A century ago, the United States declared war against Germany and its allies. The same week, Chaucer was making his first (and perhaps) only appearance on the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera in Reginald deKoven and Percy MacKaye’s English-language opera, The Canterbury Pilgrims. To mark this double centennial, we’re reproducing Candace’s account in her American Chaucers (2007) of the fifth performance when the evening was interrupted by news that the United States would be entering the Great War in Europe.
During the spring of 1917, New York’s Metropolitan Opera lavishly mounted the premiere performances of Reginald deKoven and Percy MacKaye’s The Canterbury Pilgrims. One of the first full-length American grand operas to appear on the Metropolitan’s stage, the opera received primarily lukewarm reviews: it seemed neither very grand nor very American. Sung in English by a largely German cast, the opera was frequently critiqued for being no more intelligible to the audience than an opera in German or Italian. The only English words universally recognized by the audience were in Act Two, when the German-accented “Vife of Bat” cried “Shud upp-phh!” On the evening of the fifth performance, however, the audience was probably less concerned than before about discerning the fine points of the pilgrims’ journey to Canterbury, preoccupied instead with the news due from the White House at any minute.
For months, the captains of American commerce and industry, many of whom were at the Metropolitan on that evening of April 2, were eager for President Wilson to declare the nation at war against Germany and its allies. At the end of the third act, word arrived that President Wilson had advised Congress to accept “the status of belligerent” that the behavior of the Imperial German Government had thrust upon the American people. As the New York Herald reported, the news spread as “the blackface typed extras” were passed from the lobby “to the orchestra seats and then to the boxes.” Within five minutes, patrons had abandoned all decorum and newspapers were spread out over the box railings. The American audience was jubilant at the news. Whereas the librettist had once hoped the Chaucerian opera would “[restore] old merry England to the imaginations of men” and turn their minds to the woos of England under assault, this night the war in Europe captured American imaginations and turned their minds away from The Canterbury Pilgrims. When it came time to begin the fourth and final act, Maestro Bodanzky soberly entered the orchestra pit and conducted the musicians in the national anthem, while the audience stood up and sang. James W. Gerard, the United States ambassador recalled from Germany, marshaled three cheers for President Wilson, and the house of 3,500 roared with approval for the President’s war message. After the cheering died down, Bodanzky led the orchestra in “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a second time before finally starting Act Four.
The final act began in front of Canterbury Cathedral’s impressive west entrance, with the Canterbury Girls chorus hawking their wares. Then entered the Wife of Bath (German alto Margrete Ober), dressed “gorgeously as a bride,” ready to claim husband number six, and gloating about her newly-won “pot of honey.” In the middle of a phrase, unable any longer to control her anxiety about the United State’s impending entry into hostilities against her native land, Mme. Ober fell back in a dead faint. “In that condition, she was lifted and dragged off with some difficulty, not to reappear, while the other stars made the best they could of the closing act without her.” Offstage, Robert Leonhardt, the German baritone singing the role of the Knight, also fainted but was revived in time to join the final chorus.
Despite the episode of the fainting Wife of Bath, ticket receipts for the Metropolitan’s seven productions of The Canterbury Pilgrims merited extending the opera company’s contract with deKoven for another season. But before the next season began, not only the fainting Germans but all German nationals were sent home, forcing the cancellation of The Canterbury Pilgrims’ second season and allowing its chances to join the Metropolitan’s repertory to slip away. The opera, however, had faced a Sisyphean task: it sought to bring a vernacular libretto and music to an audience that distinguished itself from the rabble precisely by dismissing the American vernacular in favor of European standards of verse and music. As much as the opera was undermined by the repatriated Germans, ultimately the opera was undermined by the production conditions, in particular the decision to use German soloists to sing the principle parts in English, a decision neither the composer nor the librettist could control.
. The opera had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on March 8, 1917.
