Chaucer in Denmark

By EBBE KLITGÅRD, with an introduction by CANDACE BARRINGTON

Blog Post Kiltgård - Bergsøe p. 47 cropped

Today’s post is from Ebbe Klitgård,a Danish Chaucerian whose fascinating study, Chaucer in Denmark: A Study of the Translation and Reception History 1782-2012, appeared earlier this year. When I first met Ebbe at the New Chaucer Society Congress at Swansea, Wales, in 2008, I had just recently begun to imagine what a Global Chaucers project would look like, and in those early imaginings, Danish Chaucer did not loom large—or at all. That limited understanding shifted after talking to Ebbe, but it wasn’t until the publication of his study of Chaucer’s reception in Denmark that I appreciated how fully the Danish had embraced Chaucer as part of their literary culture. In this posting, Ebbe graciously shares a significant moment in that story: the efforts of Flemming Bergsøe to introduce Chaucer to the mid-century Danes.

The significance of Danish Chaucer was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago as I worked through the (currently undigitized) Index Translationum volumes from 1932 and 1978. It wasn’t difficult to notice that immediately after WWII the first non-Anglophone translations of the Canterbury Tales came out of Denmark, and Danish translations and appropriations outnumbered those being produced in other languages. Surely, as Ebbe’s post suggests, much of this outpouring is the result of Flemming Bergsøe’s enthusiasm as well as his attractive and engaging translations.

Ebbe’s post also provides a valuable reminder for what we can learn from these Global Chaucers. For instance, he explains that Bergsøe’s version of The Wife of Bath’s Tale translates the Middle English “maistrye” with “Herredømmet,” “a word that literally means ‘man’s judgment’ but is used broadly about both sexes when in power. Still the literal meaning carries funny connotations when used in a connection like this.” By drawing our attention to this one literal translation, Ebbe and the Danish remind us how audacious the Wife is when she demands “maistrye,” with its roots in the masculine “master.”

We think you will find both Flemming Bergsøe’s translation and Ebbe Klitgård’s explication fascinating examples of what Global Chaucers have to offer. Please share your thoughts with us. –CB

A Danish 1940s Translator of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale: Flemming Bergsøe.

By Ebbe Klitgård, University of Roskilde, Denmark

This posting contains an edited and abbreviated extract from my recent book Chaucer in Denmark: A Study of the Translation and Reception History 1782-2012 (Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2013) which can be viewed here:  

Among the many Danish translations of Chaucer, Flemming Bergsøe’s Konen fra Bath [The Wife of Bath] from 1943 is arguably the very best. Flemming Bergsøe (1905-68) was an educated sculptor and became a well-known naturalist painter. His interest in literature and his versatility and enterprise ran in the family, as his grandfather was Vilhelm Bergsøe (1835-1911), author, zoologist and numismatist. One of Vilhelm Bergsøe’s main works, the short story collection Fra Piazza del Popolo [From Piazza del Popolo], was in fact inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron. Flemming Bergsøe’s father Paul Bergsøe (1872-1963) was a chemical engineer, who also became well known to the public by writing popular introductions to chemistry. His brother Svend Bergsøe (1902-85), also an engineer, was at least as well-known a public figure, among other things as the first chairman of Rådet for Større Færdselssikkerhed [The council for better traffic security] (Bostrup, Andersen, Kondrup and Kristensen in Lund, gen. ed.,1995: 513). Flemming Bergsøe’s other writings include Det underlige år [The strange year] (Bergsøe 1945), a report from the last occupation year, where he had been a contact person in Copenhagen for leading member of the resistance movement Mogens Fog. Bergsøe also wrote a number of highly entertaining travel accounts.  (In this photo with Niels Bohr, he is the taller one.)

