The Tale of Januarie: Translingualism and Anxietie, Sexuality and Time

We are delighted to co-publish with In the Middle David Wallace’s witty and perceptive analysis of The Tale of Januarie, an opera in Middle English recently premiered at Guildhall School of Music and Drama.  –Jonathan and Candace

Tale of Januarie Chaucer Guildhall January
Photo courtesy of David Wallace

by David Wallace

The Tale of Januarie

Music by Julian Philips, libretto by Stephen Plaice, directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, 27 February to 6 March 2017

Middle English is the surprise star turn of this opera. Librettist Stephen Plaice, shortly before the final public performance, spoke of the liberating effect of writing in a medium with greater flexibility and plasticity than modern English can muster. Variation of stress, word order, and spelling multiply expressive options, and final -e proves more singable, with sicknesse working better than blunt sickness. Having feared that Middle English would be academic and dry, Plaice found it quite the opposite: “a treat!” Having now moved on to write a libretto based on a Conrad novel, he misses the fizz, so he says, of medieval language. Working with Middle English, Plaice says, makes modern English seem “deadening”: an interesting word choice, bumping Middle English from the “dead language” column. Composer Julian Philips agrees: Middle proves simply more singable than modern English. Consonants are hard to vocalize; sicknesse or herte move us closer to Italian, the chief language of opera and of opera training. Also, says our composer, Middle English renders “familiar” English strange-yet-familiar; each word must be newly weighed, for expressive possibilities, with no “default” position. And clearly different rhythmic-linguistic strains flow close to the surface of Middle English: Frenchified elements, suggesting courtliness and “triplety feel,” pitch themselves against Germanic bluntness (“bulles ballokes by yow”).

The work that became The Tale of Januarie began as part of a taught MA at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, developing from chamber piece to full-blown, fully-produced opera (with excellent staging and lighting, and phenomenally energetic playing from the pit). It was supported by the “Cross-Language Dynamics” project, led by the University of Manchester and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.   Setting Middle English in this “translingual strand” provoked much discussion, leading to gradual realization of its aptness for opera.  Lovers of this medium are well attuned to hearing languages they do not speak; opera puts meaning over by relying not just upon words sung, but also by combining sonic, scenic, visual, and bodily elements. One audience member compared experiencing The Tale of Januarie to “listening to something in a foreign language that you know quite well.”

Composer and librettist, and later director and designers, had nine months to research and develop the project, from first inklings to opening night.  Much of what followed depended upon the varied talents available locally, at Guildhall. Both Philips and Plaice had studied Chaucer at school, and fortunately both had been “set” the Merchant’s Tale. Composer Philips followed the melodic lines of Middle English while borrowing, he says, from Machaut’s Ballades, and from secular songs. He also experimented with Pythagorean tuning, a mode especially associated with Pluto’s on stage entourage of courtly musicians, one of whom, Elisabeth Flett, proved doubly adroit at bagpipes and medieval fiddle. Librettist Plaice remembers being long ago enchanted by the sound of Chaucerian Middle English as committed to vinyl by Oxford don, and theatrical impresario, Nevill Coghill.  But on turning to Coghill’s Penguin translation, first published in 1951 and still going strong, he was disappointed: “the music,” he said, “has gone out of it.”  In attempting to put music back in, Plaice was led not only to borrow, bend, and adapt Chaucerian lines but also to essay Middle English, Middle English-ish, composition.  In what follows I consider first this liberation of the librettist, and then his difficulties– which are not so much his difficulties, but those of Everyman, in anxious times.

Both composer and librettist became increasingly aware, in developing The Tale of Januarie, of their work resonating strangely with, but often against, an ever more alienating present. Philips, in working through the time of “Brexit horror,” found solace in celebrating multilingual English, “as if writing an opera in two or three languages at the same time.” Plaice found uncanny historical resonance in the folly of January’s vanity building project: “we’re going to build A WALL!” The huge wall on stage, erected to create a private space for Januarie and May, fails (like every wall since Hadrian’s, or China’s, or the Great Hedge of India) to exclude, building only the illusion of an isolated, self-sufficient place. Januarie‘s final stage direction is “the TOWNSFOLK are demolishing the wall again.”

Plaice’s jouissance in composing Middle English expresses itself chiefly through street cries, wassailing songs, and in ditties sung by Proserpina and her attendant nymphs. His lines are generally shorter than standard Chaucerian, and his chief source of inspiration or encouragement here, Plaice says, are those songs sung in Shakespearean comedies.  The apotheosis of such writing comes “In the Privy” (Act 2 scene 3), where May seeks to enjoy

Sweet pees of the privee

the onlie place I kan sit alone.

The Middle English-like alliterating of the first line works nicely here, and place in the second begs for a second syllable, just before the caesura. It is upon this eminence, her privy-throne, that May reads her letter from Damyan, ignoring Januarie’s off-stage cries, and then sings “an aria of revenge on her former employer” (stage direction), Maistresse Wellow:

Well, now I am wed

With a lover in store,

I’m richer than yow,

Far richer mor.

So Maistresse Wellow

bulles ballokes by yow,

go boyle, go frie,

you’re not werth a cow.

