; the presentation ended with a debut performance of his own translation of the opening lines of Chaucer’s General Prologue into rhymed Spanish verse.
  • Shyama Rajendran: The Impossibility of Locating The Ramayana. Shyama’s presentation traced the movement of the ancient epic Ramayana across many cultural traditions and performance contexts beyond South Asia, attending to a plurality of reception histories across time and space; she ended with a careful consideration of the political implications of the Ramayana’s narrow appropriation for the purposes of Hindu nationalism in contemporary India.
  • Carol Robinson: Expressing Loathly Ladies—Explicitly Noncompliant. In this presentation, Carol featured the work of two of her former students who created a collaborative video adaptation of the Wife of Bath. Each student had recorded a dramatic monologue: one performance used ASL to engage with Deaf culture, relating the episode when the Wife is rendered deaf; a “political dramatization” by a queer student (in drag) incorporated contemporary debates about polygamy and marriage.
  • Elaine Treharne: TEXT Technological Transformations: the Inexactitude of a Medieval Unreality. Elaine’s talk suggested the possibility of cross-cultural comparative analysis across seemingly disparate contexts including medieval Western and East Asian (Chinese) texts. Her reflections not only considered the rich materiality of textual production but also suggested its importance as artistic performance.

These presentations richly showcased the heterogeneity of cultural/artistic/linguistic materials that we might call “medieval” (thinking expansively beyond the contours of Latin-speaking Europe). At the same time, these perspectives collectively invited us to think more creatively about what new modes of medieval appropriation and comparative analysis actually might enact and enable.

Medievalism studies has certainly “arrived” in the academy and it is also clearly breaking down the boundaries between what lies within and outside of institutional and traditional academic structures. Global Chaucers is one such community among many, including other digital spaces like Medievally Speaking, and the Medieval Electronic Multimedia Organization (MEMO). We’re in a very exciting time for medievalism studies now and I hope that these networked communities will continue to thrive, grow, interconnect, and adapt.

Visit In the Middle for a longer version of this posting that includes a brief discussion of an exciting new volume that may be of interest to our readers: Medievalism: Key Critical Termsed. Elizabeth Emery and Richard Utz (Bodyell, 2014).

Briefly Noted: Ashton on Chaucer and Medieval Afterlives

by JONATHAN HSY

Cover of Medieval Afterlives ed Ashton

Cover of Medieval Afterlives ed. Ashton

A few weeks ago, Gail Ashton (who we have featured on this blog here and here) wrote a posting about Chaucer for the Bloomsbury Literary Studies blog. Ashton’s posting entitled “What the Dickens shall we do about Chaucer?” considers the “residual” presence of Chaucer in present-day British culture, and it ends with a revealing interview about Chaucer in the schools with former Welsh poet laureate Gwyneth Lewis and former Canterbury poet laureate Patience Agbabi.

Ashton’s posting also nicely ends with a plug for her forthcoming edited collection entitled Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2015). Candace Barrington and I have a co-authored article on “Global Chaucer” in that collection–so stay tuned!

“His Latin stile hath Englisht thee”: Kynaston’s 1635 Troilus and Criseyde

by MEGAN COOK and DAVID HADBAWNIK, with introduction by CANDACE BARRINGTON

kynastontitle

This item is reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

Today’s guest posting moves Global Chaucers in new directions, for Megan and David’s work deals with neither The Canterbury Tales nor post-1945 translations, two parameters defining Global Chaucers thus far.  Instead, they examine Sir Francis Kynaston’s 17th-century Latin translation of Troilus and Criseyde.

Megan Cook is an assistant professor in English at Colby College, where she teaches medieval literature, with an emphasis on Chaucer and other late medieval poets, and researches and writes about the fate of Middle English texts and books in the early modern period. Her current book project examines the scholarly reception of Chaucer’s works in sixteenth-century England, with special interest in the role of antiquarians in the production of early printed editions.  

David Hadbawnik studies poetic diction in English from the medieval through early modern period. He co-edits eth press and is also co-editing a special issue of postmedieval on cross-currents in contemporary and medieval poetry. He has published an article on Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar, and his translation of books 1-6 of the Aeneid is forthcoming from Shearsman Books in 2015.

We are delighted they accepted our invitation to bring together their collective knowledge of Kynaston and his understudied translation.  Their collaboration sheds new light on what it means (and does not mean) to translate Chaucer into Latin, the global language nonpareil.

