Spaces of dialogue: I international conference in transatlantic literature


by Candace Barrington

In late April, I participated in “Spaces of Dialogue,” the First International Conference in Transatlantic Literature sponsored by the Real Colegio Complutense at Harvard.  My focus was on José Francisco Botelho’s translation of The Canterbury Tales. Entitled “Botelho’s Contos da Cantuária and Creating a Medieval Past for Brazilian Portuguese,” the paper examined Botelho’s transatlantic strategies for bring the Middle Ages to 21st-century Brazil.

Below are excerpts from that presentation.

When José Francisco Botelho was commissioned by Companhia das Letras to translate Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales into Brazilian Portuguese, he was faced with several challenges, but the most immediate was the need to create a medieval language for a culture without a medieval past. As part of the Global Chaucers project, I have been conducting extensive email interviews with Botelho, and much of our conversation has centered on this challenge of bringing Chaucer’s verse over the Atlantic and across six centuries. His strategies vary for translating the fourteenth-century Middle English compilation of tales told by a group of English pilgrims; however, for simplicity’s sake, I will focus on three of these strategies: First, he reaches back to medieval Portuguese for technical, obsolete terms. Second, he adapts Lusitanic literature’s traditional decassílabo meter and its popular rima toante for Chaucer’s rhyming iambic pentameter couplets. And third, he draws on regionalismo, and interweaves Brazilian idioms to create a blend of strangeness and familiarity. Together, these three strategies allowed Botelho to create in Contos da Cantuária a Brazilian Middle Ages not found in the past yet emerging organically from Brazil’s present.

In order to give Brazilians a Middle Ages they could connect to, Botelho turned to the most logical source, medieval Portuguese for its embedded “Lusitanic cultural memories” and its “nostalgia of Colonial Empire.” Thus, he mined the sixteenth-century epic Os Lusíadas, de Camões for words with an archaic feel: varão (instead of homen), infant (instead of jovem ), terríbil (instead of terrível ), frecha (instead of flecha ). He turned to Sextilhas do Frei Antão by Gonçalves Dias, whose nineteenth-century collection of “medievalist poems … recreate [the] Portuguese Middle Ages and the wars between lusitanos and mouros. These poems were a particularly important resource for terms for clothing, arms, and armor, such as brial, fustão, saio and venteira. This strategy, however, had to be employed sparingly; otherwise, he would not be creating a translation for contemporary Brazilian readers.

The Lusitanic traditions also provided Botelho’s meter. By adapting Lusitanic literature’s traditionaldecassílabo and its popular rima toante, he found near equivalents to Chaucer’s iambic pentameter lines as well as metrical patterns that evoke a sense of the antique.Chaucer is frequently credited with giving the iambic pentameter line a distinctly English flavor and establishing it as the dominant metrical line in English verse form, a status it held until the early part of the twentieth century. To provide his Brazilian Portuguese translation with a comparable rhythm, Botelho turned to decassílabo, the favorite meter of sixteenth-century Portuguese poet Luiz Vaz de Camões, decassílabo, and thus with a lineage comparable to Chaucer’s iambic pentameter. Botelho also turns to rima toante, a less prestigious form of rhyme that is used in popular music as well as popular oral poetry, known as repentismo in Northeastern Brazil and pajada in Southern Brazil. Rima toante matches only the final vowels (rather than the final vowels and consonants as does rima consoante). In choosing rima toante, Botelho follows precedents sets by Cecília Meirelles, the twentieth-century Brazilian poet, whose O Romanceiro da Inconfidência is a “collection of poems written in the manner of Portuguese and Spanish trovadores and uses the rima toante.” Whether Botelho combines the resulting lines into couplets or seven-line stanzas, he provides readers with a verse form that simultaneously reaches back to ancient Portuguese examples and imitates contemporary poetics in order to lend a medieval feel to the verse.