Bohr and Bergsoe

The translation had first been begun in connection with an article from the art magazine Aarstiderne [The Four Seasons] from 1941 titled “Chaucer bør oversættes” [Chaucer ought to be translated] (Bergsøe 1941). Bergsøe was the co-founder and chief editor of this magazine, which focuses on painting, film and literature and is of remarkable quality with its rich illustrations, although it should be noted that Bergsøe and his co-editors would have done well to employ a professional proofreader, as seen also in the extracts below. The very first issue of Aarstiderne from March 1941 contains two contributions by Bergsøe, an obituary about painter Erik Raadal and the Chaucer article of five pages. Both pieces are written with great empathy and involvement, and I will quote Bergsøe’s concluding remarks about Chaucer in extenso:

“Hvad Chaucer siger om Mennesker, om deres Kærlighed og Had, om deres Glæder og Sorger og om deres Krige er evigt aktuelt. Vi gaar i dag anderledes klædt, vi spiser Daasemad og vi benytter Vand-Closetter, men vore Følelser og Tanker, selve det menneskelige, er uforandret fra hans Dage. Og den gamle Englænder beskæftiger sig netop med det menneskelige. – Vi er i Familie med ham, og det halve Aartusinde skiller os ikke mere fra ham, end vi er skilt fra vores Far.

’Canterbury Tales’ bør oversættes til Dansk. Den er en Inspirationskilde, vi ikke har Raad til at undvære. Læsningen af den, efterlader et lignende Indtryk som Læsningen af Bibelen, ’Don Quiqote’ [sic] og Shakespeares Skuespil. I de Bøger staar alt om Mennesker.”

[What Chaucer says about human beings, about their love and hate, about their joys and sorrows and about their wars, is eternally topical. Today we dress differently, we eat tinned food and we use water closets, but our feelings and thoughts, our human existence itself, are no different from his time. And the old Englishman is precisely concerned with being human. – We are members of his family, and the half millennium does not separate us more from him than we are separated from our fathers.

The Canterbury Tales ought to be translated into Danish. It is a source of inspiration we cannot afford to do without. Reading it leaves a similar impression to reading the Bible, Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s plays. These books contain everything about human beings.] (Bergsøe 1941: 16)

These are big words from Bergsøe, but apart from wanting to include Joyce’s Ulysses to this list and considering a few more candidates, no protest from the present writer. It is remarkable how inspired Bergsøe is here, and in the remainder of the article, and it may well be that his sincerely expressed wish was heard in publishers’ and translators’ circles, as a few years later the two full translations of The Canterbury Tales by respectively Mogens Boisen and Børge Johansen were begun.

Bergsøe starts his article by rendering the plot of The Pardoner’s Tale, which he says he remembers from an English reader at school. This will have been the summary “The Three Drunkards” from linguist Otto Jespersen’s schoolbook reader series published in its first edition in 1895, which was used in Danish translation in a Sunday school book edited by Aage Nørfelt in 1965 (Jespersen in Brüel, ed., 1957-60: 70-3, Nørfelt 1965: 134-8). Bergsøe then moves on to a general consideration of the importance of classics in all fields of art, and he regrets the scarce representation of Chaucer in Denmark. He goes on to give a short account of the idea of The Canterbury Tales and an extremely brief account of Chaucer’s life, before embarking on his main errand, a summary with two extracts in translation from The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. I shall return to the extracts in connection with my translation analysis below, but let me say here that the short summaries of both prologue and tale show Bergsøe’s fine sense of Chaucer’s tone and acute understanding of the entertainment value. For Bergsøe the Wife is first of all a “Livsstykke” [a live wire] (Bergsøe 1941: 14), and he attaches no sinfulness to her behavior.[1] It is not surprising that the article with its appealing rendition of arguably Chaucer’s funniest tale caused Kai Friis Møller to ask Bergsøe to translate the whole text, as Friis Møller explains in the preface to the full translation (Friis Møller in Bergsøe 1943: 12). Given a few weak points in Bergsøe’s article, it was also probably a good idea to let Friis Møller write the introduction. Besides the inaccuracies about the previous Danish translation and reception, Bergsøe is clearly unfamiliar with the linguistic side of Middle English, which is revealed in another footnote (14, note 3), where he ponders that the Canterbury Tales must be a treasure for linguists. He adds: “Man genfinder mange rent danske Ord og, saavidt jeg kan se, maa det have været talt med en udpræget jydsk eller skotsk Akcent.” [One recognises many purely Danish words, and as far as I can see, it must have been spoken with a distinct Jutlandish or Scottish accent]. This is not altogether wrong, to be sure, but it is also clearly a point made through an amateur’s impressionist gaze. Other non-professional details in Bergsøe’s article include a misspelling of Boccaccio’s name and a wrong count of the number of Canterbury tales. All these weak points should be forgiven in a context where Bergsøe successfully says something very important about Chaucer, as in the quotation above.