THE EARLIEST EFFORTS to translate Chaucer out of Middle English and into a language accessible to non-Anglophone audiences are not in any vernacular language but, rather, in Latin. Latin praise of Chaucer is a minor but persistent strain in his reception: In the 1480s, William Caxton commissioned the Italian poet Stephanus Surigonis to compose a Latin epitaph for Chaucer, which he printed in his 1473 edition of the Boece, and supposedly had posted near the poet’s burial place in Westminster Abbey. In the 1530s, the antiquary John Leland provided readers of his de Viris Illustribus with a list of Chaucer’s titles translated into Latin—the Fabulae Cantianae, Amores Troili et Chrysidis, and the Chorus avium, among others. Leland was aware of the ways in which Chaucer’s preference for the vernacular constrained the reputation of his works in an international community of learning. Elsewhere in his account of Chaucer’s life and works, he writes that “I wish… at least that our language were known to the Latin poets; then they would easily—I say easily—accede to my opinion [of Chaucer’s poetry]/ But since what I want is scarcely possible, I wish at least that having been prevailed upon they would have some faith in me as a lover of Latin literature in this matter.”

While Caxton and Leland are eager to confer on Chaucer the cultural status associated with Latin literature, they are content to let his language stand unaltered (or lightly modernized). By the seventeenth century, however, changes within the English language had made Chaucer’s Middle English less accessible, and some admirers of Chaucer worried that readers would be unable to comprehend his works, much less appreciate their artistry. In 1598, Thomas Speght oversaw the production of the first edition of Chaucer’s Works to contain a glossary, and in the 1630s Jonathan Sidnam produced, in manuscript, a modernized version of the first three books of Troilus and Criseyde.

Enter Sir Francis Kynaston (or Kinaston) (1587-1642) and his Latin translation of Troilus and Criseyde.

It is not surprising that as Kynaston set out to Latinize Chaucer he would turn to Troilus and Criseyde, a work set in pagan antiquity and already rife with classical allusion. Although Kynaston produced manuscript copies of the poem throughout his life (distributed as gifts to friends and patrons), his translation is best known via the printed edition of the first two books, which were published in 1635 as Amorum Troili et Creseidae libri duo (STC 5097), with copious prefatory materials in both Latin and English.

However bizarre it might seem to us that the effort to “preserve” and “make accessible” Chaucer’s verse led seventeenth-century writers to translate that verse into Latin, the front-matter of Kynaston’s 1635 Latin Troilus and Criseyde unfolds the logic behind the effort in a way that makes it seem natural, even inevitable. Latinized Chaucer is in some ways the logical conclusion of efforts to establish him as a properly “classical” poet; situating Chaucer in the company of Virgil, Ovid, and Homer was a project that arguably began with the former’s mentioning of those classical authors in Troilus and Criseyde (the famous “Go, litel bok” stanza – V.1786-92), and continued via the encomia of Hoccleve, Lydgate, Hawes, and numerous others through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The opening epistle of William Thynne’s 1532 print edition of Chaucer – the distant ancestor of modern collections such as the Riverside Chaucer – provides a compact summary of the cultural work the poet was supposed to have done for the English language. After the “confusion of tongues” that was punishment for, presumably, the Tower of Babel, written language slowly developed, and poets came along to “adorne the rudeness and barbarity of speech.” Latin and Greek were thus “perfected,” with other Romance languages following eventually thanks to their similarity to Latin. English had a tougher go of it, but against all odds Chaucer was able to perfect the tongue not unlike Demosthenes, Homer, or Cicero.

But there was a problem. English continued to change at an alarming rate. Indeed, Chaucer himself had foreseen this issue, also in that famous sequence from Troilus and Criseyde (“And for ther is so gret diversite / In Englissh and in writying of oure tonge… [V.1793-94]). How could Chaucer’s English be perfect if the language also continued to change, to the extent that readers of later ages had increasing difficulty with it? In part, the answer was a characterization of English as a fallen tongue post-Chaucer, expressing an anxiety about linguistic corruption (paradoxically via Latin, French, etc.) and lamenting the loss of an imaginary origin in the ever-receding past. Such anxiety was the backdrop to the so-called “inkhorn” controversy and disputes about poetic diction engaged in by Hawes, Puttenham, Sidney, and others through the late medieval to early modern period. There must, some thought, be a kind of English that gets us back to the Garden found by Chaucer and almost immediately lost due to the carelessness of his descendants – if only we could agree on what kind it is, which linguistic influences to exclude, which to embrace.