Botelho’s most significant and most sophisticated translation strategy draws on Brazilian idioms associated with regionalismo, a set of loosely connected literary movements that represent the “Brazilian countryside and rural culture” outside the urban literary cultures of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In order for Chaucer not “to sound like an urban yuppie,” he aimed for a “slightly old-fashioned, worldly countryside cavalheiro of the old, sensual Brazil of yore.” This move reaches back prior to the mid-twentieth century when Brazil was a thoroughly rural country, providing him a wellspring of archetypical Brazilian idioms and attitudes not contaminated by postmodern metropolitanism. Most Brazilians identify language from the countryside with a familiar, intimate past that is uniquely Brazilian.

From the beginning of his translation, Botelho takes advantage of this nearby distance. Chaucer’s General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales opens with some of the most famous lines in English literature: “What that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote” (1.1-2). Botelho translates them as you see on the slide: Quando o chuvoso Abril em doce aragem / Desfez Março e a secura da estiagem. With “Aragem” and “estagem” he has chosen archaic, literary words which continue to survive in the rural areas of the Southern country. A few lines later, when Chaucer writes “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, / And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes / to ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes” (1.12-14), Botelho translates it as you see on the slide: “Éque o tempo chegou das romarias. / E lá se vão expertos palmeirins / Rumo a terras e altares e cofins.” By choosing “romarias” rather than “peregrinaçãoes,” Botelho has selected a term denoting “catholic peregrinations to shrines of popular saints,” thereby evoking the “almost polytheistic, magic religion, with its eccentric saints and baroque celebrations” that distinguishes Brazilian Catholicism. In addition, “romarias” alludes to a famous 1978 song by Porto Alegre native Elis Regina, “Romaria.” The song tells about a pilgrimage to a local shrine and its characters are the forlorn, impoverished Brazilian peasants who pray for release from their hardships. Botelho further connects these rural pilgrims to the archaic past by translating “palmers” in the next line as “palmeirins,” a medieval Portuguese word evoking Palmeirim de Inglaterra a chivalric romance written in the sixteenth century by Francisco de Moraes. Thus in these initial lines of the General Prologue, Botelho allows the Portuguese Middle Ages and the Brazilian countryside to intersect, thereby combining the familiar with the strange into what he identifies as a “world of seamless fictional verisimilitude” for Brazilian readers.

Once Botelho turns to the tales themselves, he repeatedly creates characters associated with Brazil’s rural past. In The Franklin’s Tale, Chaucer writes: The bittre frostes, with the sleet and reyn, / Destroyed hath the grene in every yerd; / Janis sit by the fyr, with double berd, / And drynketh of his bugle horn the wyn (5.1250-1253); and Botelho translates it as you see on the slide. “Geadas e granizos fustigantes / Já mataram as plantas verdejantes; / Jano, com grande barba bifurcada, / Em uma longa guampa recurvada / Bebe vinho, sentado junto ao fogo.” According to Botelho, “Geada is a weather phenomenon common in the southern pampas. Snow is rare here due to low altitudes, but in winter dawns the Brazilian pampas will appear all white, covered by a thin layer of frozen dew—that’s the geada or ground frost. Guampa means horn or bugle; it is a word very typical of the South. In ‘metropolitan Brazil,’ the more accepted term to translate ‘bugle or horn’ would be ‘chifre’.” By choosing the southern idiom, Botelho bypasses the official Brazilian stereotype of a tropical “country of eternal warmth and scantily dressed people” and posits the “exotic South” where “winter can be brutally cold.” As he explained to me, “I wanted them to picture—unconsciously—an old gaucho sitting by the fireplace and drinking canha from his big old guampa, surrounded by white fields covered by geada. So I put this guampa in the hands of Janus, and I covered European December in South American geada….” By using these indigenous terms, Botelho encourages his Brazilian readers to identify with the extreme cold—even those who reside in the tropical climes—as a phenomenon found “here” in Brazil as well as “there” in medieval England.