At this point of the opera, seated beneath the canopy of her outhouse “privee,” May dominates the stage and directs events. The very next scene, however, brings her down– and this is perhaps where the librettist’s difficulties begin, too. The scene, called “Back in the Bedroom,” sees aged Januarie demanding sexual compliance from youthful May, his new wife:

Stonde and strepe on the bedde!

In the preestes bok the rubriche seye –

a wyf shul shewe her buxomness alwey . . .

May resists, Januarie becomes more peremptory (“Strepe naked!”), and Proserpina is outraged:

A wyf is not a pepe and se!

May finally begins to comply, removing her clothes, Pluto arrives and does nothing, Proserpina strikes Januarie blind: end of Act 2.

Theatrical tension towards the end of Act 2 stems from the fact that in standing and stripping on the bed, at Januarie’s command, May would expose herself to the entire theatre. Act 1 had concluded with the wedding night, in which Januarie performs his “trespace” upon May in private:

            stage direction: He closes the curtains on the four-poster bed. Noises from within.

Such “noises” are comically augmented by the pit, with much use of squeaky toys.  And this, as May boasts to Maistresse Wellow, is a union to which she, May, has consented. Januarie is at fault in the second scene because May does not consent again— and here a gulf opens between medieval and modern understandings of the marriage contract. Or, we might rather say, differences between legal assumptions extending from the Middle Ages to the 1970s (with marital rape not recognized as a crime in all fifty states of the USA until 1993) and the present. In the Middle Ages, au contraire, consent is effectively given once only, at the wedding, as each party contracts “the marriage debt.” After that, says Chaucer’s most famous exponent of this concept, the wife no longer possesses control of her own body, nor the husband:

I have the power durynge al my lyf!

Upon his propre body, and noght he.

(Wife of Bath’s Tale, 3.158-9)

For the librettist of The Tale of Januarie issues of consent loom, topically and Tale of Januarie Guardianunderstandably, large.  The final day of performance, the day of public discussion, saw England’s only significant liberal newspaper, The Guardian, lead with the headline “‘Epidemic of sex harassment in universities” (with the further headline “Resistance is female: The new wave of protest” top left, a feature in the G2 section). Campus sexual harassment, as The Guardian detailed throughout the week, and as most everybody knows, mostly involves older men forcing themselves upon younger women, Januarie coercing May. In 2017, then, Januarie must be stopped in his tracks, called out, and punished through imposition of a disability: blindness.

Campus rape, consent, and sexual harassment are still issues that campus authorities struggle to see as individual stories to be heard; when the librettist or indeed academics of my generation were at college, as undergraduates, this was much more so. The enhanced isolation and punishment of Januarie is thus understandable, albeit (I would suggest) somewhat panicked. Panic perhaps stems from the fact that all six core members of this production team (director, designer, lighting designer, conductor, composer, and librettist) are men. And it must be said that presentation of sexuality in this production is notably, egregiously, penis-driven. When the curtain first rises Priapus is seen on stage, pushing a heavy wooden wheelbarrow. This barrow, it turns out, transports his own gigantic phallus– at first, and generally thereafter, covered with sacking, but eventually unveiled by Proserpina’s nymphs. Said nymphs have much fun at the beginning of Act 3 in provoking Priapus.  He wheels hopelessly after them, but their joint chorus of disapprobation is

Somme seyen ye, we seyen ne,

That has nought to do with love!

(emphasis added in the singing)

Priapus is referenced in the Merchant’s Tale, but only as a descriptor of gardens (4.2034-7). His only other appearance in Chaucer comes in The Parliament of Fowls (a text from which the librettist sources some textual material):

The god Priapus saw I, as I wente,

Withinne the temple in sovereyn place stonde,

In swich aray as whan the asse hym shente

With cri by nighte, and with his sceptre in honed. (253-6)

Priapus does momentarily enjoy the spotlight here, “in sovereyn place,” albeit disabled by his giant stiffie. But it is worth noting that “the temple” housing him is that of Venus; later in the poem, Chaucer walks out into a pleasant, grassy domain to find another female deity, Nature, governing matters of sexual attraction and reproduction. In The Tale of Januarie, however, anxiety about the penis couples with rule and narration by the penis (and I’ll stick with penis, rather than phallus, since it is palpably and pinkly there, on stage, in the wheelbarrow). For strangely, Priapus (who more often speaks than sings) is the tale’s narrator, from the start:

stage direction:  PRIAPUS wheels his barrow into the foreground and addresses the audience.

PRIAPUS spoken:  Whilom ther was dwellinge in Lumbardye

  A worthy knyght . . .

So whereas we might say that a poem such as the Parliament is structured by successive and diverse visions of all-encompassing female sexuality, Januarie seems rather driven by anxieties arising from the penis, the phallus, Priapus (the last of the characters to leave the stage, “with his empty wheelbarrow”).

As in The Merchant’s Tale, Januarie has his sight restored by Pluto just in time to see May’s “struggle” with Damyan upon the pear tree; as in Chaucer, some new form of understanding is then negotiated between husband and wife.  But for The Tale of Januarie, this is not the end, and a “Finale” is appended to Act IV. Librettist and composer thought Chaucer’s tale, so they said, to be somehow “unfinished.” The logic governing their additive ending might be compared with that of Robert Henryson, in his Testament of Cresseid: the protagonist found guilty of sexual crimes should not get off so lightly. The final scene, described as “Autumn,” begins with townfolk and rustics celebrating the fruitful season. Pluto, borrowing a scythe from a grass-cutter, suddenly becomes Death (with exact visual modelling upon Death in Bergman’s Seventh Seal). Januarie negotiates with Pluto-Death for extra time: “An half-yeere?” Pluto refuses all bids for extended life: not even a day’s leave will be granted:

JANUARIE:      Oon deye.

