Chaucer ‘to Walys fledde’

It is difficult to describe our excitement when we learned about the anonymous Welsh play based on Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as well as Henryson’s  Testament of Cresseid.  And we were practically beside ourselves when Sue Niebrzydowski, senior lecturer at Bangor University, agreed to write a short series of posts for Global Chaucers.  To top things off, she also laid the groundwork for us to use 6 gorgeous images from Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales’ Peniarth MS 106.  From NLW, we owe our gratitude to Iwan ap Dafydd and Maredudd ap Huw for their gracious and generous help. And a special thanks to Jacqueline Burek for making us aware of this understudied appropriation of Troilus and Criseyde. By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol
Cymru / National Library of Wales.

The following is Part 1 of Sue’s two-part posting.  Stay tuned for the second part, in the queue for the end of November.

Chaucer’s poetry has a long association with Wales. In ‘The Man of Law’s Tale’ Chaucer recounts how, in the face of the pagan conquest of Northumberland, the Christian community had ‘to Walys fledde’ (The Canterbury Tales, II (B1) 544). During the early modern period Chaucerian manuscripts found a haven in Wales, entering the country via gentry families on the Chester/Denbighshire border. Among these was the earliest copy of The Canterbury Tales, now Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 392 D (c. 1399) that by the 1570s was associated with the Banestar or Bannester family, who had Chester connections but whose three youngest children were born at Llanfair-is-gaer, near Caernarfon.

Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde was translated into Welsh, and from poetry into drama, not long after the Hengwrt copy of The Canterbury Tales came into the Banestar’s keeping. The National Library of Wales holds the unique copy of a late sixteenth-century, Welsh-language play, Troelus a Chresyd.[1] Troelus a Chresyd is preserved in MS Peniarth 106 (formerly Hengwrt 338), the only text contained within a modestly sized, manuscript book. Troelus a Chresyd was one of many works copied by John Jones (b. before 1585–1658) of Gellilyvdy in Flintshire.[2]

Picture 127
By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales. NLW Peniarth MS 106: p. 30, Full page image showing speakers’ names in red.

In Jones’ manuscript speakers’ names, written in red, appear generally in the margin against their speeches. In the latter part of the codex space has been left for the rubricated names but Jones never went back to fill them in. Embellished initials suggest that Jones was aiming at an artistic product but, unfortunately, the quality of his ink was, on occasion, too acidic. This has led to blotches and the paper being burned through in places.

Who wrote Troelus a Chresyd and when remains a matter for debate. As he records in the manuscript, Jones copied the play in three sections, comprising two phases: section one complete by 14 February 1613, section two by 11 September 1622, and section three by 25 October 1622. Jones was the scribe but not author who remains unidentified but whose dialect suggests that he may have come from North Wales, probably Denbighshire or Flintshire. Although copied in the seventeenth century, Troelus a Chresyd may have been composed at any point from the 1570s onwards.

Troelus a Chresyd makes available in Welsh a synthesis of Books 1–4 of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and the conclusion of The Testament of Cresseid by Robert Henryson (c. 1475). The conclusion of Book 2 and the beginning of Book 3 are missing, suggesting that Jones’ exemplar was itself incomplete. The play’s fusion of Chaucer and Henryson can be explained by the edition of Chaucer’s romance to which our playwright turned. Since William Thynne’s 1532 edition of The works of Geffray Chaucer newly printed, with dyuers works whiche were never in print before, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde had been followed by the unattributed Testament of Cresseid, leading early modern readers to believe that Chaucer was the author of both. Our playwright most probably used an edition of Chaucer’s work by Thomas Speght (1598, 1602) that reiterates Thynne’s identification of The Testament of Cresseid as Chaucer’s. The language of Speght’s edition was neither Chaucer’s Middle English nor Henryson’s Middle Scots but an ‘early modernised’ version of both. It is this that the playwright translates into his native Welsh, as can be seen in the translation of the Canticus Troili:

Picture 129
By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales. NLW Peniarth MS 106: p. 39, Full page image showing stanza 39, ‘Onid oes gariad’ (If no love is).

If no love is, O God, what fele I so?
And if love is, what thing and which is he?
If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo?

Speght, 1598, fol.153v

that the playwright renders as:

Onid oes gariad, O Dduw, pa beth sy’m trwblio?
Od oes gariad pa vodd pa sut sydd arno?
Os da kariad, of ble mae’n dyfod i’m blino?