The other answer was to leap straight to one of the classical, perfected tongues, in order to avoid the troubling issue of post-lapsarian English altogether. In this light, the logic behind the Latinized Chaucer is still curious, though ultimately sound. Indeed, the Latin Troilus and Criseyde takes its place among a broader discourse of Latin poetry (original and translation) during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (see, e.g., J.W. Binns, Intellectual Culture in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, 1990, and the Brill Encyclopedia of Neo-Latin, eds. Philip Ford, Jan Bloemendal, and Charles Fantazzi, 2014). In that context, translating Chaucer into a dead language is not a bizarre feat akin to the attempt at reproducing Don Quixote undertaken by Borges’ Pierre Menard, but a project of “restaurationem & redintegrationem,” of bringing “vetusta a novis, prisca ab hodiernis” – of, in other words, “restoring” a perfect poem to a perfect tongue.

Thus one of the dedicatory poems in English scolds modern poets for their inability to parse old English and hails Kynaston’s effort

                                              to Translate
A booke, not tractable to every hand,
And such as few presum’d to understand:
Those upstart verse-wrights, that first steale his wit,
And then pronounce him Dull: or those that sit
In judgement of the Language they nere view’d,
And because they are lazie, Chaucer’s Rude…
 

 Another perfectly captures the guilt-complex of English speakers at the “fallen” state of their own tongue, and with hyperbole worthy of a modern blurb pronounces Kynaston’s translation an instant classic:

Here is no fault, but ours: through us
True Poetry growes barbarous:
While aged Language must be thought
(Because ’twas good long since) now naught.
Thus time can silence Chaucers tongue,
But not his witte, which now among
The Latines hath a lowder sound;
And what we lost, the World hath found.
Thus the Translation will become
Th’ Originall, while that growes dumbe:
And this will crowne these labours: None
Sees Chaucer but in Kynaston.
 

Another dedicatory poem reinforces the imaginary displacement of the original by the translation, expressing the (ironic) reality that it is easier to read Chaucer in the new-old language than the old-new one:

’Tis to your Happy cares wee owe, that wee
Read Chaucer now without a Dictionary;
Whose faithfull Quill such constant light affords,
That we now read his thoughts, who read his words,
And though we know’t done in our age by you,
May doubt which is the Coppy of the two.
 

Perhaps most strangely, one dedication voices the desire to read all of Chaucer in Latin, as if the entire oeuvre of the poet could only be fully appreciated in that tongue:

Thanks Noble Kynaston, to whose Learn’d Arte
We owe a limbe of Chaucer, th’other part
Expects thy happy hand, Me thinks I see
It pant, and heave for a recovery:
First let the Trojan Boy arise, and then
True Trojans all, they are his Countrymen.
The Sumner, Franklin, oh that I might heare
The Manciple, and early Chaunticleare
Crowe latin, next might see the Reve, and Logge,
The Miller and learne Latine for a Cogge,
The Merchant, and Sir Thopas height, the wife
Of Bathe, in vulgar Latine scold for life.
 

Finally, Kynaston is praised for (paradoxically) making Chaucer more English by taking him out of English:

Chaucer, thou wert not dead; nor can we feare
Thy death, that hast out liv’d three hundred yeare.
Thou wert but out of fashion; then admit
This courtly habit, which may best befit
Thee and the times. Thou hast a friend, that while
He studies to translate, his Latine stile
Hath Englisht thee, and cunningly in one
Fram’d both a comment and Translation.
 

In the 1635 printed edition, the Latin and Middle English text are presented alongside one another, with Chaucer’s Middle English coming from Speght’s 1602 edition. The mis-en-page advances an implicit claim that Chaucer’s English is equal to Kynaston’s neo-Latin; by demonstrating that Troilus can be successfully translated from Middle English into Latin, Kynaston offers seventeenth-century readers proof of the late medieval writer’s ability to ascend the heights of neo-classical propriety (Troilus and Criseyde’s own status as a translation from Italian hovers somewhere in the background). The two versions of the poem also gloss each other: the Latin seems likely to serve as a crib for the Middle English, but the Middle English, too, could offer some readers a point of entry into some complex Latin phrasing. In the material presented here (first two books), Kynaston’s translation is stanza-by-stanza, suggesting that his Latin provides a full equivalent to the Middle English verse. Bolstered by claims in the prefatory material for the robust representativeness of his translation, and its efficacy in restoring Chaucer from neglect and oblivion, Kynaston’s Latin threatens to eclipse Chaucer’s own verse, superseded both by the Latin translation and by the English poets that built upon his innovations.