PLUTO:           Noon deye.

JANUARIE:      Noone deye!

PLUTO:           Noone deye.

JANUARIE:      Then I must leet heer for alweye?

Januarie then attempts to approach May, who is heavily pregnant. Pluto and Proserpina debate (yea and nay) whether Januarie should retain the comforting illusion of  human legacy, fruit of his sexual labor. Having exclaimed “An blood heir. An fader I am!” as his parting words, Januarie descends to the underworld with Pluto and Proserpina (herself, of course, subjected to perennial raptus). This last scene gathers up some of the theatrical memory of Henry IV, Part II, where the new monarch, in the presence of his rehabilitated Lord Chief Justice, casts off Falstaff. Sir John, however, retains some hope of social rehabilitation; Januarie has none.

In Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale, judgements passed by the tutelary deities pertain to all men and women.  Or at least, all women: Pluto merely capitulates (“I yeve it up!” 4.2312) when faced down by Proserpina’s feminist decree:

Now by my moodres sires soule I swere

That I shal yeven hire suffisant answere,

And alle wommen after, for hir sake. (4.2265-7)

The Pluto of The Tale of Januarie, unlike his Chaucerian counterpart, overrides the will of his wife, evolving into one of those lurking ducal or despotic figures familiar from Shakespeare: Vincentio in Measure for Measure, for example. While Proserpina and her nymphs frolic at the beginning of Act 3, Pluto “is some distance off, watching, but uninvolved” (stage direction). The judgement delivered upon Januarie at the end of his contemporary Tale, his repudiation and isolation, seems especially harsh when compared to the inclusive Chaucerian ethos of “alle wommen,” and all men under women. Centuries of post-Shakespearean theatre helped shape this end, riding the deep current of a non-negotiable, post-Reformation divide between the society of the elect and those condemned to darkness.  But Januarie’s final isolating of Januarie as a man who fails to seek a woman’s sexual consent also symptomatizes the anxieties of a male-authored, male-produced text of our own time.  Issues of consent concern all men, not just a few individual, isolable malefactors, and “alle women” also.

The Tale of Januarie achieves something always to be hoped for in this kind of contact experiment: that the earlier text, erupting into the present, should expose contemporary anxieties and blindspots.  Additionally, while necessarily working through certain intermediary Shakespearean conventions, The Tale of Januarie effects conjunctures between past and present that speak to remarkable continuities over time: what is funny then can be funny now; a privy is still a place for private reading. The most obvious sign of such continuity is the prop that dominates the stage, from first to last: the giant tree. For the Middle Ages, of course, the tree is the most fraught and fruitful of symbols, connecting the garden of Eden, and its apples, to the tree of the cross.  And for the most iconic of modernist productions, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the tree (first without, and then later with leaves) is the one indispensable feature of stage design. The tree of Januarie is first seen bare, as the play opens; by play’s end it is full of fruit. It thus marks the duration of drama, but also queer continuity with the time and language of Middle English, dialoguing with this Tale. Priapus has the play’s last word:

The pere hath ripen on its tree.

Thus endeth heere the Tale of Januarie.

This ending is especially poignant since, so far as I can find out, no video trace remains of this extraordinary, sometimes ferocious, collaboration of musicians, actors, singers, and designers.  Women did not script or direct The Tale of Januarie, but made their mark on stage through full-blooded portrayals of May and Proserpina, of market women Friuli, Ravizza, and Signore Farina, as maidservants Rosina, Julietta, and Laura, and as nymphs Nightshade, Flycap, and Mandrake.

All this, while lingering in the mind, is gone like smoke.

with thanks for quick and crucial responses from Crystal Bartolovich, Carissa Harris, Robin Kirkpatrick, Clare Lees, and Elaine Nixon; and with further thanks to Candace Barrington and J.J. Cohen.





















Teaching and Researching the Medieval Past in the Face of Present Crisis: Why and How Medieval Studies *Now*?

On Monday, 8 March 2016, Medievalists at the University of Chicago hosted a discussion on the ways we can resist the appropriation of the Middle Ages by the political right.  Follow this link for Carly Boxer’s very useful storification of the event. It includes not only the event’s twitter conversation, but also links to the readings.

Hungarian Chaucer


Back in November 2016, I received a delightful parcel from my cousin, Shanna Buck, who regularly shuttles between Pampa, Texas, and Budapest, Hungary. Inside were copies of of Szenczi Miklós’ 1961 translation, Canterbury Mesék, and Júlia Képes’ 1986 translation, Troilus és Cressida! What a treat!

Although the outside windchill is 10 degrees F, the opening lines of the Prológus intially put me in a hopeful, springtime spirit:

Ha édes záporait április

a szomjas földre önti, lenne friss,

hadd kortyolhasson a mohó gyökér,

s virág serkenjen: sárga, kék, fehér;

ha Zephyrus fuvalma édesen

szétkóborol erdökön, réteken

s bont új rügyet; ha már a zsenge nap

a Kos felén tul víg eröre kap….