Unlike many translators who dampen the sexual bawdiness for which Chaucer’s Tales are so well known, Botelho accents that lustiness. When Chaucer describes Nicholas’s seduction of Alison in The Miller’s Tale, Botelho labels her“bonequinha” or “little doll,” a demeaning endearment typical of a Brazilian malandro or cheap Don Juan. In The Merchant’s Tale, another fabliau about a cuckholded old husband, a weave of rural idioms convey the animal lust at the moment when January looked up into the tree and “saugh that Damyan his wyf had dressed/ In swich manere it may nat been expressed” (IV.2361-2362) with the phrase you see on the slide “Vê que outro está engatando-a de tal jeito” and using the polyvalent “engatando” (with standard definitions meaning to “to clamp or bind,” “to hook,” or “to hitch up horses”). Because, however, “engatando” is used in rural areas to refer to the mating of animals, the translation conveys the crudity of Damian’s animal-like thrusts via a rural idiom. Throughout the Contos da Cantuária, this strategy of using rural idioms allows Botelho to accentuate the lusty sexuality of the Tales in terms familiar—yet always distant—to his readers.

Together, these techniques “interweave salacious idioms and words that would be easily recognized with words and concepts that resonant in Brazilian historical memory of a long-forgotten and very blurred medieval original. By mixing what was specifically Brazilian—the language of Brazilian countryside—with the specifically European—the Portuguese Middle Ages—he creates a fictional yet probable world. It simultaneously evokes Chaucer’s strangeness by medievalizing familiar portions of Brazilian culture, “thus creating a fictional world in which both Chaucer’s world and the Brazilian one contaminate and, therefore, transform each other.

As this small body of examples indicates, we learn a great deal about Brazilian culture and literary history by studying Botelho’s Contos. What the Contos have to teach us does not stop there. For instance, the inherent Latinity of Chaucer’s Middle English text is often lost in modern English translations and interpretations. Brazilian Portuguese’s affinity with Latin means that a Latin phrase has a more fluid fit and does not stick out as much as it does for a modern English reader. Or, for another instance, we could point to the sexual metaphors based on money and commerce circulating in Chaucer’s Tales. Because sexual innuendo is a favorite pastime in Brazilian culture, Botelho’s Contos can revel and celebrate the constant sexual wordplay that many modern English readers miss.

In addition to these readings specific to Chaucer’s Tales, Botelho’stranslation asks us to scrutinize our use of the term and concept, “medieval.” Of late, this term has been placed under a great deal of pressure, especially from postcolonial studies, where it has been argued that “medieval” is a concept developed by Western Europeans to justify their colonization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. These colonizers wielded the term “medieval” as a way to lump together and marginalize the pre-modern and non-European. Botelho’stranslation takes advantage of this prejudice and exploits the sense that “medieval” equals the backward ways left behind by industrial development and urban sophistication.



The Medieval Academy 2014, Los Angeles, California

by Candace Barrington

GettyLAAt the Medieval Academy this spring, I presented a paper on Nazmi Ağil’s Turkish translation of The Squire’s Tale, or Silahtar’in Hikâyesi.  My presentation was part of Session 50, “Empires of Fantasy,” and was titled “’Myn English eek is insufficient’: Translating Medieval English Insularity and Ancient Empires.” After a general introduction to the Global Chaucers project as well as its foundational premises and working methodologies, the paper then examines Ağil‘s translation.