There are six full page black and white illustrations by Poul Christensen, showing a marriage scene, two domestic fight scenes and a burial in the prologue, and in the tale respectively the young knight and the old hag. Finally there is an imitation of a pilgrim portrait of the Wife on horseback. Whether they will have pleased the art connoisseur who is the translator is unknown to me, but they certainly function well and make the short book even more reader-friendly. I’ve included two of the illustrations, one at the top of this blog entry and here another (the last page of the short book with the author’s 1st edition signature):

Blog Post Kiltgård - Bergsøe p. 82 cropped

Reader-friendly is an expression that can also be applied to the translation itself, as Bergsøe uses uncomplicated Danish without unnecessary archaisms, and he also makes everything more simple by only giving necessary bits of information in footnotes, such as noting the medieval tradition of weddings taking place at the church door (Bergsøe 1943: 15). Furthermore Bergsøe shows real poetic talent in not only obeying Chaucer’s metre, but also catching the talkative tone of the Wife’s monologue in the prologue, as well as the romance language of the tale. Here is the opening of the prologue with my back translation in prose, and Chaucer quoted from Skeat’s edition. It is not mentioned which source text Bergsøe has used, but I have checked some passages in Skeat’s and Robinson’s editions and can say with some certainty that Skeat is Bergsøe’s text:

Var der paa Jord Autoriteter ej [If there were no authorities on earth]

Saa var Erfaringen dog nok for mig [Then experience would be enough for me]

Til Snak om Ægteskabets drøje Kaar; [For talking about the hard conditions of marriage]

Thi, bedste Venner, fra mit tolvte Aar,- [For, my friends, from my twelfth year]

Og evig priset være Herren god!- [And ever praised be the good Lord]

Med fem Mænd jeg ved Kirkedøren stod; [With five Men I stood at the church door]

Saa ofte holdt jeg nemlig Bryllup der, [So often, you see, I was married there]

Og hver en Mand var god paa sin Manér. [And every man was good in his manner]

(Bergsøe transl.1943: lines 1-8)

‘Experience, though noon auctoritee

Were in this world, were right y-nogh to me

To speke of wo that is in mariage;

For, lordinges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,

Thonked be god that is eterne on lyve,

Housbondes at chirche-dore I have had fyve –

For I so ofte have y-wedded be –

And alle were worthy men in hir degree.

(Skeat, ed., The Canterbury Tales, D 1-8)

At first sight “drøje kår” (3) and ”bedste venner” (4) appear to be rather free translations of respectively “wo” and “lordinges”, but actually they are very idiomatic solutions that work well in the context. Bergsøe could have chosen something more solemn and old-fashioned for “lordinges”, such as “ærede tilhørere” [noble listeners], but “bedste venner” is straightforward and accurate. The whole passage convincingly establishes a voice talking intimately to an audience, and Bergsøe is able to stay in this voice throughout the prologue.

Bergsøe’s strategy of avoiding archaic language works especially well since he makes sure that the language is not too modern, either. Occasionally this involves choosing a word or idiom that is only slightly old-fashioned, but still in use. Examples are “inden Kvæld” [before evening] (1012), more poetic and old-fashioned than the standard expression “inden aften”. Also the adjective “ful” [foul] (1082) about the old hag is more colourful and unusual in Danish than its English counterpart. And finally “gør han Haneben” [literally: if he shows cock’s legs] (932) is a well chosen if not exactly modern idiom for flirting. Bergsøe strikes a fine linguistic balance in his poetic translation, and it is only regrettable that we only have this one tale from his hand.