As I looked more closely, though, I gathered that my sense of hope was my own projection, not what the Hungarian text conveyed. Let me explain.

Without any knowledge of Hungarian, it is clear that the translation marks each of Chaucer’s “What that…” clauses with “Ha,” a word that Google Translate equates with English “If” and only “If.” When I translate the passage into French, I get the same: “Si” and not “Quand.”  This conditional, “Ha,” transforms Chaucer’s “Whan” from a marker of seasonal events that regularly and cyclically happen to a marker of events that might happen. Moreover, there’s something about “édes” (which Google Translate translates as “sweet” when it stands along) that marks “áprilles” with a first-person possessive, “my” when it is returned to the entire line.  In this translation, Miklós seems to be taking possession (and responsibility) of springtime events that may not happen–or at least seemed they might not ever happen in 1961 Hungary.

Of course, this is all conjectural.  I’m relying not on my knowledge of Hungarian but on Google Translate, a resource of variable reliability.  It’s also unclear to me how many other translators were involved in the project; perhaps as many as another ten “Fordította” contributed to the translation.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that Canterbury Mesék and Troilus és Cressida can tell us a great deal about medieval and English literature’s reception in the Hungarian People’s Republic (1949-1989).  I’m eager to get started on this work.

Thrice Translations

Front of the King's Theatre, Haymarket, London

At Penn Humanities Forum’s 28 February 2017 seminar, Lily Kass asked us to consider what happens when a text is translated across multiple languages, multiple genres, and multiple cultures, landing back in the source culture in an intermediary genre but in still another language.  Such is the back history of Da Ponte and Antonio Sacchini’s late 1790s’s opera, Evelina; or, the triumph of the English over the Romans. Although the opera’s roots are in William Mason’s 1749 closet drama, Caractacus, a Dramatic Poem: Written on the Model of the Ancient Greek Tragedy—and though it goes through a couple of generic and linguistic transformations in France—when the opera returns to London it dressed as an Italian opera with an Italian libretto based on the French, not the English text.  Moreover, when the text returns to London nearly half a century later, it appears in an entirely different political environment, necessitating us to recognized another generic translation.

Akin to a game of telephone, the series of translations ostensibly maintain the basic thrust of Mason’s lines through the series of translations. Yet, because the musical score requires adjustments be made as the text moves across languages, change is introduced. Sometimes, however, changes appear for no discernible reason, and we’re left to speculate what sort of effect the word choices would have on the audience.

Translation Traces

deligny-map2How can non-verbal communication and gestures by those “living outside language” help us understand the uses and limitations of linguistic translation?  This is the overriding question for me after our PHF seminar discussion prompted by Leon Hilton’s paper, “Deligny’s Traces,” based on the efforts of Fernand Deligny (1913–1996) to create viable communities for those generally labelled as “autistic.”

Among Deligny’s many efforts were the “traces” recording the spatial movements of the community’s inhabitants. They are reminiscent of a choreographic notation, collapsing four dimensions into two.  Time and spatial depth are minimized, sometimes even eliminated. In this way, they become identifying markers for the community member associated with the tracings. While “living outside language” might be enough to prevent these members from achieving identity and subject formation, these tracings of non-verbal gestures suggest just the opposite: more than fingerprints or DNA, which the individual inherits without any contribution to their shape, these traces are created by the individuals and they encode embodied practices and preferences.

These gestural translations of self—these traces of repetitive, purposeful, even expressive movement—correspond (it seems to me) to the literary translations that engage with the non-verbal elements of a source text, its structure and form at the root of the text’s identity. Deligny’s tracings remind us that non-verbal elements are integral to creating the subject, and the tracings remind us that the identity of a text is so wrapped up in the non-verbal elements that they cannot be easily shed, even in translation.

Of pilgrims, knights and cantadores: translating Chaucer and Shakespeare in modern Brazil


At the George Washington Digital Humanities Institute’s symposium, “Global Chaucer and Shakespeare in a Digital World,” on 4 February 2017, Chico Botelho provided the opening address.  He graciously shared the notes and images from his talk, and we are pleased now to share them with you.  In addition to his award-winning translation of The Canterbury Tales, he has recently published his translation of Romeo and Juliet.  These two translations were the subject of his talk.

by José Francisco Botelho

Good morning to all of you. It is an honor and an exquisite pleasure to be here in the United States of America, talking to you, in my first lecture in English, after a long journey that begun months ago, when I received a kind invitation from George Washington Digital Humanities Institute. I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to Professors Jonathan Hsy and Alexa Huang, my dear friends Candace Barrington and Mike Shea; Haylie Swenson and Gabby Bychowski; the George Washington University, George Washington Digital Humanities Institute, Central Connecticut State University, and, of course, Global Chaucers. I also would like to thank each and every person present here this morning.

Today, we will be talking about very interesting topics such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, South American History, Brazilian proverbs and witticisms, lovebirds, oral poetry, and the way cultures may transcend borders, creating shared imaginary worlds and shifting identities. But let’s begin with The Canterbury Tales.

As it so often happens in the South American literary world, a book by Borges led my way to Chaucer.