Today, my focus is the first 205 lines of a Turkish translation of The Squire’s Tale, chosen for three reasons. First, it is thus far the only translation for which I have conducted interviews with both the translator and a reader. The translator is Nazmi Ağil, whom I met and interviewed last April in Istanbul. The reader is Leyla Zidani-Eroglu, a linguist, department colleague, and native speaker of Turkish. Her comments were based on a comparison of Chaucer’s English text and Ağil’s Turkish translation. Previous to this encounter, she’d never read any of Chaucer’s Tales. As you will see, her expertise as a linguist leaves a distinctive mark on my approach. Second, Ağil’s 1994 complete translation of The Canterbury Tales is not a word-for-word crib designed to facilitate a Turkish reader studying the Middle English text. Instead, his translation attempts to capture the Chaucerian text without betraying either it or his Turkish audience. His accessible text evokes the antiquity of the middle ages not by reaching back to Turkey’s medieval past but by tapping into the idioms and images associated with the more recent mid-twentieth-century past, a time when a sizable portion of Turkey’s population remembered the years prior to Ataturk’s secularizing policies. As far as Ağil is concerned, the days when sultans and imams dominated Turkey’s cultural landscape are distant enough to evoke a long-ago past for the readers he envisions. Because Ağil’s translation does not attempt what some would call a “faithful” rendition of the original, it might seem more suited as a way to teach us about contemporary Turkish culture than as a way to learn about Chaucer’s originary text. As I hope to demonstrate today, this unlikely candidate stands up to the challenge and has much to tell us about both of my claims. Third, I’ve chosen The Squire’s Tale, or Silahtar’in Hikâyesi because it provides a rich field of deictic moments—those moments of incommensurability when the text’s semantics are defined, limited, and reconfigured by its context. These deictic moments are particularly apparent because Chaucer and Ağil each write for an audience with a different relationship to the central characters, events, and locations in the tale. For Chaucer, his Squire, and their audiences, Cambyuskan and his court are in far-off Sartary. For Ağil, his Silahatar and their audiences, the perspective is different: Cambinskan is the grandsire of the Ottoman Empire; he fought battles just over there, and Sartary is nearby. Conversely, when a modern Turk thinks about medieval England, it isn’t the Plantagenet’s backwater kingdom on the far western edge of Europe. It is the predecessor to another great empire. Therefore, the deictic moments of place and time provide for my query two particularly intriguing entry points: first, the Squire’s “here” of the English domestic countryside between Southwark and Canterbury becomes for modern Turks the powerful British empire that the Ottomans failed to stave off and that Ataturk’s reforms sought to emulate; second, the Squire’s “now” in England’s late-fourteenth century’s emerging literary culture becomes for Turks the setting for a story that celebrates the birth of the Turks’ political and cultural dominance for half a millennium. In addition to noting the ways the Turkish perspective allows for a different understanding of Cambyuskan and his court, I’m especially interested on the deixis of place and ways inherent features of English and of Turkish create a sense of distance and proximity.

Even before we examine the translation, thinking from a Turkish perspective reorients our understanding of Chaucer’s The Squire’s Tale and provides a sense of the translation’s payoff for us. Set amidst the court of Ghengis Khan, invader and ruler on the eastern frontiers of Europe and associated in the west with cruelty and devastation, the tale perplexes modern readers with its descriptions of Ghengis Khan as extraordinarily wise and fair and noble. This Euro-centric perspective, however, comes undone when we assume the vantage point of modern Turks who trace their cultural and linguistic heritage to the Tartars and Mongols, the people led by Ghengis Khan. For the Turks, Ghengis Khan is neither an abstract figure of ferocious cruelty nor an exotic name associated with the unknown chambers of eastern sultantates. Instead, Ghengis Khan is a founding figure, whose rule marks an originary moment less like the one marked by George Washington’s presidency and more like the invasion of William I, whose subsequent rule is generally remembered as uniting and civilizing a previously fractured (and comparatively barbaric) people. So, like late-medieval Englishmen who traced so much of their political, linguistic, and literary culture to the French invader, so do the Turks, who found their identity not on the displaced indigenous peoples but on the invading Mongols. This similarity might explain, in part, Chaucer’s unexpectedly positive presentation of Ghengis Khan in The Squire’s Tale.

If we then turn to the General Prologue portrait of the Squire—or Silahter—we see that his Turkification most noticeably in explicitly Turkish word choices. Here, the Silahtar wears a local Turkish garment—a “Takiştir”—and when he tells tales, they are “rküler” or Turkish folk tales. More understated is the shifted emphasis in the portrait.   The Turkish Silahtar embodies the courtly values we find in the Middle English original, but he does them in a particularly Turkish way, emphasizing his obedience to his father rather than his courtly performances. In addition to these semantic and cultural shifts, the translation also depends upon deictic moments that exploit the fact that Turkey and England occupied two ends of the medieval map. The Turkish suffixes appended to the sites of the Silahtar’s expeditions into France emphasize a greater distance than the Middle English preposition “in”; the Turkish suffixes lend a sense of motion towards some place, thereby implying the long journey that an expedition from Turkey to France would entail. So Ağil’s Silahtar is a fighter, lover, and courtly performer, but he is primarily a loyal son with noticeable Turkish inflections.