Troelus a Chresyd, stanza 39, 1–4

Following Chaucer’s narrative structure, Troelus a Chresyd is divided into five books (the Welsh used is llyfrau (‘books’) not actiau (‘acts’)) and is written in a variety of stanzas, including rime–royal (for the Chaucerian sections), in places the bob and wheel familiar from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the nine-line stanzas of Henryson’s verse form. The action is commented upon by a Chorus. The play includes the Canticus Troili, and the aubade spoken after the lovers have spent the night together. Their encounter at Pandarus’ house occurs ‘offstage’, and lacks Chaucer’s deft comic handling of the episode. Events follow Chaucer’s poem until Diomedes discards Chresyd. At this point, the Chorus summarises Chresyd’s demise as found in Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid. Having been called a whore by Diomedes, Chresyd berates the Gods for which she is punished with leprosy. The play concludes with Chresyd’s death, and Troelus’ building her a tomb.

The playwright tells his audience that, ‘A mine, er mwyn yr wyllys da ytt a ddygais a’i trois i’th iaith Gymraeg yn ore ac i medrais’ [And I, for the good will which I bear you, translated it into your Welsh tongue as best I could] (Troelus a Chresyd, 62). Knowing Chaucer’s own commitment to translation, we can be confident that the London-based poet would have been delighted that his ‘litel bok’ had travelled so far through space and time.

Picture 130
By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales. NLW Peniarth MS 106: p. 160, detail of colophon.

[1] The entire Welsh text is available online at <http://people.ds.cam.ac.uk/dwew2/hcwl/tch/TCh_dipl.htm> [accessed 10 October 2016] as part of the Cambridge University Corpws hanesyddol yr iaith Gymraeg [Corpus of historical Welsh Language works] 1500-1850. See also Troelus A Chresyd (O lawysgrif Peniarth 106) edited W. Beynon Davies (Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1976) and for an English translation see Hadley Phillip Tremaine, The Welsh Troelus a Chresyd, University of Michigan PhD thesis, 1965.

[2] See Nesta Lloyd, ‘Jones, John (b. before 1585, d. in or before 1658)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 <http://0-www.oxforddnb.com.unicat.bangor.ac.uk/view/article/68197> [accessed 11 October 2016].

The False Quest: Eradicating Informational Entropy

georgetownexperiment1954In her 8 November presentation “Crypto-Monolingualism: Machine Translation and the Poetics of Automation,” Avery Slater challenges us to consider the ways machine translation has relied on efforts to locate, nay create, a singular language that eradicates impediments to communication caused by linguistic diversity. In pursuit of this goal, proponents of machine translation ignore the fact that linguistic messiness starts with individual languages. Although that messiness complicates translation, it is not caused by translation.

In its earliest iterations, machine translation sought a way to account for, reign in, and even take advantage of the paradoxes of informational entropy.  On the one hand, an unambiguous event can be easily conveyed because it contains a limited amount of information. On the other hand, an ambiguous event, while more difficult to convey because it contains more information, can also be a compact and efficient vehicle for conveying that load of information, a realization which poets have long relied.

In order to circumvent and circumscribe informational entropy, machine translation initially sought a mono-language identified as a “new Tower of Anti-Babel,” whose desideratum seems closer to an Ante-Babel, that mythical period before linguistic plurality.  Reaching this desired mono-language meant more than a simple unified linguistic experience; it also promised to eliminate equivocation and ambiguity. This natural generative language (NLG) becomes the code into which all languages can be re-encrypted.  Moreover, each utterance in this language would point to a single, predictive meaning.

By integrating statistical models into their algorithms, more recent forms of machine translation would seem to have abandoned the formulaic substitutions based on dictionary definitions and syntactic rule books. And yet, as I discovered when I typed in, word-by-word, Catullus’s Poem 101, I initially received a predictably awkward rendition of the poem’s lines. Halfway through, however, those lines disappeared and were replaced by a crafted translation of the lines.  I haven’t yet found their source—a 100% match did not appear when I googled the translated lines—but they are not the same as the one provided by the initial algorithm. Instead, they reach into the internet, filching how others (most likely humans) have translated those lines.  What I was given felt closer to the results that would have been provided by the person hidden inside Benjamin’s deceptive chess-playing machine.

The quest for reliable machine translation seems partially propelled by fear of the fallible, “wrongly” biased translator.  As Slater discusses, however, even the most mechanized translation devises embed the biases of their designers.  And the latest translation software that relies on human translators cannot escape the preferences of certain powerful groups of translators.