. Irving Kolodin, The Metropolitan Opera, 1883–1966: A Candid History (New York: Knopf, 1966), 309–13.
. Scrapbook Clipping, New York Evening Journal, March 9, 1917, MacKaye Family Archives, “Percy MacKaye Papers,” Collection housed at Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, New Hampshire, ML 5.
. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 352–54. Though the war was a boon to commercial interests, the majority of Americans did not support entering the war (T. J. Jackson Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 3 [June 1985]: 586, fn 46).
. Scrapbook clipping, New York Herald, April 8, 1917, “Percy MacKaye Papers.”
. Correspondence, PM to RdK, July 19, 1915, “Percy MacKaye Papers”.
. Quaintance Eaton, The Miracle of the Met: An Informal History of the Metropolitan Opera, 1883–1967 (New York: Meredith Press, 1968), 194–95.
. Percy MacKaye, lyricist, and Reginald deKoven, composer, The Canterbury Pilgrims, An Opera in Four Acts (Cincinnati and New York: John Church Company, 1916), 54.
. Percy MacKaye, The Canterbury Pilgrims: An Opera (Libretto) (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 54; and, Scrapbook clipping, unknown source, April 3, 1917, “Percy MacKaye Papers”. Compare this with Metropolitan manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza’s version: “There was an immense stir in the house. Backstage, in the wings, Mme. Margarete Ober, who was a patriotic German, was so affected by the news that she fainted away, and we had to go through the last act without her” (Memories of the Opera [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941], 179–80). According to all sources, Mme. Ober did sing the season’s remaining two performances.
Already, the opera was associated with entering the war: the second performance had been attended by Ambassador James Gerard (had he nothing better to do?), and the New York City Times duly noted that he “listened with evident interest to a language which he and his official staff had been hissed for using when attending theatres in Berlin” (Scrapbook clipping, March 17, 1917, “Percy MacKaye Papers”).
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
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 understandably, 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.
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.
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 practicing 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:
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 Brazilian 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 Memorial 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.
” 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.
“A good cowboy from the Northeast/ will always die penniless,/ and his name will be forgotten/ in the deep backlands”.
I’m pleased to announce that my Canterbury Tales students and I will be hosting Francisco José Botelho, Brazil’s award-winning poet and translator in a conversation about his Contos da Cantuária. Botelho is in the United States as a guest of the Global Chaucers Project, CCSU English Department, SCSU English Department, and the George Washington University Digital Humanities Institute.
Date: Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Time: 4:30pm to 6:00pm
Place: Marcus White Living Room, CCSU
We welcome anyone interested in Brazilian culture, medieval literature, translation studies, or fascinating conversation.
At the 2017 Modern Language Conference, I was part of a “Campus Chaucer” round table sponsored by the Chaucer forum. Thinking in terms of how current political debates are echoed in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales or erupt in our classrooms, Lisa Cooper (University of Wisconsin, Madison) spoke on the value of labor, Liz Scala (University of Texas, Austin) spoke on expressing diverse opinions on a campus with guns, and Nicole Sidhu (East Carolina University) spoke on sexual assault and trigger warnings.
Below is the text of my talk on English-only politics. It includes links to my referenced sources as well as to the assignments I discuss.
During the Republican presidential primaries, the eventual nominee and president-elect announced, “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.” Based on that statement and the subsequent rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign, I anticipate that right-wing champions will add to their arsenal a familiar shibboleth, English-only policies. Used to support nativist causes in the United States, English-only statements are already a standard part of anti-immigrant stances. For instance, this past Wednesday evening, NPR’s story about efforts to resettle Syrian refuges in Toledo, Ohio, included this impromptu statement from John Johnstone, a Navy veteran:
“If you want to come here and turn the United States into Syria, I’m against that.
“If you want to come here and speak English, you want to assimilate, you want to have a pizza, you want to have a beer, you want to eat a chicken wing, I’m all for it.”