When we turn to the tale itself, we find various ways Ağil gives his translation a certain immediacy. In addition to truly telling a “rküler,” for his tale is certainly a tale about the Turkish past, Ağil’s Silahtar uses several strategies: he creates a correspondence between his audience and the audience in Cambinskhan’s court; he transforms indirect discourse into direct quotation; he replaces Chaucer’s impersonal “a man” with a second person pronoun; he uses idiomatic expressions; and he ascribes behavior directly to characters when Chaucer makes more general statements. He also, once again, takes advantage of the tale’s geographic deixis. The most obvious case occurs when Chaucer’s “in that lond” (5.69) becomes in the Turkish, Cambinskhan’s land, a change made so that readers are not confused when he translates Chaucer’s “in this land” (5.71) as “bizim ülkede” (62), or “in our land.” And as we saw in the portrait, the complex set of suffixes indicating location in Turkish creates precise relationships between the reader and the place names that open the tale. Ağil’s Turkish translation opens with “Tataristan’da” (1) whose locative case suffix, –da, indicates a state of rest. Its location is further identified with Tatar’s suffix –stan, which derives from the ablative case suffix, –dan, indicating motion from (Kornfilt 242). The tale’s second word “Sarray’da” (1) also includes the locative case suffix, -da, and the comitative suffix in “Rusya’yla” (2) continues that sense of the events happening nearby. That sense is further underlined by “bu savașta” (3), a phrase that does not have a close equivalent in the Middle English text and that implies a certain shared knowledge about the battle between the Tatars and the Russians. And in keeping with its national interests, the Turkish presentation of Cambyuskan doubles-down on the English Squire’s over-the-top assessment of the great khan. Beyond being “in his tyme of so greet renoun” (5.13), the Turkish Cambinskan is of such perfection, that no one comparable could be found across the seven climates and four corners of the world. And whereas the Squire’s ambiguous “fair” could describe Cambyuskan’s appearance or his probity (MED s.v. “fair,” adj), the Silahtar leans entirely towards his moral qualities and not his looks. When the Middle English Squire feels he must remind the reader that he’s been telling his reader about Cambyuskan, the Turkish Silahtar fills the line by identifying him as “hikayemizin kahramanı” (49), or the story’s hero. When the Knight presents the mirror and ring to Canacee (5.143-145), the Turkish translation includes a short phrase that shows the Knight’s efforts to ensure that his master is not seen as superior to Cambinskhan: çoban armağanıdır sultanımdan (136). This phrase literally means that “the shepherd is a gift from his sultan,” and it is used to suggest the lowliness of the gifts in comparison to the height of the Cambinskhan, his offspring, and his court.

Another telling deixis is the two different relationships that the Squire and the Silahtar have to the English language. In keeping with what we have learned about the Middle English Squire in his General Prologue portrait, when he apologizes for his rhetorical failures, his wording points to the limitations of “Englissh.” It is an insufficient language: it does not provide a speaker with the tropes necessary to describe every part of Canacee’s beauty; he must, as he demurs, speak within the limitations imposed by English. His rhetorical abilities are not great enough to overcome the limitations inherent in English. In the Turkish translation, it matters not whether English is sufficient or not to describe Canacee’s beauty. What makes more sense is the speaker’s knowledge of English, and thus the translation emphasizes the narrating Silahtar’s severe lack of English knowledge. It is not an insufficient language that impairs him but his insufficient knowledge of English that impairs him. He emphasizes his distance from English eloquence by departing from a somewhat close translation of the Middle English and closing this passage with two lines of Turkish folk idioms that are nearly untranslatable into English.

