“His Latin stile hath Englisht thee”: Kynaston’s 1635 Troilus and Criseyde


This item is reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California

Today’s guest posting moves Global Chaucers in new directions, for Megan and David’s work deals with neither The Canterbury Tales nor post-1945 translations, two parameters defining Global Chaucers thus far.  Instead, they examine Sir Francis Kynaston’s 17th-century Latin translation of Troilus and Criseyde.

Megan Cook is an assistant professor in English at Colby College, where she teaches medieval literature, with an emphasis on Chaucer and other late medieval poets, and researches and writes about the fate of Middle English texts and books in the early modern period. Her current book project examines the scholarly reception of Chaucer’s works in sixteenth-century England, with special interest in the role of antiquarians in the production of early printed editions.  

David Hadbawnik studies poetic diction in English from the medieval through early modern period. He co-edits eth press and is also co-editing a special issue of postmedieval on cross-currents in contemporary and medieval poetry. He has published an article on Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar, and his translation of books 1-6 of the Aeneid is forthcoming from Shearsman Books in 2015.

We are delighted they accepted our invitation to bring together their collective knowledge of Kynaston and his understudied translation.  Their collaboration sheds new light on what it means (and does not mean) to translate Chaucer into Latin, the global language nonpareil.

THE EARLIEST EFFORTS to translate Chaucer out of Middle English and into a language accessible to non-Anglophone audiences are not in any vernacular language but, rather, in Latin. Latin praise of Chaucer is a minor but persistent strain in his reception: In the 1480s, William Caxton commissioned the Italian poet Stephanus Surigonis to compose a Latin epitaph for Chaucer, which he printed in his 1473 edition of the Boece, and supposedly had posted near the poet’s burial place in Westminster Abbey. In the 1530s, the antiquary John Leland provided readers of his de Viris Illustribus with a list of Chaucer’s titles translated into Latin—the Fabulae Cantianae, Amores Troili et Chrysidis, and the Chorus avium, among others. Leland was aware of the ways in which Chaucer’s preference for the vernacular constrained the reputation of his works in an international community of learning. Elsewhere in his account of Chaucer’s life and works, he writes that “I wish… at least that our language were known to the Latin poets; then they would easily—I say easily—accede to my opinion [of Chaucer’s poetry]/ But since what I want is scarcely possible, I wish at least that having been prevailed upon they would have some faith in me as a lover of Latin literature in this matter.”

While Caxton and Leland are eager to confer on Chaucer the cultural status associated with Latin literature, they are content to let his language stand unaltered (or lightly modernized). By the seventeenth century, however, changes within the English language had made Chaucer’s Middle English less accessible, and some admirers of Chaucer worried that readers would be unable to comprehend his works, much less appreciate their artistry. In 1598, Thomas Speght oversaw the production of the first edition of Chaucer’s Works to contain a glossary, and in the 1630s Jonathan Sidnam produced, in manuscript, a modernized version of the first three books of Troilus and Criseyde.

Enter Sir Francis Kynaston (or Kinaston) (1587-1642) and his Latin translation of Troilus and Criseyde.

It is not surprising that as Kynaston set out to Latinize Chaucer he would turn to Troilus and Criseyde, a work set in pagan antiquity and already rife with classical allusion. Although Kynaston produced manuscript copies of the poem throughout his life (distributed as gifts to friends and patrons), his translation is best known via the printed edition of the first two books, which were published in 1635 as Amorum Troili et Creseidae libri duo (STC 5097), with copious prefatory materials in both Latin and English.

However bizarre it might seem to us that the effort to “preserve” and “make accessible” Chaucer’s verse led seventeenth-century writers to translate that verse into Latin, the front-matter of Kynaston’s 1635 Latin Troilus and Criseyde unfolds the logic behind the effort in a way that makes it seem natural, even inevitable. Latinized Chaucer is in some ways the logical conclusion of efforts to establish him as a properly “classical” poet; situating Chaucer in the company of Virgil, Ovid, and Homer was a project that arguably began with the former’s mentioning of those classical authors in Troilus and Criseyde (the famous “Go, litel bok” stanza – V.1786-92), and continued via the encomia of Hoccleve, Lydgate, Hawes, and numerous others through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The opening epistle of William Thynne’s 1532 print edition of Chaucer – the distant ancestor of modern collections such as the Riverside Chaucer – provides a compact summary of the cultural work the poet was supposed to have done for the English language. After the “confusion of tongues” that was punishment for, presumably, the Tower of Babel, written language slowly developed, and poets came along to “adorne the rudeness and barbarity of speech.” Latin and Greek were thus “perfected,” with other Romance languages following eventually thanks to their similarity to Latin. English had a tougher go of it, but against all odds Chaucer was able to perfect the tongue not unlike Demosthenes, Homer, or Cicero.