In Bergsøe’s case we have an opportunity to look into the translator’s process of working with his material, as there are two passages of respectively 16 and 62 lines that appear as part of his article “Chaucer bør oversættes” (Bergsøe 1941: 15-16). In the finished version from 1943 these passages have been heavily revised and much improved with regards to poetic quality and linguistic accuracy. I will analyse just a few lines as examples:

Jeg dansede vidunderligt til Harpers Klang, [I danced wonderfully to the sound of harps]

Og som den bedste Nattergal jeg sang [And as the best of nightingales I sang]

Naar jeg var fuld af kraftig Vin [When I was drunk from strong wine]

Matellius, den usle Karl, det Svin, [Matellius, the wretch, the pig]

Sin Kone med en Dolk han stak ihjel [stabbed his wife with a dagger]

Fordi hun drak; hvis jeg var hende, ved min Sjæl! [because she drank; If I were her, by my soul]

Han skulde ej ha’ holdt mig væk fra Vinens Gud; [He should not have kept me away from the god of wine]

Og efter Vin jeg bøjed mig for Venus Bud, [And after wine I gave in to the bidding of Venus].

(Bergsøe 1941: 15)

Jeg kunde danse til en Harpes Klang, [I could dance to the sound of a harp]

Saa godt som nogen Nattergal jeg sang [as well as any nightingale I sang]

Naar jeg mig tog en Slurk af kraftig Vin. [When I took a gulp of strong wine]

Metellius, den usle Karl, det Svin, [Metellius, the wretch, the pig]

Som med en Knippel tog sin Kones Liv, [who took his wife’s life with a cudgel]

Fordi hun Vinen drak; var jeg hans Viv, [because she drank the wine; if I were his wife,]

Mit Drikkeri han skulde aldrig krænke; [he should never be allowed to infringe on my drinking]

Thi efter Vin jeg maa paa Venus tænke: [For after wine I must think of Venus]

(Bergsøe 1943: 457-64)

Wel coude I daunce to an harpe smale

And singe, y-wis, as any nightingale,

Whan I had dronke a draughte of swete wyn.

Metellius, the foule cherl, the swyn,

That with a staf birafte his wyf hir lyf,

For she drank wyn, thogh I hadde been his wyf,

He sholde nat han daunted me fro drinke;

And, after wyn, on Venus moste I thinke:

(Skeat, ed., D 457-64)

First of all Bergsøe has adjusted the metre in the revised version and avoided a clumsy rhythm such as in the first line of the 1941 version. Secondly some of the rhyme words have been changed, so as to allow improvements both in sound and in accuracy. “Vin” and “Svin” rhyme equally well in Danish and English, and this is also the case for “Liv” and “Viv”, although the latter is now archaic in Danish. In the 1941 version, however, the rhyme words are “ihjel” and “Sjæl”, and because of the Danish glottal stop in “Sjæl” and not in “ihjel”, this is a poor rhyme substitute. The 1943 rhymes “krænke” and “tænke” that replace “Gud” and “Bud” come closer to Chaucer’s, allowing also a more accurate translation than in the 1941 version. Accuracy is also obtained by spelling Metellius correctly and by letting him kill his wife with a cudgel rather than a dagger, as in the story from Valerius Maximus referred to in a footnote in the 1943 version. “Naar jeg mig tog en Slurk af kraftig Vin” is idiomatically far better in relation to the source text than the 1941 version, which does not go into detail with the Wife’s rather vulgar manners (“dronke a draughte”), but only states that she was drunk. Both Danish versions have “kraftig” [strong] wine rather than Chaucer’s sweet wine, but logically this is a reasonable solution, as the focus is on getting drunk rather than tasting something sweet.