It was an especially cold winter of one of the last few years of the past millennium, in my hometown – Bagé, on the far south of Brazil (yes, it does gets cold in the South of Brazil; more on that later). At the time, the Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges was my favorite writer. I had recently taken hold of his complete works and was reading his latest book, “A History of Night”.  In it, there is a poem named “El caballo”, or “The Horse”. One of its first lines supposedly quotes the Canterbury Tales. It was the first time I’d heard about Chaucer – whose work, back then, was largely unknown in Brazil. Here is Borges’ poem in a loose translation:

The great plains await since the beginning. Beyond the last peach trees, close to the waters, a white horse, with sleepy eyes, seems to be filling the morning. The arching neck, like a Persian blade, and the mane, and the swirling tail. The horse is elegant and firm and made up of long curves. I remember a quaint verse by Chaucer: a very horsely horse. And now the sun rises. And here is the horse, but there is something strange about him, because he is also a horse in a dream: a dream by Alexander of Macedon.

Borges’ poem describes a horse in a dream; the man who is dreaming is Alexander the Great. And to round up the description, Borges quotes Chaucer: “a very horsely horse.” That line stuck with me, for several reasons.

I grew up in the Brazilian countryside, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. My hometown lies in a very isolated and peculiar region, called The Frontier (A Fronteira), because it borders with Uruguay and Argentina. It shares with those countries not only a similar landscape ‒ the Pampas ‒ but also several cultural traits. On the borderlands of Rio Grande do Sul, different worlds converge and combine: that’s the place where the Portuguese-speaking part of South America ‒ Brazil ‒ meets the Spanish-speaking part. It is worth mentioning that those two South American worlds not always lived in peace: in the past, my State was one of the most intense battlefields in the wars between the Portuguese and the Spanish Empires. During the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, the Frontier was a moving thing, like a living and restless creature, unsure about where it really belonged on the maps, going up north, and then plunging back south, several times. Nowadays, however, this violent History is no longer the stuff of disputes, but the source that provides both sides of the Frontier with the feeling of a shared past. In the region where Brazil and Uruguay meet, most people, on both sides of the border, are bilingual; and some speak a hybrid of Portuguese and Spanish known as “Portuñol”, one of the many dialects spoken in my state. Gaucho culture, generally associated with Uruguay and Argentina, also marks the cultural identity of the southern parts of Rio Grande do Sul. Originally, gauchos or gaúchos were the inhabitants of rural areas in the South of the continent. The gaucho is a national symbol both of Uruguay and Argentina; gaúcho is also the demonym of the people from Rio Grande do Sul. Gauchoesque language is a blend of Spanish, Portuguese, Native American languages (such as Quechuan) and African words.  Gaúcho culture is one of the many regional cultures of Brazil; and it is also a kind of cultural bridge connecting us to the rest of South America.

So this is the world where I grew up. I spent part of my childhood in a farm on the borderlands, where horses were a daily sight. Since I was a little boy, I had a recurring dream of a white horse, its colors mirroring those of the westering moon in the wide pampa. When I read about the “very horsely horse” in that cold afternoon in the late ‘90s, my imagination lit up. Although I had never heard of Chaucer before, I was determined to find him – or, rather, to find his book, and the horse within the book.

It wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it would be. Translations of Chaucer into Portuguese were very rare. Among the great classics of western literature, I think the Tales were, at that point, one of the least known among readers in the Portuguese-speaking world. There was no full verse translation in Portuguese, anywhere.

By the time I read the Middle English original, I was already living in the state’s capital, Porto Alegre, and working as a journalist and freelance writer. And so, at last, I found out that Borges had slightly misquoted Chaucer. When Borges wrote his poem, he probably had these verses from The Squire’s Tale in mind (I will read all Chaucer’s quotations from a Modern English Translation, to make things easier to everyone).

Just as it were a steed of Lombardy;

Therewith as horsely and as quick of eye

Well, I had finally found Chaucer’s horse, but the verse was not exactly as I had read in Borges’ poem. Borges’ version seemed as a blurry, misremember citation. Almost immediately, some verses in Portuguese sprang to my mind, mixing Chaucer’s line with Borges’ creative misreading:

Era um cavalo muito cavalar.

Velozes são seus olhos; parecia

Atrevido corcel da Lombardia.

It was a  very horsely horse.

Quick were its eyes; it seemed

A saucy steed from Lombardy.

(As you see, I turned Chaucer’s 2 lines into 3 lines. That’s something I did throughout the translation, as I will explain later).

So this is how it began. I decided at that moment that I would someday translate the entire Canterbury Tales, and began to make plans and think my way through it. I started Camoes.pngpracticing the decasyllable‒a traditional poetic form in Portuguese, and Luis Vaz de Camões’ favorite meter. (Now, Camões is the great Portuguese classic. Sometimes described as Portugal’s Shakespeare, because his works greatly influenced the shaping of the Portuguese language. His great epic poem, The Lusiads, describes Portuguese discoveries and conquests, in a ten-syllable meter that became the staple verse of epic poetry in Portuguese and whose rhythm is similar to that of the iambic pentameter. It was also widely used by Brazilian epic poets such as Basílio da Gama and Gonçalves Dias).

I also began to think about ways to efficiently transplant Chaucer’s stories and voice to my South American surroundings. Now, I’ll explain some of my translating decisions, and how I tried to recreate Chaucer’s fictional and poetic universe in my own culture.