But there was a problem. English continued to change at an alarming rate. Indeed, Chaucer himself had foreseen this issue, also in that famous sequence from Troilus and Criseyde (“And for ther is so gret diversite / In Englissh and in writying of oure tonge… [V.1793-94]). How could Chaucer’s English be perfect if the language also continued to change, to the extent that readers of later ages had increasing difficulty with it? In part, the answer was a characterization of English as a fallen tongue post-Chaucer, expressing an anxiety about linguistic corruption (paradoxically via Latin, French, etc.) and lamenting the loss of an imaginary origin in the ever-receding past. Such anxiety was the backdrop to the so-called “inkhorn” controversy and disputes about poetic diction engaged in by Hawes, Puttenham, Sidney, and others through the late medieval to early modern period. There must, some thought, be a kind of English that gets us back to the Garden found by Chaucer and almost immediately lost due to the carelessness of his descendants – if only we could agree on what kind it is, which linguistic influences to exclude, which to embrace.

The other answer was to leap straight to one of the classical, perfected tongues, in order to avoid the troubling issue of post-lapsarian English altogether. In this light, the logic behind the Latinized Chaucer is still curious, though ultimately sound. Indeed, the Latin Troilus and Criseyde takes its place among a broader discourse of Latin poetry (original and translation) during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (see, e.g., J.W. Binns, Intellectual Culture in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, 1990, and the Brill Encyclopedia of Neo-Latin, eds. Philip Ford, Jan Bloemendal, and Charles Fantazzi, 2014). In that context, translating Chaucer into a dead language is not a bizarre feat akin to the attempt at reproducing Don Quixote undertaken by Borges’ Pierre Menard, but a project of “restaurationem & redintegrationem,” of bringing “vetusta a novis, prisca ab hodiernis” – of, in other words, “restoring” a perfect poem to a perfect tongue.

Thus one of the dedicatory poems in English scolds modern poets for their inability to parse old English and hails Kynaston’s effort

                                              to Translate
A booke, not tractable to every hand,
And such as few presum’d to understand:
Those upstart verse-wrights, that first steale his wit,
And then pronounce him Dull: or those that sit
In judgement of the Language they nere view’d,
And because they are lazie, Chaucer’s Rude…

 Another perfectly captures the guilt-complex of English speakers at the “fallen” state of their own tongue, and with hyperbole worthy of a modern blurb pronounces Kynaston’s translation an instant classic:

Here is no fault, but ours: through us
True Poetry growes barbarous:
While aged Language must be thought
(Because ’twas good long since) now naught.
Thus time can silence Chaucers tongue,
But not his witte, which now among
The Latines hath a lowder sound;
And what we lost, the World hath found.
Thus the Translation will become
Th’ Originall, while that growes dumbe:
And this will crowne these labours: None
Sees Chaucer but in Kynaston.

Another dedicatory poem reinforces the imaginary displacement of the original by the translation, expressing the (ironic) reality that it is easier to read Chaucer in the new-old language than the old-new one:

’Tis to your Happy cares wee owe, that wee
Read Chaucer now without a Dictionary;
Whose faithfull Quill such constant light affords,
That we now read his thoughts, who read his words,
And though we know’t done in our age by you,
May doubt which is the Coppy of the two.

Perhaps most strangely, one dedication voices the desire to read all of Chaucer in Latin, as if the entire oeuvre of the poet could only be fully appreciated in that tongue:

Thanks Noble Kynaston, to whose Learn’d Arte
We owe a limbe of Chaucer, th’other part
Expects thy happy hand, Me thinks I see
It pant, and heave for a recovery:
First let the Trojan Boy arise, and then
True Trojans all, they are his Countrymen.
The Sumner, Franklin, oh that I might heare
The Manciple, and early Chaunticleare
Crowe latin, next might see the Reve, and Logge,
The Miller and learne Latine for a Cogge,
The Merchant, and Sir Thopas height, the wife
Of Bathe, in vulgar Latine scold for life.