As opposed to many other translators of Chaucer, Bergsøe does not employ euphemisms or avoidance strategies when dealing with the Wife of Bath’s direct references to sexual organs. The French expression for the female sexual organ belle chose (447 and 510) is left unchanged, a very sensible solution. And in line 116 ”membres … of generacioun” are equally clearly translated as “Redskaber til Avling” [tools for breeding], following the Wife in leaving nothing to the imagination, just as in line 149, where “myn instrument” becomes “mit Instrument”.  Parallel to this, Bergsøe calls a spade a spade in his translation of the rape scene in the Tale, where the line “By verray force he rafte hir maydenheed” (888) is translated by “Med skændig Vold han hendes Mødom tog” [With shameful violence he took her maidenhood]. Here the adjective “skændig” [shameful] is not matched directly in the corresponding line from Chaucer, but the context in Chaucer’s tale makes it a very forgivable explication.

A final example from Bergsøe’s highly successful translation will be the climax of the Tale:

“Da har jeg Herredømmet over Dig, [”Then I have the mastery over you]

Naar jeg maa vælge, som jeg vil, og raade?” [When I may choose as I wish and decide?”]

”Ja,” sagde han, ”bedst er det paa den Maade.”[”Yes”, he said, ”it is best this way.”]

Hun sagde: ”Kys mig, lad vort Had da være, [She said, ”Kiss me, let our hate be,]

Thi Du skal faa mig baade-og, paa Ære, [For you shall have me both-and, truly.]

Forstaar Du, altid smuk og god mod Dig. [You see, always beautiful and good to you.]

Og lad Vorherre blot forbande mig, [And let our Lord throw a curse on me]

Om ej jeg bli’r saa god og tro en Mage; [If I do not become as good and faithful a mate]

Som man har kendt fra Verdens første Dage;” [As has been known from the first days of the world]

(Bergsøe 1943: 1236-44)

‘Thanne have I get of yow maistrye,’ quod she,

‘Sin I may chese, and governe as me lest?’

‘Ye certes, wyf,’ quod he, ‘I holde it best.’

‘Kis me,’ quod she, ‘we be no lenger wrothe;

For by my trouthe, I wol be to yow bothe,

This is to seyn, ye, bothe fair and good.

I prey to god that I mot sterven wood,

But I to yow be al-so good and trewe

As ever was wyf, sin that the world was newe.’

(Skeat, ed., D 1236-44)

This is one of Chaucer’s finest twists to the ending of a well-known medieval romance. Whereas the standard ending in other versions of the same medieval romance has the knight saying that he will choose virtue, before the old hag transforms into a beautiful young girl, the transformation is here provoked by a denouement which corresponds to the message of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, i.e. that women desire to have the upper hand in marriage. Only when the hag knows that she is in power, does she give her love and beauty to the knight. This feminist message is well carried through by Bergsøe, who translates Chaucer’s “maistrye” by “Herredømmet”, a word that literally means “man’s judgment”, but is used broadly about both sexes when in power. Still the literal meaning carries funny connotations when used in a connection like this. The idiom “sterven wood” [die mad] is rendered by Bergsøe as “forbande mig” [throw a curse on me] (1242), which is not quite accurate from a formal point of view, but still it is acceptable in this context, because it covers the same meaning, i.e. it has dynamic equivalence in Nida’s sense (Nida 1964/2000). Bergsøe also manages to convey the dialogue between the knight and the hag in idiomatic Danish showing that we have to do with spoken language. “Baade-og” [both-and] (1240) is one such idiom, and another is the communicative gambit “Forstaar Du” [you see] (1241), which well translates Chaucer’s “This is to seyn”.