Of course, these “failures” are not really failures, for all they do highlight what makes language such a fascinating and endless source of study: its essential aleatory nature that allows it to convey information both compactly and expansively, efficiently and gloriously inefficiently.

For these reasons, I’m enthralled by the parlour game of translation tag that retranslates translations through google translator.  Here, I begin with a Modern English translation of the first four lines and then retranslate it into Afrikaans, Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, and Armenian. For Afrikaans, I provide only the translator’s rendition into Afrikaans and then back translated into ModEnglish. For the other four, I first provide the translation from ModEnglish into the receiving language and then the back translation into (just as I did with Afrikaans).  Beneath that is the translation from the language just above it and its back translation into ModEnglish.  Thus, the third entry under Albanian is the translation from Afrikaans (rather than from ModEnglish), and the fourth entry is the back translation into ModEnglish.

ModEnglish

When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout through every vein with liquid of such power.

Afrikaans

Wanneer sagte reën April se die droogte van Maart reg deurboor om die wortel en gebaai elke spruit deur elke aar met vloeibare van so ‘n mag.

When pierced soft rain, April’s drought from March right around the root and bathed every stream through each ear with liquid of such power.

Albanian

Kur shirat e butë të prillit kanë shpuar thatësirë e marsit të drejte në rrënjë, dhe bathed çdo dal nëpër çdo mënyrë me të lëngshme e fuqi të tillë.

When soft April rains have drilled the March drought right at the root, and bathed every pack in any way with such force liquid.

Kur shpuar shi të butë, thatësira prillit nga mars djathtë rreth rrënjës dhe i larë çdo rrjedhë nëpërmjet çdo vesh me lëng e fuqi të tillë.

When perforated soft rain, drought from March to April, right around the roots and wash each flow through each ear with such force juice.

Amharic

ሚያዝያ የአምላክ የዋሆች ዝናብ ሥር ወደ መጋቢት መብት ድርቅ የወጉትም ያዩታል, እና ከመታጠብ ጊዜ እያንዳንዱ እንዲህ ያለ ኃይል ፈሳሽ ጋር ሁሉ የደም ሥር በኩል ያበቅላል.

April’s rain under mild drought pierced right into March, and bathed each such power to grow through every vein with fluid.

ቀኝ ሥሮች ዙሪያ, ሚያዝያ ከማርች እስከ ለስለስ ያለ ዝናብ, ድርቅ ቀዶ እንዲህ ኃይል ጭማቂ ጋር በእያንዳንዱ ጆሮ በኩል እያንዳንዱ ፍሰት ታጠብ.

Right around the roots, from March to April, soft rain, drought surgery to power wash with juice in each ear through each flow.

Arabic

عندما الأمطار لطيف في ابريل نيسان قد اخترقت الجفاف من حق مارس إلى الجذر، واستحم كل برعم من خلال كل عرق مع السائل من هذه السلطة

When the rain really nice in April, has penetrated the drought of March to the right of the root, and bathed each bud through every race with the liquid from this authority

الحق حول جذور، في الفترة من مارس إلى أبريل المطر الناعمة، جراحة الجفاف لغسل السلطة مع عصير في كل أذن من خلال كل التدفق.

 Right around the roots, in the period from March to April of soft rain, drought surgery to wash power with juice in each ear through the whole flow.

Armenian

Երբ ապրիլյան Նուրբ անձրեւները պիրսինգով երաշտի մարտի իրավունքի արմատի, եւ bathed յուրաքանչյուրը բողբոջել միջոցով ամեն երակային հեղուկ նման իշխանության.

When drought root March April Gentle rains pierced right through every vein and bathed each sprout like fluid power.

Ճիշտ է շուրջ արմատներին, ի մարտից մինչեւ ապրիլ փափուկ անձրեւի, երաշտը վիրահատություն է լվանում իշխանությունը հյութի յուրաքանչյուր ականջին ամբողջ հոսքը:

Right around the roots, from March to April in the soft rain, drought surgery to power wash the entire flow of juice in each ear.

I’m not certain why Amharic, the ancient Ethiopian language, would be the one to introduce such modern notions as surgery and power washing, but am certain that the insights gained through such a game are limited.  Obtaining the insights revealed by translation requires a deeper knowledge of language than currently available via machine translation.

 

Chaucer and WWI

flying-with-chaucer
Hall’s  Flying with Chaucer (1930), a memoir of his war experience as a pilot and prisoner.