Finally, Kynaston is praised for (paradoxically) making Chaucer more English by taking him out of English:

Chaucer, thou wert not dead; nor can we feare
Thy death, that hast out liv’d three hundred yeare.
Thou wert but out of fashion; then admit
This courtly habit, which may best befit
Thee and the times. Thou hast a friend, that while
He studies to translate, his Latine stile
Hath Englisht thee, and cunningly in one
Fram’d both a comment and Translation.

In the 1635 printed edition, the Latin and Middle English text are presented alongside one another, with Chaucer’s Middle English coming from Speght’s 1602 edition. The mis-en-page advances an implicit claim that Chaucer’s English is equal to Kynaston’s neo-Latin; by demonstrating that Troilus can be successfully translated from Middle English into Latin, Kynaston offers seventeenth-century readers proof of the late medieval writer’s ability to ascend the heights of neo-classical propriety (Troilus and Criseyde’s own status as a translation from Italian hovers somewhere in the background). The two versions of the poem also gloss each other: the Latin seems likely to serve as a crib for the Middle English, but the Middle English, too, could offer some readers a point of entry into some complex Latin phrasing. In the material presented here (first two books), Kynaston’s translation is stanza-by-stanza, suggesting that his Latin provides a full equivalent to the Middle English verse. Bolstered by claims in the prefatory material for the robust representativeness of his translation, and its efficacy in restoring Chaucer from neglect and oblivion, Kynaston’s Latin threatens to eclipse Chaucer’s own verse, superseded both by the Latin translation and by the English poets that built upon his innovations.

Kynaston’s translation varies in its fidelity to Chaucer’s English verses. His translation of the famous opening stanza (Book 1, stanza 1)  is particularly rigorous:

Dolorem Troili duplicem narrare,     The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
Qui Priami regis Troiae fuit                 That was the kyng Priamus sone
     gnatus,                                                    of Troye,
Ut primum illi contigit amare,            In lovynge, how his aventures fellen
Ut miser, felix, et infortunatus            Fro wo to wele, and after out of joie,
Erat, decessum ante sum conatus.     My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Tisiphone, fer opem recenscere          Thesiphone, thow help me for t’endite
Hos versus, qui, dum scribo, visi        Thise woful vers, that wepen as I
  flere.                                                            write.

As Dana Sutton notes in his introduction to the Latin text of the poem, Kynaston uses accentual meter here, rather than the more classical quantitative meter, in a pattern that most closely resembles iambic pentameter with a feminine ending. As a result, Kynaston is able to capture something of the rhythm of Chaucer’s rhyme royals verses. In this stanza, Kynaston is also able to retain some syntactic parallels with Chaucer, beginning with the “dolorem Troili duplicem,” although the stanza as a whole is somewhat less confident than the English original. While the English narrator has a clear “purpos” “to tellen,” the Latin narrator can only attempt to tell (“narare…sum conatus”). Similarly, while in the English, “thise woful vers” do, in fact, “wepen as I write,” in the Latin, they only seem to weep (“visi flere”).

Kynaston takes more liberties with a famous stanza in Book II:

Loquendi forma, scio, quod                    I know that in forme of speech is 
    mutata                                                        chaunge
Sit intra seculum; & verbamire            Within a thousand yere, and words tho
Tunc temporis in precio, &                    That hadden prise, now wonder nice
    laudata,                                                       and  strange
Nunc vel in desuetudinem                      Thinketh hem, and yet they spake
    abire:                                                            hem so, 
Amabant etiam tunc (oportet               And spedde as well in love, as men
     scire)                                                          now do.
Diversis item saecis conciliare             Eke for to winnen love, in sondry ages,
Amorem; Artes variae sunt & rara.    In sondry londs, sondry ben viages.

Immediately clear even from a visual standpoint is Kynaston’s altering of the stanza’s rhythm. While he may have arranged his syntax, as noted above, to maintain an approximation of Chaucer’s iambic line, the effect of the punctuation in line one creates a full stop to either side of “scio” (“I know”), squarely at odds with the smooth utterance of Chaucer’s narrator. Line three begins by strongly following Chaucer’s sense, with “precio” for “prise,” but what are we to make of “laudata” (“praiseworthy”) which merely seems to echo “precio,” rather than veer into Chaucer’s succinct expression that people now think old words “nice and strange”? It seems ironic that in this particular stanza Kynaston seems to have lost, or set aside, the negative connotations of these two words. “Nice” of course was often used by Chaucer to mean “foolish” or “silly,” while “strange” figures as a keyword in the poem as a whole, one that registers the movement of Criseyde through the course of the poem (see, e.g., Criseyde’s final letter to Troilus from the Greek camp, excusing herself for leaving Troy, wherein the same “strange”/“change” rhyme is employed: “this lettre he thoughte al straunge … / Hym thoughte it lik a kalendes of chaunge” [5.1632, 34]). Likewise, Kynaston cannot maintain Chaucer’s repetitive rhythm “sondry…”) in the closing couplet, and resorts to “rara” to end line seven, though Chaucer merely notes that men used “different routes” (“viages”) in different times and places. Caught in a classic translational crux, Kynaston falls victim to hunting for rhyme words that fit rather than following his text’s sense. In both lines three and seven (“laudata” and “rara”), Kynaston essentially chooses to add a related descriptor rather than maintain Chaucer’s more complex dance with meaning.