More subtle is the way the Turkish shapes the tale through demonstrative adjectives and pronouns that are inherently different from the ones in Middle English. Turkish has three levels of demonstrative adjectives: bu, șu, o. The first two correspond with English’s this/these and that/those, indicating proximity to or distance from the speaker. Turkish adds a third, o, which roughly translates as “yonder” (Kornfilt 106). In the first 205 lines of Silahtar’in Hikâyesi, “bu” appears twenty-seven times. In fifteen of those occurrences, it points to a character or object in the story, thereby reflecting Chaucer’s use of demonstrative adjectives in the corresponding passage. Nearly as frequently, it appears as part of idiomatic phrases that emphasize that these elements belong “here” or that these events took place “here,” further underlining the sense established in the opening lines that the teller and the setting of his tale are co-existent. These same demonstratives can be declined and used as demonstrative pronouns, again indicating proximity to or distance from the speaker (Kornfilt 311-313). In Silahtar’in Hikâyesi,the Turkish uses the more distant demonstrative pronoun to indicate hypotheticals or abstractions. Therefore, Canacee’s beauty (25), the height of Cambinskhan’s stature over all others (52), the knight’s rhetorical style and skill (96 -97), the faraway lands that the brass horse can take its rider (113), the enemies that could be spied via the magic mirror (129), the language of the birds (143), the wound that could result from the magical sword (152), the horse’s excellence (194 and 195), and the strange events that have prompted the court’s speculations—these are all referenced with the demonstrative pronoun indicating distance, o. The mid-distant șu appears the least often. As a demonstrate adjective, it appears only four times, and each time it introduces the next element in a process and does not deal with distance, first when it points out the next element in a process—that crank (118)—necessary for instructing the brass horse to return its rider home, next when it introduces the second gift—that mirror (124)—and later the third gift—that sword (137)—and finally when it references a second, not present, flying horse, Pegasus (208). In all four cases, these demonstratives have the sense of “the following.” Everything else is referenced or modified with bu, or “this/these” creating a sense of pointing to this place, these characters, these events. So in this passage, the main distinction is between bu and o—this close by and that yonder.

The Turkish demonstratives encourage us to revisit and rethink Chaucer’s peculiar use of demonstratives. In many ways, the Turkish translation is picking up on and emphasizing an easily overlooked distinction made in the Middle English text: Chaucer’s use of demonstrative adjectives in the first 203 lines of the tale. This Middle English passage contains only twenty-three demonstrative adjectives, and all but one—the previously mentioned “that lond”—are “this” or “thise,” suggesting an effort to create a sense of proximate closeness. That, paradoxically, is not the case. But for two exceptions [the phrase “in this world” (62), the contrasting “that lond” and “this lond” (69 and 71), the demonstrative adjectives modify either Cambyuskan (or a noun substitute) or they modify the knight and three gifts he delivered. In this passage, the Middle English “this” has the effect of pointing out the strange and the unusual, progressing from Cambyuskan, to the knight, and then to his three gifts. Used this way, the demonstrative adjective “this” is more like the nonstandard “this here” in modern English, used to connote a certain alienation from something that is supposedly nearby. [This here dog tracked mud into the house. This here Senator wants us to fund a bridge to nowhere.] In this locution, the apparent proximity that “this” and “here” would seem to intensify is undermined and lessened by repetition. “This” is “here” but not from here or at least not someone or something I lay claim to. Although Chaucer does not use the “this here” locution, he invariably limits demonstrative adjectives so that his “this” feels very much like “this here”: “Thys Tartre Cambyuskan,” “This strange knyght,” “This steede,” “This mirour,” “This naked sword.” All these demonstrative adjectives support the immediacy of the Squire’s performance, while simultaneously exposing its distant setting.

By translating The Squire’s Tale into Turkish, a language with finely drawn and unavoidable deictics of place, Ağil’s Silahtar’in Hikâyesi prompts us to look at corresponding points in Chaucer’s text and see it anew. These moments should not surprise us. We are working with a tale that already explores the compression of time and space via a magical brass horse whose mechanics instill great wonder in Cambyuskan’s court. By re-examining it through the lens of Ağil’s Turkish translation, we can see more clearly one of Chaucer’s techniques for effecting that compression.