Kynaston’s translation varies in its fidelity to Chaucer’s English verses. His translation of the famous opening stanza (Book 1, stanza 1)  is particularly rigorous:

Dolorem Troili duplicem narrare,     The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
Qui Priami regis Troiae fuit                 That was the kyng Priamus sone
     gnatus,                                                    of Troye,
Ut primum illi contigit amare,            In lovynge, how his aventures fellen
Ut miser, felix, et infortunatus            Fro wo to wele, and after out of joie,
Erat, decessum ante sum conatus.     My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Tisiphone, fer opem recenscere          Thesiphone, thow help me for t’endite
Hos versus, qui, dum scribo, visi        Thise woful vers, that wepen as I
  flere.                                                            write.
 

As Dana Sutton notes in his introduction to the Latin text of the poem, Kynaston uses accentual meter here, rather than the more classical quantitative meter, in a pattern that most closely resembles iambic pentameter with a feminine ending. As a result, Kynaston is able to capture something of the rhythm of Chaucer’s rhyme royals verses. In this stanza, Kynaston is also able to retain some syntactic parallels with Chaucer, beginning with the “dolorem Troili duplicem,” although the stanza as a whole is somewhat less confident than the English original. While the English narrator has a clear “purpos” “to tellen,” the Latin narrator can only attempt to tell (“narare…sum conatus”). Similarly, while in the English, “thise woful vers” do, in fact, “wepen as I write,” in the Latin, they only seem to weep (“visi flere”).

Kynaston takes more liberties with a famous stanza in Book II:

Loquendi forma, scio, quod                    I know that in forme of speech is 
    mutata                                                        chaunge
Sit intra seculum; & verbamire            Within a thousand yere, and words tho
Tunc temporis in precio, &                    That hadden prise, now wonder nice
    laudata,                                                       and  strange
Nunc vel in desuetudinem                      Thinketh hem, and yet they spake
    abire:                                                            hem so, 
Amabant etiam tunc (oportet               And spedde as well in love, as men
     scire)                                                          now do.
Diversis item saecis conciliare             Eke for to winnen love, in sondry ages,
Amorem; Artes variae sunt & rara.    In sondry londs, sondry ben viages.
 

Immediately clear even from a visual standpoint is Kynaston’s altering of the stanza’s rhythm. While he may have arranged his syntax, as noted above, to maintain an approximation of Chaucer’s iambic line, the effect of the punctuation in line one creates a full stop to either side of “scio” (“I know”), squarely at odds with the smooth utterance of Chaucer’s narrator. Line three begins by strongly following Chaucer’s sense, with “precio” for “prise,” but what are we to make of “laudata” (“praiseworthy”) which merely seems to echo “precio,” rather than veer into Chaucer’s succinct expression that people now think old words “nice and strange”? It seems ironic that in this particular stanza Kynaston seems to have lost, or set aside, the negative connotations of these two words. “Nice” of course was often used by Chaucer to mean “foolish” or “silly,” while “strange” figures as a keyword in the poem as a whole, one that registers the movement of Criseyde through the course of the poem (see, e.g., Criseyde’s final letter to Troilus from the Greek camp, excusing herself for leaving Troy, wherein the same “strange”/“change” rhyme is employed: “this lettre he thoughte al straunge … / Hym thoughte it lik a kalendes of chaunge” [5.1632, 34]). Likewise, Kynaston cannot maintain Chaucer’s repetitive rhythm “sondry…”) in the closing couplet, and resorts to “rara” to end line seven, though Chaucer merely notes that men used “different routes” (“viages”) in different times and places. Caught in a classic translational crux, Kynaston falls victim to hunting for rhyme words that fit rather than following his text’s sense. In both lines three and seven (“laudata” and “rara”), Kynaston essentially chooses to add a related descriptor rather than maintain Chaucer’s more complex dance with meaning.