A manuscript of Kynaston’s full translation, dated 1639 and now held at the Bodleian Library (MS Add. C 287), tells a slightly different story than the printed text. This version includes all five books of Troilus and Criseyde as well as the Testament of Cressid, written by Robert Henryson but published as Chaucer’s in the folio editions (Kynaston recognizes it as Henryson’s work). Unlike the printed edition, which presents the Latin and Middle English unadorned by any interpretive commentary, the manuscript includes frequent intercalations in English as well as “annotationes” in Latin at the end of each book, having to do with the particulars of the translation.

Kynaston’s opening comment, after the first stanza, lays out the problems that prompted his translation: “diverse words in this our most excellent Authors worke do seeme obsolete, and therefore by many are held absurd, as namely tellen & fellen, and such like under favoure of there better judgements such words ought rather to be esteemed as elegances.” In this, Kynaston echoes the comments made by Thynne in his preface to Chaucer’s Works, and EK’s commentary in Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar. Like these earlier writers, Kynaston argues that a better understanding of Chaucer’s words will enable a more robust appreciation of his poetry. The implication here does not seem to be that Chaucer’s writings have become wholly unintelligible, but rather that grammatical and orthographic changes have obscured his “elegances”. While Speght and EK focus on Chaucer’s lexicon, Kynaston at least theoretically privileges grammar in his commentary, and recognizes the vestiges of inflection and gender in Middle English. He continues, “it appears by a moast antient Grammer written in the Saxon tounge & character, which I once saw in the handes of my most learned and celebrated frend Mr. Ben: Johnson, & which (out of doubt) Lilly our Grammarian made his Accedence the English tong in Chaucers time, being in substance Saxton, had in nounes distinctions of cases & numbers, & in Verbes of numbers & Tenses.”

Whatever Kynaston’s intentions may have been in setting out to write his commentary, this strain of analysis pops up only intermittently in the first book, and even less so in those that follow. Instead, Kynaston uses the story of Troilus and Criseyde as an occasion to recount a wide variety of gossipy anecdotes, bits of folklore, and somewhat ribald jokes. When he ventures beyond straightforward identification of characters and place names, his notes on the English text digress as often as they illuminate, and many have only a tangential relation to the material they accompany. They bring us away from a serious appraisal of Chaucer as a highbrow writer, and toward Chaucer’s later-seventeenth and eighteenth-century reputation as a “merry” writer, whose works were more likely to inspire popular pastiche and comedic reinterpretations than highbrow re-workings. At the same time, however, amidst the scurrilous jokes and entendre, there is also a serious interest in both Chaucer’s lexicon and grammar that never disappears entirely, and Kynaston remains interested in the connections between Middle English and Anglo-Saxon, as well as Scots.

Kynaston’s commentary is of interest not only because it shows the ongoing evolution of what might be called a historical reading of Chaucer’s text, but because as a translator he himself is involved in a poetic assessment of the text. Thus, for example, Kynaston notes that “Tesiphone being an infernall power, & fained to be the worker of all Sorrowfull perturbations in mens minde[s] (what excellent discription may be found in the first booke of Statius Pampinius)…Chaucer hath not done amiss in going herein out of ye com[m]on path & inuoking the fury as a fitt Muse to his matter.” As with the project as a whole, the implication of comments like these seems to be the more that Chaucer can be shown to conform to the models of poetry that will be familiar to his latter-day readers (whether in terms of scansion, grammar, or decorum), the more his work will receive its due admiration.

In The Renaissance Chaucer, Alice S. Miskimin writes

Insofar as Chaucer used the language of his own day for poetry, he could only be awkwardly imitated by those born later, and the tone and meanings of his language blurred in a single generation. Insofar as he used elevated, Latinate, and continental poetic diction, his meaning and tone remained ‘polished’ and clear, and he could be copied with relative ease.