Before we proceed, I have a little confession to make: in the final version of the book, I incorporated that line with Borges misreading. You will find “um cavalo muito cavalar” (my translation of the nonexistent verse “a very horsely horse”) right there on page four hundred eighty five. It was the line that lured me toward Chaucer, so I thought I should keep it where it belongs.

It’s kind of a talisman.

When I set out to translate Chaucer, my first decision was to make it as readable as I could to the Brazilian readership. I did not want to make a translation that would interest only specialists and academic researchers; I wanted to create a literary work that could have real artistic relevance and, therefore, I had to speak with a voice that would reach casual readers as well as trained medievalists and literary experts. How should I do that? How should I recreate Chaucer’s flow of poetic narrative in the most accessible way to Brazilian readers? Then it occurred to me: what if I take this medieval poem, rather unknown in Brazil, and mix it with some popular music and ôral poetry, to bring it closer to readers that might otherwise feel intimidated? That lead me to a crucial decision about a fundamental issue: rhyming. In Portuguese and Brazilian poetry, there are two main kinds of rhyme. The one considered most “literary” is the rima consoante, known henceforth as “complete rhyme”, which rhymes all the final letters of two words: batata and bravata, for instance. On the other hand, rima toante, which we may call “slant rhyme”, matches only the vowels: for instance, bagagem and verdade. Medieval troubadours in the Iberian Peninsula originally used slant rhyme. From the sixteenth century onward, however it lost favor. Complete rhyme became the more prestigious, literary choice. However, slant rhyme remained widely used in popular music and in popular oral poetry. Now, oral poetry in Brazil stems from the medieval “romances”, that is, rhymed narratives that were orally passed on from generation to generation in medieval Portugal. In many places of Brazil, there still exists what we could call a minstrel tradition, wherein poets will “improvise” lines or entire poems in front of the audiences. They are generally called “cantadores”, from the verb “cantar”, to sing. Oral poets or improvisators also have regional names. In the Northeast, they are called repentistas; in the South, pajadores. The pajador tradition is now disappearing, but I had the honor of meeting some of its last representatives – actually, I learned to rhyme and to make verse scansion with one of them.

As an example, consider these verses from a popular Southern song:

Morena, fique sabendo

Que eu quero mesmo mudar de vida.

Já chega de pantomima

Co’ essas meninas de má bebida.[1]

And these, from A Morte do Vaqueiro, a popular song by Northeastern Luiz Gonzaga:

Bom vaqueiro nordestino

Morre sem deixar tostão,

O seu nome é esquecido

Nas quebradas do sertão.[2]

In literature, slant rhyme has been revived in the twentieth century by Cecília Meirelles, my favorite Brazilian poet, in her masterpiece “Romanceiro da Inconfidência”, that purports to recreate the intonation of the old “romances”, in a narrative poem that tells the story of an eighteenth century Brazilian insurgency against Portuguese monarchy.

For most of my translation, I used slant rhymes, to give Chaucer’s text the tone of a declaimed popular poem. It wasn’t an easy decision: more often than not, translations of classics in Brazil are made in complete rhyme. So, it was a rather risky choice to combine this very popular kind of rhyme with the decassylable verse, considered as very literary and solemn.

The decision to make Chaucer’s text legible did not mean making it Brazilian in perfunctory way. From the start, I kept in mind that I was translating fiction; I had to create a believable fictional universe, in which the reader could dive in and experience what Coleridge describes as a “momentary suspension of disbelief.” After all, one of the main principles of good fiction is establishing a balance between strangeness and familiarity. To make the Contos work not only as poetry, but also as fiction, I had to respect this axiom.

Bringing Chaucer closer to non-expert readers, therefore, did not mean neutralizing the strangeness of the Tales. I neither intended to water the Tales down, nor make them hermetical. I did not want the readers to feel they were reading a story set in Brazil because that would feel fake. My intention was not to subdue Chaucer’s medieval strangeness. On the contrary, I wanted, so to speak, to “medievalize” some portions of Brazilian culture, thus creating a fictional universe in which Chaucer’s world and my own would contaminate and transform each other, creating something new.

How was I to pull it off? The answer, once more, came from the culture of rural Brazil. Brazilian Literature has been marked by a set of loosely connected literary movements collectively called regionalismo, or regionalism. They represent Brazilian countryside and rural culture within a literary system that was (and is) mainly dominated by two big urban centers, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Regionalism brought us some of the great classics of Rosa.pngBrazilian literature, such as Grande Sertão Veredas by Guimarães Rosa, considered by many as the best Brazilian novel of all times; O Tempo e o Vento by Érico Veríssimo and Verrissimo.pngMemorial de Maria Moura by Raquel de Queiroz. Among the short story collections, we have Contos Gauchescos & Lendas do Sul, by Simões Lopes Neto, arguably one of the best short story collections ever written in Portuguese; and the “Borderland” short stories of Sergio Faraco, a master story-teller whose masterpieces showcase the peculiar dialect of the Southern Frontier, a blend of Portuguese, Spanish and other linguistic influences.
Nowadays, however, many young writers have turned away from regional themes, seeking a language that can be easily translated into English and “universalized,” giving preference, thus, to urban, “cosmopolitan” literary themes.