A manuscript of Kynaston’s full translation, dated 1639 and now held at the Bodleian Library (MS Add. C 287), tells a slightly different story than the printed text. This version includes all five books of Troilus and Criseyde as well as the Testament of Cressid, written by Robert Henryson but published as Chaucer’s in the folio editions (Kynaston recognizes it as Henryson’s work). Unlike the printed edition, which presents the Latin and Middle English unadorned by any interpretive commentary, the manuscript includes frequent intercalations in English as well as “annotationes” in Latin at the end of each book, having to do with the particulars of the translation.

Kynaston’s opening comment, after the first stanza, lays out the problems that prompted his translation: “diverse words in this our most excellent Authors worke do seeme obsolete, and therefore by many are held absurd, as namely tellen & fellen, and such like under favoure of there better judgements such words ought rather to be esteemed as elegances.” In this, Kynaston echoes the comments made by Thynne in his preface to Chaucer’s Works, and EK’s commentary in Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar. Like these earlier writers, Kynaston argues that a better understanding of Chaucer’s words will enable a more robust appreciation of his poetry. The implication here does not seem to be that Chaucer’s writings have become wholly unintelligible, but rather that grammatical and orthographic changes have obscured his “elegances”. While Speght and EK focus on Chaucer’s lexicon, Kynaston at least theoretically privileges grammar in his commentary, and recognizes the vestiges of inflection and gender in Middle English. He continues, “it appears by a moast antient Grammer written in the Saxon tounge & character, which I once saw in the handes of my most learned and celebrated frend Mr. Ben: Johnson, & which (out of doubt) Lilly our Grammarian made his Accedence the English tong in Chaucers time, being in substance Saxton, had in nounes distinctions of cases & numbers, & in Verbes of numbers & Tenses.”

Whatever Kynaston’s intentions may have been in setting out to write his commentary, this strain of analysis pops up only intermittently in the first book, and even less so in those that follow. Instead, Kynaston uses the story of Troilus and Criseyde as an occasion to recount a wide variety of gossipy anecdotes, bits of folklore, and somewhat ribald jokes. When he ventures beyond straightforward identification of characters and place names, his notes on the English text digress as often as they illuminate, and many have only a tangential relation to the material they accompany. They bring us away from a serious appraisal of Chaucer as a highbrow writer, and toward Chaucer’s later-seventeenth and eighteenth-century reputation as a “merry” writer, whose works were more likely to inspire popular pastiche and comedic reinterpretations than highbrow re-workings. At the same time, however, amidst the scurrilous jokes and entendre, there is also a serious interest in both Chaucer’s lexicon and grammar that never disappears entirely, and Kynaston remains interested in the connections between Middle English and Anglo-Saxon, as well as Scots.

Kynaston’s commentary is of interest not only because it shows the ongoing evolution of what might be called a historical reading of Chaucer’s text, but because as a translator he himself is involved in a poetic assessment of the text. Thus, for example, Kynaston notes that “Tesiphone being an infernall power, & fained to be the worker of all Sorrowfull perturbations in mens minde[s] (what excellent discription may be found in the first booke of Statius Pampinius)…Chaucer hath not done amiss in going herein out of ye com[m]on path & inuoking the fury as a fitt Muse to his matter.” As with the project as a whole, the implication of comments like these seems to be the more that Chaucer can be shown to conform to the models of poetry that will be familiar to his latter-day readers (whether in terms of scansion, grammar, or decorum), the more his work will receive its due admiration.

In The Renaissance Chaucer, Alice S. Miskimin writes

Insofar as Chaucer used the language of his own day for poetry, he could only be awkwardly imitated by those born later, and the tone and meanings of his language blurred in a single generation. Insofar as he used elevated, Latinate, and continental poetic diction, his meaning and tone remained ‘polished’ and clear, and he could be copied with relative ease.

Following this “aureate” thread through the subsequent ages of poetic responses to Chaucer, critical estimations of his contributions to English, and textual editing and presentation of his works helps explain the persistent urge to “repackage” Chaucer in the linguistic image of his descendants. Thus certain poems appeared in manuscript and eventually print anthologies, according to not only religious or moralistic tastes, but also linguistic preferences. Needless to say, Chaucer’s poems were also often altered by scribes and editors for similar reasons; and poets like Lydgate rose to prominence by association, enhancing Chaucer’s legacy even as their reputations were burnished. And as noted above, it is perhaps a huge but ultimately logical step from “Latinate” to actual Latin in “preserving” Chaucer for all time. But does Kynaston’s Latin Troilus constitute a truly “global” Chaucer?