Following this “aureate” thread through the subsequent ages of poetic responses to Chaucer, critical estimations of his contributions to English, and textual editing and presentation of his works helps explain the persistent urge to “repackage” Chaucer in the linguistic image of his descendants. Thus certain poems appeared in manuscript and eventually print anthologies, according to not only religious or moralistic tastes, but also linguistic preferences. Needless to say, Chaucer’s poems were also often altered by scribes and editors for similar reasons; and poets like Lydgate rose to prominence by association, enhancing Chaucer’s legacy even as their reputations were burnished. And as noted above, it is perhaps a huge but ultimately logical step from “Latinate” to actual Latin in “preserving” Chaucer for all time. But does Kynaston’s Latin Troilus constitute a truly “global” Chaucer?

While the Latin theoretically could have made Troilus and Criseyde newly accessible to non-Anglophone readers, Kynaston never sought to publish his work abroad: the printed edition was published in Oxford (where, indeed, it might have caught the eye of some foreign academics) and the manuscript copies were all destined for readers to whom he had some personal connection. Amorum Troili et Cresidae might best be understood as a global Chaucer for a local audience. By translating the poem into Latin, Kynaston seeks to make it accessible to readers who are distanced from Chaucer’s original audience not by place or language, but by time. By leveraging the cultural prestige of Latin, Kynaston—like Caxton and Leland a century earlier—makes a pointed claim for the continued significance of Chaucer’s vernacular poem. Paradoxically, or at least surprisingly, as Kynaston moves from changeable English to a purportedly fixed Latin, he engages with many of the same concerns about translation, language change, and poetic expression that underlie Chaucer’s original. Thus, Kynaston’s translation is less concerned than it might first appear with presenting Chaucer to what would have, in the seventeenth century, been an increasingly connected and global community of Latinate readers. Instead, by demonstrating that Troilus and Criseyde can be successfully rendered into Latin, Kynaston uses Latin’s cultural standing among his fellow seventeenth-century academics to assert that Chaucer—despite his archaic language– deserves a place in the “brave new world” of early modern books and readers.


Why Translations?

Vasari’s The Temptation of St. Jerome @ Chicago Art Institute

by Candace Barrington

In July, I spent a wonderful three weeks at an NEH Institute, The Centrality of Translation to the Humanities, at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. I joined twenty-four other scholars from across the disciplines and at every stage of the academic career; many of them are published translators.  Guided by a two UIUC faculty, Chris Higgins and Elizabeth Lowe–as well as by St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators–we explored the seemingly limitless ways translation informs our study of  so many fields, including literature, history, religion, and performance.  The reading list was relentless, and the discussions with fellow scholars always provocative.  I learned so much about translation and translators.

Obviously, translation is at the core of the Global Chaucers project. To begin with, our primary resources are the wondrous myriad of translations and appropriations from every continent.  Thus far, we’ve identified Global Chaucers translated into over 50 languages. In order for most Anglophone scholars to work with these translated texts, we will have to add another level of translation to our study by providing back-translations into present-day English.

On a practical level, these translations extend the life of Chaucer’s original by providing new readers, chronological longevity, and geographical expansion. Currently, there is little danger than Chaucer’s Middle English will fade away or die; his Middle English remains accessible to an educated readership, a body of readers which seems as robust as ever (if NCS membership reveals anything).  Nevertheless, anyone without that deep knowledge or the commitment to study needs a translation in the form of either a modernization or a regularization in present-day English.  With these translations, instructors in secondary- and college-classrooms can include Chaucer’s tales in a course syllabus without needing to set aside time to learn the language. (And though many decry such practices, I would maintain that faculty who teach Chaucer in the Middle English without including significant instruction and time devoted to practice reading the medieval language are doing worse harm: either the students have no idea what is happening in the course and can only parrot what the instructor tells them, or the students are resorting to a crib of some sort, the best of which the instructor has already deemed beneath the rigors of the course). Of course, much is given up, but the modernizations can provide a viable introduction to Chaucer’s texts.  Whether for student or casual reader, translations into present-day English extend Chaucer’s readership, though not without some controversial sacrifices.

The need for a translation in a non-Anglophone context is more readily apparent and less controversial.  Without these translations, Chaucer’s reach would be limited to a rather narrow swath of Anglophone readers.  Although English is becoming the lingua franca of the twenty-first century, it doesn’t mean that all those speakers will be looking to learn Middle English.  With these translations, a wider, global readership brings fresh eyes and new perspectives to Chaucer’s texts.