Yet I did not want Chaucer to sound like a yuppie, but rather like a tongue-in-cheek, slightly old fashioned, worldly countryside gentleman of the old, sensual Brazil of yore. Why have I avoided modern, citified slang, in favor of regional idioms? My choice has to do with Brazilian history and with the reception of fiction and language among the Brazilian public. Brazil was still mostly rural in the early twentieth century. The country then underwent a sudden – and, some would say, rushed and incomplete – process of industrialization in the ‘40s. Brazil has been split in half by this process. Even today, the backcountry or interior is seen as the site of archaic ways of life and worldviews. Literature that wants to be regarded as “thoroughly contemporary” tends to focus on metropolitan lifestyles. (In my own efforts as a fiction writer, I have done exactly the opposite, mixing the urban, the rural and the scholarly. But that’s a different story.) Language that stems from the backcountry experience is immediately identified with the past. This rural past has a strange aura of imperfection and desire. In some states, local culture is deeply marked by a longing for the ancient, evanescent world of the pagus (a world that never really existed as we remember it). Therefore, backcountry words feel a bit old-fashioned, but close to us, nevertheless, and familiar in a strange way; they form the shadows of a past world that hasn’t left us and probably never will, a world under whose strange dominion we still exist. To create the idea of a world long gone, but at the same time real and strangely alive, I chose words taken from the culture of rural areas and placed it on dramatic passages of Chaucer’s poem.

Among the sources I used throughout are, of course, my own childhood memories, and some regionalist writers and the popular songbook of the South and the Northeast, including musicians Luis Gonzaga and Noel Guarani, as well as gauchoesque poems as Amaro Juvenal’s masterpiece Antônio Chimango.

As an example, let’s turn to a passage on the General Prologue, when Chaucer, after introducing the Somnour, gives us these lines about the Pardoner:

With him there rode a noble PARDONER

Of Rouncival, his friend and his compeer

Here, I have created a line that is not found in the original, but brings the Brazilian reader very close to those two characters – just as if they had met them on the street, or maybe heard some gossip about them, around the neighborhood:

Com ele viajava um VENDEDOR

D’INDULGÊNCIAS – garanto que era flor

Nascida no mesmíssimo canteiro

With him, traveled a Seller of Indulgencies.

Take it from me, he was a flower grown

in the very same flowerbed.

Here, I have combined two very well know Brazilian proverbs:

Proverb number one: Ele não é flor que se cheire – “He is not a flower to sniff.” Meaning: this guy is up to no good, stay away! He might seem seductive (a “flower”) but if you get close enough, you’ll notice the stench instead of the perfume.

Proverb number two: Eles são farinha do mesmo saco – “They are wheat flour from the same bag.” Meaning: they are birds of a feather, and  are both equally bad.

Those are very old and very popular proverbs, used throughout Brazil, but they do not sound too modern, contemporary, or urban. So from these two well-known proverbs, I made one: They are flowers from the very same flowerbed.

Here’s another example: in The Franklin’s Tale, there’s a passage describing winter in Western Europe:

The bitter frosts, with all the sleet and rain,

Had killed the green of every garden-yard.

Janus sat by the fire, with double beard,

And drained from out his bugle horn the wine.

It was almost a guilty pleasure to produce the following translation:

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.

Well, my personal touch here was to translate “bitter frosts” as “geada” and “bugle” as “guampa”.

Let’s begin with guampa. In “metropolitan Brazil,” the more accepted term for horn would be chifre, whereas “guampa” is very typical of the rural world. The word stems from the Quechuan huamparu and means horn or bugle. Bottles made of horn can still be found today in the rural regions. In the olden days, traveling gauchos would carry large guampas on their saddles, not only to store water but also liquor ‒ more specifically, canha, the Brazilian sugarcane rum. Therefore, drinking (water or alcohol) from a guampa is an image that can be easily found in local poetry and popular music.

Now, let’s turn to geada, or ground frost, a weather phenomenon common in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Due to low altitudes, snow is rare, but in some winter dawns, the Brazilian pampas will wake covered in a white, thin layer of frozen dew. By choosing the southern idiom, I wanted to not only create an idea of a fictional past, but also to produce the feeling of a “Brazilian winter.” Of course, Brazil is stereotypically a tropical country, a civilization of scantily dressed people living in eternal seaside warmth. In some parts of the South, however, winter can be chilling. (Well, in relative terms…) I wanted Brazilian readers to identify with the Brazilian or South American idea of cold; I wanted them to picture – unconsciously – an old gaucho sitting by the fire, surrounded by the white pampa. So I put a guampa in the hands of old Janus, and I covered European December in a South American geada.

However, as I’ve stated earlier, I didn’t intend to create the illusion that the Tales were actually set in Brazil; the gist of my translation was the construction of a new fictional universe in which Chaucer’s voices resounded with new life –a linguistic world-building process, so to speak. In my search for ingredients to bring into the mix, I also drew upon medieval and courtly Portuguese literature. I interwove idioms and cultural morsels of Brazilian stock with vocabulary taken from works like Os Lusíadas, by Camões. Thus I mixed what was specifically Brazilian (the language of the Brazilian backcountry), with the specifically European (the Portuguese Middle Ages), endeavoring to create a seamless world in which to set these renewed Contos. Mixing the scholarly and the colloquial, the regio and the urbs, the down-to-earth and the archaic, I tried to produce a significant and cohesive (if diverse) whole, as if for a while Brazil did kind of have the Middle Ages within itself.