With this fine finale, Bergsøe manages to keep up the impressive work he has undertaken in this translation. The extracts from his 1941 article show that he moved a long way in quality over the next couple of years, taking the utmost care to obey rhyme and rhythm, find a natural flow of language fitting to Chaucer’s wife and selecting appropriate idioms that carry the sense of the original accurately. A translation strategy that avoids archaic Danish and lets the Wife appear more as a timeless character works very well, and Bergsøe should also receive full praise for letting the Wife remain vulgar at certain points. It is remarkable that this work was carried out in difficult circumstances during the war, by someone who is not known otherwise for being an expert in medieval studies, in English literature, or in English language, but of all the translations I have investigated in connection with this study, including modern English ones, Bergsøe comes closest to my own absolute ideal of a Chaucer translator. Fortunately Konen fra Bath has been reprinted so many times that it is still available in antiquarian bookshops and libraries. The last available reprint is from 1967 (Bergsøe 1967), and the same year an extract from the prologue, lines 587-827, appeared in an anthology of translated French, German, Italian and English medieval poetry, edited by Anker Teilgård Laugesen. His afterword only mentions Chaucer once (188), and he has reprinted Bergsøe’s translation without revisions except for modernized spelling. (Laugesen ed. 1967).


Andersen, Victor, “Bergsøe, Svend” in Lund, Jørn, gen. ed., Den store danske encycklopædi, vol. 2, 513. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1995.

Bergsøe, Flemming, ”Chaucer bør oversættes” in Aarstiderne, No. 1, 1941, 12-16.

-, transl., Møller, Kai Friis, preface, Christensen, Poul, illustrations, Geoffrey Chaucer, Konen fra Bath. Copenhagen: Thaning & Appel, 1943, and later imprints.

-, Det underlige år. Copenhagen, Thaning & Appel, 1945.

Boisen, Mogens, transl., Balfour, Ludmilla, illustrations, Berhardsen, Christian, afterword, Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterburyfortællingerne. Copenhagen: Martins Forlag, 1952.

Bostrup, Ole, ”Bergsøe, Paul” in Lund, Jørn, gen. ed., Den store danske encycklopædi, vol. 2, 513. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1995.

Idle, Eric et al., ”Nudge, Nudge” in episode three of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, broadcast by the BBC in 1969. Published in Wilmut, Roger, ed., Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Just the Words. London: Methuen, 1989, vol. 1, 40-1.

Jespersen, Otto, ”The Three Drunkards” in Brüel, Svend, ed., Otto Jespersen, Engelsk 4: Engelsk læsestykker, 1. halvdel. Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag, 20th imprint,1953, 70-3.

Johansen, Børge V., transl. Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterburyfortællingerne I-II. Copenhagen: Nyt Nordisk Forlag Arnold Busck, 1958.

Lund, Jørn, gen. ed, Den store danske encyclopædi, vols. 2 and 7, 513 and 138. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1995 and 1997. “Bergsøe, Flemming”, and “Friis Møller, Kai”, unsigned articles.

Nida, Eugene, “Principles of Correspondence” in Venuti, Lawrence, ed., The Translation Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1964/2000, 126-40.

Nørfelt, Aage, ed., ”De tre svirebrødre” in Litteraturhæfte til den kristne troslære. Copenhagen: Gjellerup, 1965, 134-38.

[1] Monty Python’s Eric Idle would probably have translated it as “a goer”, as in the sketch “Nudge, Nudge” (Idle et al. 1969/1989: 40). Idle’s insinuation in the sketch about a wife who is “a goer” and has “been around” is actually a joke used already by Chaucer, who says about the Wife of Bath in The General Prologue, 467, that “She koude muchel of wandrynge by the weye”, meaning that she has been going around on amorous adventures.


4 thoughts on “Chaucer in Denmark

  1. I’ve learned so much from this blog posting, and now I hope other people are just as excited as I am to read Ebbe’s book! I’m particularly impressed with the close reading of Bergsøe’s 1943 translation here — I don’t know Danish, but the rhyme and meter do seem nicely conveyed, and having this parallel back-translation here really helps to demonstrate how faithfully the Danish (poet-)translator conveys the spirit of the Chaucerian narrative (and fictional character’s voice).

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