Middle Ages in the Modern World


2013-06-29 10.05.22University of St. Andrews

The Middle Ages in the Modern World:

A multidisciplinary conference on medievalism in the post-Middle Ages.

The Middle Ages in the Modern World Conference at University of St. Andrews provided an excellent forum for our second Global Chaucers presentation, “Global Chaucers: Reorienting Cultural Adaptation in Non-Anglophone Worlds.” We explored the Miller’s Tale through three adapations: Luk Bey’s Flemish comic book, Verhalen voor Canterbury; Fang Chang’s Mandarin prose translation; and Ufuoma Overo-Tarimo’s song-and-dance performance in Nigerian Pidgin English and Standard British English. Although Jonathan has written extensively on the conference on In the Middle, especially in regards to Translation and Ecology, I want to expand on the translation threads I was able to follow more closely than was Jonathan.

The conference was especially fruitful because we were able to meet and learn from scholars and artists working in medievalisms from around the world. For instance, in our panel—Global Medievalisms—Donghill Lee (Hankuk University, Korea) presented on his translation of Beowulf into Korean. Afterwards, we learned that Prof. Lee has also translated The Canterbury Tales, and we’re excited to learn more about that translation.

I chaired another panel—Translating the Middle Ages 3—that dealt with a broad range of issues encountered when translating medieval texts into a modern language. Martha Driver and Gene Richie (Pace University) presented their joint translation of Gower’s Confessio amantis, a process guided by Driver’s deep knowledge of Middle English verse and Richie’s extensive experience as a poet and translator. The collaboration has yielded a translation that provides students more than a crib to the Middle English verse; it captures the color of Gower’s language and the liveliness of his imagery. Anne Baden-Daintree (University of Bristol) analyzed Jane Draycott’s 2011 translation of Pearl, carefully steering clear of judging its faithfulness to the original and instead guiding us through its evocation of loss for a contemporary audience. As these first two papers suggest, contemporary poets are finding inspiration in medieval texts. While Richie and Draycott remain fairly close to the medieval original, Hilary Davies (King’s College, London) discussed how her collection of verse, In a Valley of This Restless Mind (1997), draws on the letters and writings of Hélöise and Abelard in order to explore the correspondences between medieval and post-modern erotics.

Two other panels were especially pertinent to our Global Chaucers project. Continuities and Departures: Poems and Conversations, a session organized by Nan Cohen (University of Southern California), brought together poets and scholars interested in the ways contemporary poets have responded to and been shaped by medieval verse through experience, ideas, performance, subject, form, language, diction, syntax, narrative, culture, genre….where does the list stop? For our readers who are interested in this fruitful exchange, here’s a list of contemporary poets and their verse discussed:
• Jennifer A. McGowan, “Book of Kells”
• Orlando White, “Square Lips”
Patience Agbabi, The Canterbury Copy
Greg Delanty and Machael Matto, ed., The Word Exchange
• Jane Draycott, Lesley Saunders, and Peter Hay (illust), Christina the Astonishing
• Jane Draycott, Pearl
Hilary Davies, In a Valley of this Restless Mind
• Richard Wilbur, “Junk”
• George Mackay Brown, “Crusaders in Orkahowe”
• Seamus Heaney, “The Thimble”
• Philip Larkin, “An Arundel Tomb”
• Peter Didsbury, “Words at Wharram Percy”
• U. A. Fanthorpe, “Genesis (for J R R Tolkien)”

The lively readings and discussions of these poems were followed by Chris Jones and Jacob Polley on Twiddling with the Exeter Book: Making New Old English riddle in 140 characters. Wow! Twiddles result when a scholar and a poet combine 21st-century tweets with 8th-century riddles. Jones, the scholar, translates the Anglo-Saxon and explains their context, while Polley, the poet, provides a fresh, even naïve, perspective. I came away energized by the playful seriousness of these medievalisms.

The second pertinent panel was Translating the Middle Ages 2, featuring fascinating papers by Helen Brookman (Exeter College Oxford), “Making a ‘very limited impression’?: Gender, translation, and the ‘Publication’ of Anna Gurney’s Literal Translation of the Saxon Chronicle,” Katherine Miller (University of Leeds), “Now You See Me, Now You Don’t: Translating Slaves in Hervarar Saga ok Heiđreks,” and Oliver Traxel (University of Würzburg), “The Medievalism of Language: Translations of Modern Texts into Old and Middle English.” Both Brookman and Miller had much to tell us about the ways translations cannot escape being an interpretation. I will focus on Traxel’s paper, however, because it provided a window on a phenomenon slightly related to Global Chaucers but moving in the opposite direction: translations which move from a familiar original language to an obsolete or archaic language. Oftentimes these sorts of translation are useful in the classroom. Primarily, they are fun. In addition to Brantley Bryant’s Chaucer Doth Tweet and Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog (both well known to readers of this blog), Traxel pointed us to Awritan on Englisc and Ænglisc pikipædia . Printed translations include Busch’s Mac and Mauris in Old English Rhymed and Alliterative Verse, Hoffman’s Piers Dischevele: Myrie tales and gladde ymages, and Sauer’s translation of Saint-Exupéry, The litel pyrnce. These translations encounter problems similar to those moving from an archaic language into a more familiar one, including non-existent words and ideas, semantic change, metrical considerations. As such, they provide an excellent resource for thinking about Global Chaucers.

As Jonathan suggested, the highlight of the conference was the final plenary, an unexpectedly moving reading by Seamus Heaney. He framed his reading of 15c Scots verse translations with a thoughtful discussion of the poems as well as
the dangers and challenges and pleasures of translating them. He clearly took his audience seriously. Instead of giving us a rote performance, he presented a clearly prepared reading with us in mind. I’ve long admired his poetry; now, I think equally highly of the man.


3 thoughts on “Middle Ages in the Modern World

  1. Sounds great, Candace! Reading through this, I wondered if you know that Greg Delanty, the Irish poet who co-edited The Word Exchange, is an old friend of Chuck Baraw’s, from shared days in Burlington, VT. Might be an interesting collaborator for you & Jonathan!

    1. What a coincidence! In going through my conference notes, I remembered to order an exam copy of The Word Exchange and expect its arrival any day now. I will contact Chuck and see if we can make contact with Greg. Thanks for the tip!!

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