But why are these translations important to Chaucerians, those scholars devoted to studying the texts in their original Middle English?

Of course, translation enters our interpretation of Chaucer long before we encounter a translation into Czech or Mandarin.  For as experience and countless theorists remind us, there is no transparent or immediate utterance or communication; every utterance requires translation by the recipient. Even the original isn’t like itself—once in the hands of readers, it begins the unending process of shape-shifting, a process differing from translation as a matter of degree rather than kind.  It’s all translation, a process that Walter Benjamin calls “one of the most powerful and fruitful historical processes” (“The Task of the Translator” 256).*  And then when we read Chaucer in the twenty-first century, we have to translate him not only into a modern idiom (if only in our minds) but also across immense chronological, cultural, and (for many of us) geographical borders. In short, there is no way to read Chaucer in 2013 without translating.  Global Chaucers merely foreground the translation inherent in every reading practice.

For this reason, Global Chaucers have much to teach us.  When we identify and study these translations, we are engaged in more than collecting some shiny academic baubles.  At one level, we are understanding these texts through a very familiar medievalism paradigm recently examined by Tison Pugh and Angela Wiesl in Medievalism: Making the Past in the Present (reviewed here, here, and here). In this model we ask how various far-flung cultures have received Chaucer, how different cultural demands shaped his text for new purposes.  In many ways, the text translated out of the middle ages is studied less to gain a greater understanding of itself or its medieval precursor and more to gain a toehold on understanding the receiving culture. Such studies are a fascinating use of Global Chaucers.

Despite these interests, the NEH Institute’s theoretical readings and the translators in our cohort taught me that such models pre-limit what we allow ourselves to learn from the translated texts.  When we recognize translations as the final product of the translator’s extended close reading of a complex text, then we can also recognize that these translators and their translations have much to teach us about the medieval text.  For example, dislocations in the translation can help us locate interpretive cruxes that we might otherwise overlook.  Literal translations of words unfamiliar to the receiving language can remind us of the etymologies we might easily ignore.  Translations can expose ideas, idioms, word formations, and semantic constructions that have become invisible to us through overuse or underuse, a process both exacerbated by geographical and chronological distance.  The Danish translation of “masterly” in Ebbe’s Klitgård’s post is a good example of that phenomenon.  Other examples are Fang Zhong’s Chinese translation of Nicholas’ enchantment in The Miller’s Tale and Luk Bey’s comic book translation of John’s bedroom window into a garbage chute.  Caroline Bergvall’s Meddle English is premised on this linguistic phenomenon.  These examples are valuable because they demonstrate why Global Chaucers can be of interest to those not interested in medievalism. They nourish our reading of the original Middle English with ideas, associations, and images not previously available to us.

Translation provides something more, and it is a possibility that Benjamin suggests when he claims that “the life of the originals attains its latest, continually renewed, and most complete unfolding” in translation (Benjamin, “Task” 255). As faithful to the original as they might (or might not) attempt to be, a certain amount of inherent infidelity happens to serve a higher interest: “to release in his [sic] own language that pure language which is exiled among alien tongues, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work” (261).  The more I’ve learned about these translations and their translators, the more I’m convinced that they are interpreters who have much to teach us about reading Chaucer. Benjamin uses “lovingly” to describe their detailed work” (260). They are worth listening to and learning from. Having worked so closely with the text and thought through the implications of each word and line, translators clearly know Chaucer’s work as intimately as any reader possibly could.  Their insights need to be sought out and valued.

We can also learn much from what the receiving language explores, exposes, and expresses in the original’s gaps, such as forgotten etymologies and meanings excluded in the original but embraced in the receiving language. Sometimes, as we often see, these meanings are in conflict, but in this conflict a richer meaning is created for the reader. These translations can reveal what has been latent in the Middle English text and unavailable until it was translated into other languages, no matter whether those tongues were known to Chaucer and his contemporaries.  For that is the nature of language, to hide as well as to reveal. And each language has a different set of things that it reveals or hides.  The original and these translations supplement one another, supplying words, associations, and imagery not available in the others.

If the Chaucerian text celebrates polyvalency (which it clearly does), then surely translations deserve our careful study.

*Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: Volume 1, 1913-1926, trans. Suhrkamp Verlag, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997), pages 253-63.

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: http://www.universitypress.dk/shop/chaucer-in-denmark-3209p.html  

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.