Here’s a story of international sleuthing and collaboration uniting scholars and librarians across the US and in China.
For the past three months, Jonathan and I have been corresponding with Lian Zhang (张炼), a PhD student in the Foreign Studies College of the Hunan Normal University (Changsha, Hunan) in the People’s Republic of China. Lian is researching Chaucer’s reception in China. She has uncovered several instances of Chinese Chaucers previously unknown to us. We have been able to help her work by tracking down the sources used by the translators. Most recently, she described finding a set of seven translations published by different translators in varying combinations in 1913, 1924, and 1935. Because the three provided very rudimentary versions of the seven tales, our Chinese friend suspected they all used the same modern English source. We suggested several editions for children, including Charles Cowden Clarke’s early-nineteenth-century edition designed for children, Tales from Chaucer in Prose.
None of these were right.
Then she sent us the titles of the seven tales:
- “The Patience of Griselda”
- “The Fox Repaid in His Own Coin”
- “The Strange Adventures of a Princess”
- “The Men Who Went to Kill Death”
- “The Romance of the Lady Emelye”
- “The Knight and the Ugly Old Woman”
- “The Dead Boy Who Sang a Hymn”.
The unusual title for The Nun’s Priest’s Tale stood out, so I tried googling it. Up popped up a guide to the Grolier’s The Children’s Encyclopedia. A bit more digging around revealed that the tales were retold by John Alexander Hammerton and published in Arthur Mee’s The Children’s Encyclopedia. Published in 1908 and widely distributed, the encyclopedia included these 7 tales from Chaucer.
Though the encyclopedia has not been digitized, I was able to determine that the Special Collections and Rare Book Department of Dwight B. Waldo Library at Western Michigan University had a copy. And because I was headed to WMU the next day for the International Congress of Medieval Studies–Kzoo–I arranged to have a peek at the volume.
Sure enough, the tales were there, and the library staff email photos of the pages to China.
Meanwhile, Lian had located the Chinese translation of The Children’s Encyclopedia. She reported that “Now I found out that the WHOLE book [of] Children’s Encyclopedia by Arthur Mee was probably translated into Chinese in 1924, and the title of the translation is 少年百科丛书. The part of “The Story of Famous Books” by John Alexander Hammerton in the Encyclopedia was translated as 欧美名著节本 by Wang Changmo(王昌漠) et al. The seven tales were included in 欧美名著节本.”
So it appears that Chaucer first made his way into China via a simplified version prepared for children.