When The Great War ended 98 years ago, James Norman Hall (who would eventually co-write with  Mutiny on the Bounty) walked out of a German prisoner of war camp with a copy of The Canterbury Tales in hand. As we mark this anniversary, it seems fitting to consider how the war shaped Chaucer’s global reception.

 

The years before the war mark the move from antiquarian appreciation of Chaucer to philological and historicist scholarship written by men affiliated with universities in England and the US.

Because the war confirmed England’s role on the global stage, the war and its pro-English colonization aftermath propelled Chaucer’s worldwide dissemination.  Notably, Chaucer was beginning to be transmitted via non-Anglophone translations, a phenomenon propelled by the Treat of Versailles and its creation of international consortia that promoted and recorded translations, as evidenced in the the Translation Index begun within a decade after the end of the war.

In the States, we find evidence in the early 1920s that Chaucer’s readership was expanding through such institutional innovations as Chautauqua Institutes, Women’s Colleges, and Women’s Clubs.  And though Chaucer remained primarily within institutions of higher education, adaptations for younger readers began to appear frequently, a sign parents and teachers were preparing the groundwork for the children’s later college education.

Chaucer’s Chinese Names

chinese-chaucer
An assortment of Chaucerian materials in Chinese.

Earlier this year, we began a delightful correspondence with Lian Zhang, a graduate student of Dr. Minghan Xiao, professor of English and American literature in Hunan Normal University. Lian’s extensive research on Chaucer’s Chinese reception has opened up many exciting new avenues of interpretation, but for now Lian has agreed to share a tantalizing tidbit: the myriad choices (and dilemmas) facing a translator needing to render Chaucer’s name in Chinese.

We think you will enjoy this small yet fascinating window into the complexities of translating Chaucer’s Middle English text into Chinese.


Confucius says: “If terminology is not corrected, then what is said cannot be followed. If what is said cannot be followed, then work cannot be accomplished” (名不正,则言不顺;言不顺,则事不成). Chinese people attach great importance to their names. A Chinese name suggests both family inheritance and good wishes for the person. The surname is put first to show respect for ancestors, and the given name is after the surname and generally indicates family’s expectations. Take Bai Juyi (白居易) (772-846 AD), a great poet in the Tang Dynasty, for example. “Bai” is his surname, and “Juyi” means living an easy and comfortable life, a simple and sincere hope from his family. What is different from the western tradition is that Chinese rarely name their children after their ancestors or relatives. The given names of the ancestors would always be taboo words for the descendents. Du Fu (杜甫) (712-770 AD), the Poet Sage (诗圣) in the Tang Dynasty, for instance, wrote poetry for over thirty years and never used the word “xian” (闲), meaning free and casual, a very poetic word in Chinese, simply because it is his father’s given name. Du has also been reputed as never mentioning Chinese flowering crabapple (海棠), a plant often praised in classical Chinese poems, as it relates to his mother’s maiden name. In addition to a surname and a given name, Du also had a style name “zi mei” (字“子美”), and an assumed name “Shaoling Farmer” (号“少陵野老”). While a style name is usually given by the family when the person is young and generally indicates family’s good wishes, an assumed name is more often decided by the person himself.

With such a rich history of naming culture behind, Chinese scholars would take translations of Chaucer’s name seriously. The name “Chaucer” has been translated into many versions, either a Chinese full name (with both a Chinese surname and a given name) or just a given name or an assumed name with all good meanings. Chaucer was named as “shao sou” (邵叟), “que sou” (却叟), “chuo sai” (绰塞), “qiao sai” (乔塞), “sao sai” (骚塞), “chao sai” (巢塞), etc, and all of these translations just deal with his surname “Chaucer”. One version including his full name is very auspicious as “qiao sai ji fu lai” (乔塞·极福来), which sounds close to the full name “Geoffrey Chaucer” and means “supreme blessing for Chaucer”. Yet a mistake occurs here, as the given name and the surname are put in the opposite order in the translation. The most commonly used translation for his full name to this day is “jie fu li qiao sou” (杰弗里·乔叟). The above mentioned name “sao sai” (骚塞) is also interesting, as “sao” refers to poets or literary men in classical Chinese, and likely originates from Li Sao (离骚) by Qu Yuan (屈原) (340-278 BC), one of the greatest patriotic poets in ancient China. Thus this name not only has a similar pronunciation but also suggests Chaucer’s literary achievements in history.