While the Latin theoretically could have made Troilus and Criseyde newly accessible to non-Anglophone readers, Kynaston never sought to publish his work abroad: the printed edition was published in Oxford (where, indeed, it might have caught the eye of some foreign academics) and the manuscript copies were all destined for readers to whom he had some personal connection. Amorum Troili et Cresidae might best be understood as a global Chaucer for a local audience. By translating the poem into Latin, Kynaston seeks to make it accessible to readers who are distanced from Chaucer’s original audience not by place or language, but by time. By leveraging the cultural prestige of Latin, Kynaston—like Caxton and Leland a century earlier—makes a pointed claim for the continued significance of Chaucer’s vernacular poem. Paradoxically, or at least surprisingly, as Kynaston moves from changeable English to a purportedly fixed Latin, he engages with many of the same concerns about translation, language change, and poetic expression that underlie Chaucer’s original. Thus, Kynaston’s translation is less concerned than it might first appear with presenting Chaucer to what would have, in the seventeenth century, been an increasingly connected and global community of Latinate readers. Instead, by demonstrating that Troilus and Criseyde can be successfully rendered into Latin, Kynaston uses Latin’s cultural standing among his fellow seventeenth-century academics to assert that Chaucer—despite his archaic language– deserves a place in the “brave new world” of early modern books and readers.

 

De Wife of Bristol on BBC Radio 4

Bristol_EnglandCheck out Edson Burton’s radio comedy, De Wife of Bristol, on BBC Radio 4!  Available for only a short time.

Botelho’s Contos da Cantuária a finalist for Prêmio Jabuti!

Brazil's  Prêmio Jabuti wins the award for the best award statue!

Brazil’s Prêmio Jabuti wins the award for the best award statue!

By Candace Barrington

I received this happy note from José Francisco Botelho, whose Brazilian-Portuguese translation of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was published 2013

Good news. Contos da Cantuária is among the finalists for the Prêmio Jabuti, the biggest literary prize in Brazil, in the category “Literary Translation – English to Portuguese”. This year has seen a huge number of works enrolled (over 2000 in all categories), so it is really, really good to be among the finalists; that alone is a considerable prize, even if the Contos don’t get to the final three winning places (final results come out in October). I also hope this will help to make Chaucer better known in Brazil; already I have been contacted by Brazilian medievalists who have read the Contos and are thrilled that Chaucer is finally in verse form amongst us. Some months after the first edition of the Contos arrived to the bookshops, a new edition of Paulo Vizioli’s prose translation has been issued (it had been out of print for over a decade). So it seems the merry company is on the road.

Congratulations from Global Chaucers!  Contos.

We will post the final results when they appear in October.

Traveling Chaucer

by Candace Barrington

Paper doll Chaucer goes from counting his beads to riding his horse.

Paper doll Chaucer goes from counting his beads to riding his horse.

From the beginning of the Global Chaucers project, our various collaborators, Jonathan Hsy, and I have faced the issue of how to theorize our methodological practice.  I had the opportunity to think non-stop about that issue last summer when I attended an NEH Institute, “The Centrality of Translation to the Humanities: New Interdisciplinary Scholarship,” at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  At the invitation of one of the institute leaders, Chris Higgins, a group of us wrote essays for a special issue of Educational Theory, “Translation and Cosmopolitan Humanism.”

My article, “Traveling Chaucer: Comparative Translation and Cosmopolitan Humanism,” presents a theorized methodology for how we approach the highly collaborative process of studying non-Anglophone translations of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Equally important, this article effectively demonstrates the highly collaborative nature of the Global Chaucers project.  In addition to the usual panoply of readers and auditors providing advice and reactions that writing any article entails, “Traveling Chaucer” depended upon extensive help from Nazmi Ağil (Chaucer’s Turkish translator) and Leyla Zidani-Eroglu (a colleague fluent in Turkish).  Without their good will and expertise, the article would have been impossible.  Furthermore, without similar good will and expertise from other translators and readers, the entire project would flounder. Thank you for all who have supported this project!

You can read the article here. Please remember that this is an electronic version of an article published in Educational Theory. Complete citation information for the final version of the paper, as published in the print edition of Educational Theory, is available on the Blackwell Synergy online delivery service, accessible via the journal’s website at http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/edth or http://www.blackwell-synergy.com.