Now, let us turn to Shakespeare. In my translation of “Romeo & Juliet” I used a very similar method. Naturally, the way that method was applied and the results that unfolded thereby were very different from what happened with the Tales.

To begin with, I decided to use different kinds of verse throughout the play. The reason to do this was twofold. As I told you before, when translating Chaucer’s Tales, sometimes I would turn one couplet into two. I did this because Portuguese words tend to be longer than their English equivalents. Take, for instance, a very common word such as “man”. In Portuguese, you would need two syllables to say the same thing: “ho-mem”. And things can get worse: “head”, one syllable in English, demands three syllables in Portuguese: “ca-be-ça”. Portuguese metrics is based on the number of poetic syllables within a line. A decasyllable has a similar rhythm to the iambic pentameter, but generally holds less information. Because I didn’t want to trim important pieces of information, nor to create compressed, hermetical verses, I decided to duplicate lines when the need arose. The same strategy worked beautifully with Shakespeare’s blank verses. But when I got to the Sonnets or Sonnet-like passages in Romeo & Juliet, things got trickier. You cannot add lines to a sonnet, because then it would cease to be a sonnet. Therefore, in those passages, as I could not add lines, I decided to use longer lines. What I did then was to use what we call the “dodecassílabo” – a twelve-syllable kind of verse that might sound like an anapestic hexameter in English and is formally similar to the French alexandrin. Whereas the Portuguese decasyllable was the staple meter of epic poetry, the twelve-syllable verse is associated with with lyricism. It then occurred me that beginning Shakespeare’s greatest love story with a sonnet written in alexandrin would naturally please the Brazilian ear (and eyes).

The second reason to use two kinds of verse was that I wanted to create different tempos within the play: on one hand, the quick rhythm of intrigue and duel and gossip and masquerades and blood feuds unfolding on the streets; on the other hand, the deep rhythm of intimate speculation and mystical amazement and ecstasy and ominous anticipation. I wanted to impress the feeling that Time in fair Verona flowed too quick and too slow. That things happened in a way that couldn’t be correctly measured by the human mind, but only under the perspective of Eternity or the inscrutable Fate. That Time now washed over the characters as the lightning that is over before you can say “it lights”, and now slows down and resembles more a deep lake than a rapid river. That effect I created by the succession of meters. The play begins with quick-witted decasyllables, but slows down when the two lovers meet for the first time, and the more ponderous rhythm of the twelve-syllable verse gives a taste of eternity within the dizzying brevity of human drama.

As I had done with Chaucer, I also used Brazilian idioms and proverbs to convey Shakespeare’s wit and language play, but in a way that would not seem too obvious or heavy-handed. I wanted audiences to experience Shakespeare’s words and thought games as something urgent, touching, cheerful, disturbing and so on.

We all remember the famous lines where Romeo and Juliet talk about larks and nightingales. The usual translation for “lark” in Portuguese would be “cotovia”: it means


the European lark, exactly the bird mentioned by Juliet. There is, however, a much prettier word in Portuguese to designate a similar bird: “calhandra”. In Brazil, “calhandra” is also used to designate some local species of thrush, one of the most famous and widespread of all Brazilian birds. That happens a lot in Portuguese: an old Portuguese word, used to mean one thing in Europe, is used to refer to a different thing in the Americas. So, the word “calhandra” means something similar to the lark, but also other birds that exist only in Brazil: it is a kind of semantical bridge, and also a multitudinous bird, one bird that is many birds, simultaneously a very Brazilian bird and an exclusively European one, and therefore a point of confluence of the strange and the familiar. And, of course, the word “calhandra” is widely used on the borderlands where I was born. Using it to replace the traditional “cotovia” was one of many ways in which I left a kind of personal mark on Shakespeare’s immortal play.

A new translation is a way to keep a great text alive, but it can also become a means to echo other voices, that were not present in the original work. All the local cultures I just mentioned are more or less threatened. Some, like the Portuguese-speaking gaúcho culture of Southern Brazil, are already in the process of disappearing. The angel of History flies away with a silent, sidelong glance. In my work, I tried to retain at least a small glimpse of those fading worlds.

Many thanks to all of you.

[1]” Dark-haired woman, let me tell you,/ I do want to change my ways. / I’m done playing around/ with girls of evil drinking, or wild carousing girls”. The song is “Louco por Chamamé”, by Mauro Ferreira and Luiz Bastos.

[2]“A good cowboy from the Northeast/ will always die penniless,/ and his name will be forgotten/ in the deep backlands”.

The waters of translation


Today’s Penn Humanities Forum seminar discussion centered on Kimberley Thomas’ study of failed water management efforts in Bangladesh.  Her “hydro-social” framework reminds us of the difficulties of determining boundaries and “ownership” of fluid cultural artifacts. Because of this fluidity, we face difficulties when we approach a source text thinking we already know what it means.  The source might make no effort to be either complex or coy, yet because the translator approaches it with partial or tainted knowledge, the translation ends up misleading and no one understands (at least initially) that the communication misfired. When we embrace the fluid nature of the source text, then identifying these misfires in a translation allows us then to return to the source text to see how we might have also been victims of partial or tainted knowledge.