In 1913, Sun Yuxiu first introduced Chaucer into China, and translated his name as “xiao su” (孝素), two Chinese words with very good meanings. “Xiao” means filial piety, which is regarded as the most important of all virtues in traditional Chinese culture. “Su” suggests simple, plainness, and quietness. The two Chinese words combined sounds like the surname “Chaucer” in pronunciation, but this combination is more like a Chinese given name, or a style name.

From 1916 to 1925, Lin Shu and Chen Jialin published translations of nine of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales. In the translation for the Wife of Bath’s tale, Chaucer’s name was introduced as “cao xi er” (曹西尔). “Cao” sounds like “Chau-” in Chinese, and is a typical Chinese surname. This surname dates back to the days of the legendary Huangdi Emperor in the third millennium BC, and even today millions of Chinese people still bear this surname. “Xi” means west, an emphasis on Chaucer’s origin, and “er” could be taken as a mood auxiliary word in classical Chinese. Thus Chaucer got a full Chinese name here, with a Chinese surname and a given name indicating the poet’s origin.

Chaucer’s name was more commonly recognized in China as “qiao sou” (乔叟). “Qiao”, a Chinese surname, sounds like “Chau-” in pronunciation, whileas “sou” sounds like “-cer” and means an old and wise man in Chinese, an image close to Chaucer’s portrait we have nowadays. This name is like an assumed name of the poet, as it suggests his profession or social status. It is through Fang Zhong’s influential translation of Chaucer’s works that this name has been made widely known in China. It is also the commonly used name by Taiwanese scholars.

Another Chinese name for Chaucer worth noting is “zhao sou” (赵叟), used by a couple of contemporary Chinese scholars. “Zhao”, or “Chiu” in Hong Kong, “Chao” or “Chau” in Taiwanese phonetics, sounds like “Chau-” in Chinese, and “sou” seconds what the word in “qiao sou” means. Moreover, “zhao” was the surname of the emperors of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) in China, thus the so-called surname of the state, and the most respectable surname for this period. Even today, “zhao” is among one of the most borne surnames in China. The Chinese emperors in ancient time would grant his loyal servants or brave soldiers the surname of the state, and the one who received this huge and rare honor would abandon his original surname. Chaucer, who also lived in the medieval world, would have found it a wonderful experience if he knew he was granted with the Song emperors’ surname.

Chaucer’s life stretched over sixty years, from the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD) to the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) in Chinese history. While the Yuan Dynasty was ruled by Mongolia Chinese and it is a little bit difficult to match their long Mongolian surname with Chaucer, I find the Ming emperors’ Han Chinese surname, “Zhu” (朱), or “Chu” in both Hong Kong and Taiwanese phonetics, a more suitable match, and we could only imagine how glad Chaucer would be as he is granted with an emperor’s surname of his living days.

 

 

Sociologies of Translation

This week’s Penn Humanities seminar stepped away from the usual format (a presentation by a forum fellow followed by a response from another fellow) networkand paused for a bit to consider two important texts for translation theory: Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” and Bruno Latour’s “How to Resume the Task of Tracing Associations.”  Elsewhere, I’ve reflected on the ways the Global Chaucers project realizes some of the claims of Benjamin’s essay, the most important being the way a translation “must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.”[1]  Extending this concept (without necessarily buying into his transcendental inclinations), we can see how multiple translations might provide more fragments of the vessel, and we can expect that studying these multiple translations together will provide a more complex sense of the original than could the study of a single translation.

Latour, too, is interested in making connections among fragments. The associations he looks for would initially seem to be based on similarities; however, as his extensive citations of Gabriel Tarde suggest, the more significant associations are marked by differences.[2] From a sociological perspective, this difference means that in order to make those associations we must translate. Translation, in one form or another, therefore saturates our interactions and structures our relationships.  When we begin to examine multiple translations of The Canterbury Tales, a likely place to start will be at moments of difference, those places where translators found different solutions to a linguistic dilemma.  These points of apparent incommensurability guide us to places where meaning (in both Chaucer’s text and in the translation) threatens (or perhaps even does) fall apart; the translation, then shows us one possible way to re-associate the terms and thereby create meaning. When the translations are separated by significant temporal lengths or geographical spaces, the results can be an especially rich set of associations allowing us also to observe how meanings shift across time and space.

Latour also reassures that there is no urgency, no need to bring all the translations together in one grand Chaucerian vessel.  Instead, the sociologist’s networks of association allow us to consider the numerous combinations and unexpected hybrids, thereby allowing us to trace connections that make visible what is otherwise hidden to the monolingual reader.

My brief reflections touch only tangentially today’s fascinating conversation that explored the associations animating these two essays.

 

[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, vol 1, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Harvard University Press, 1997), 260.

[2] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford University Press, 2005), 14-16.

Pitfalls of Unidirectional Translation

How are we to understand a project whose primary objective is “to forge in common a memory, an imaginary, a common view of the world that surrounds us”? What does it mean when that same project attempts to create a common culture by simultaneously artebroadcasting television programing to German and French audiences, especially when that broadcasting is developed from a German or French perspective and then (mis)translated into the other language with insufficient concern for the lost context? These transcultural questions were two of many issues raised by Damien Stankiewicz’s “Is Europe Lost in Translation?: Lessons from the Micro-Politics of Meaning at the French-German Television Channel ARTE.” Though ostensibly a series of vignettes drawn from Stankiewicz’s fieldwork at the Strasbourg television channel, the paper becomes a study of the politics of translation when well-meaning cosmopolitanism becomes straitjacketed by nationalism, when polylingual discourse becomes “serial monolingualism” (a term I borrow from Bethan Wiggin). Via Stankiewicz’s dispiriting experiences at ARTE, we watch an admirable (it seems) effort flounder when it focuses too much on telling and too little on listening.  Consequently, the channel’s unidirectional linguistic and cultural translations frequently miss their mark.

For me, ARTE’s efforts and frustrations provide a potent reminder to the pitfalls of a transnational cultural project. It’s good to be reminded that political agendas (whether or not they are self-recognized) can thwart the highest-minded efforts.

When we launched Global Chaucers in 2012, our purposes were limited and certainly felt apolitical to us.  Within months we realized that even our most minimal goals could not be reached without collaborators outside our immediate contacts.  At this point, Global Chaucers became politically inflected. Although the direction of Global Chaucers continued to be primarily determined by our goals and interests, our collaborators’ local concerns also shaped the project.  Global Chaucers couldn’t be about telling members of the scholarly collective how they should appropriate, understand, or interpret Chaucer.  Instead, it had to became a listening campaign, an effort to learn how Chaucer’s non-Anglophone readers understood his work and how they translated that understanding to other non-Anglophone readers.  I think it’s this insistence on listening that has helped us expand our network, bringing in new voices and new perspectives, united not by a common understanding of a single text but by a common delight.

Translating Basic Word Lists

pylogeneticart

In her lucid exploration of language data collection in the field once known as “lexio-statistic glottochronology,” Judy Kaplan’s “From Lexiostatistics to Lexomics: Basic Vocabulary and the Study of Language Prehistory” traces the persistent hold “Basic Word Lists.” Though the data behind those word lists have gone from being recorded and shared on note cards to being stored and processed on the cloud, they have continued to be presented as the scientific basis for big data theories regarding the prehistory of language.  As new data is brought into linguistic models, she suggests, it is made to fit the models’ theoretical conclusions rather than the new data requiring any adjustments to the model.

I was particularly interested in her discussion of the Basic Word Lists,* ranging from 15-215 items, comprising a basic vocabulary defined by its stability across time and cultures.  Identified as commensurate across all language systems, this stable lexicon includes terms like all, louse, seed, blood, claw, belly, bite, know, sun, yellow, night, new, and round. An essential (and somewhat dubious) premise behind the Basic Word List is the commensurability of these lexemes across languages (and across time).  With these word lists, mid-twentieth-century linguists created absolute chronologies of language development.  Most recently, archaeogeneticists and evolutionists have used this Basic Word List to push back the limits of language prehistory, albeit in less absolute terms.

One aspect of my study of Canterbury Tales translations also works with word lists. Unlike the linguists of Kaplan’s study, however, I’m interested in intense moments of incommensurability, those points when the receiving language exceeds the confines established by the source text’s language.  By and large, my terms have been cultural; for instance, I’ve examined the various ways translators express the idea of pilgrimage and salvation.  Additionally, some examples seem so natural that we are surprised when the translations betray their cultural situatedness.  In this category are terms associated with emotions, such as anger and joy.  What if we extend this investigation to include those supposedly stable terms? Would the literary context of multiple translations support my intuition that these terms are not nearly as stable as supposed?

*Thanks to Roger Bilosoly for sharing this fascinating link.  Be prepared to spend many hours tracing linguistic cognates.