For Johnstone, Americanness is marked by a constellation of recognizable behaviors—what one eats, what one wears, what one drinks—and at the center, holding these behaviors together is what one speaks: English. In this line of thinking, speaking English marks a newcomer’s willingness to leave old habits behind and to adopt new ways, even ways antithetical to religious beliefs protected by the first amendment. Unless English is spoken, a newcomer has not made the necessary sacrifices to be an American. According to English-only logic, what separates those worthy of being in the United States from those who are not worthy is the willingness to speak English, a willingness from which the ability to speak English is assumed to flow naturally.
The state of Connecticut where I teach, has demonstrated little previous support for English-only policies. From what I can tell, a lone proponent’s legislative efforts resulted in only one hearing at the Connecticut Assembly, and that was back in the 1990s. While the much of the country turned red in the past two decades, Connecticut has largely stuck to its progressive values. Conservative voices have been largely muted, and right-wing values have been kept under wraps. With the prospect of a new administration in Washington and a more closely divided state legislature, however, I’m seeing a shift in tone. Conservative voices have grown bolder, and more brazen right-wing bumper stickers (my primary index for comparative levels of discontent among the general populace driving up and down I91) have appeared on the backsides of vehicles in the seven weeks since the election. Now that I’m seeing increased numbers of “Connecticut Citizens Defense League” decals in rear windows—a more aggressive statement than it might initially appear when you remember the 2012 mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut—and the more overtly menacing “Come and Take It!” bumper stickers on the back of pickups, I wonder if I’ll start to see more “If you live in America SPEAK ENGLISH” on my daily commute.
Although English-only policies in Connecticut might have seemed far-fetched the last time I taught Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, those policies and the politics informing them warrant my courses’ attention this spring. And if this is true in Connecticut, it’s probably true in your state, too.
What is a Chaucerian to do?
First, no matter where we teach, we need to be aware of the ways Chaucer and other medieval English authors can be co-opted by nativist politics, a point Sierra Lomuto makes in her December posting, “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies” for the “In the Middle” blog. Rooted in nineteenth-century nationalism and nationalist medievalism, white nationalism easily slides into unfounded notions of a pure English tongue worthy of its eventual global domination. According to this narrative, American English is the undefiled descendant of a language that sprang forth from the British Isles before dominating the world with its linguistic flexibility and semantic dexterity, absorbing bits of other languages without being tainted by the process. As we saw in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Chaucer and his work can be brought into the narrative when he is identified as the well-spring of a pure English language and the “father” of English letters.
Of course, with few exceptions, students enter our classes on The Canterbury Tales with minimal knowledge of Chaucer or the history of English. And most likely they are not burdened with false information co-opted by nativist politics about the ways medieval languages and literature embody a pure Anglo-Saxon ethos. Nevertheless, most have an opinion about English-only policies, an opinion often informed by their own relation to other languages. Although many of my students are within a generation or two of their families’ having immigrated to the United States, it has never occurred to me to discuss English-only policies or their opinions on the subject. In these changed circumstances, however, I plan to initiate a discussion early in the term and to approach the topic of English-only politics in two ways, each using the lens of translation.
The first approach works against the notion that there is or ever has been a stable English linguistic tradition, untouched by other languages, by emphasizing Chaucer as a translator whose works appropriate and embed multiple literary and linguistic practices. Using etymological exercises, we will also explore the essential plurilinguistic nature of English and disabuse ourselves of any sense of linguistic purity and homogeneity even in earlier, pre-global forms of English. Inspired by an assignment shared by Melissa Ridley-Elmes, I also plan to ask students to track particular French terms—such as curteisie, sovereynetee, vileynye, subtil, aventure, gentillesse, entente, and sondry—for their shifting semantic properties not only across the Tales but also through the centuries from medieval French to present-day English. These two exercises will help students grasp the benefits other languages have brought to English as well as the ways English speakers reshape those stolen terms.
My second approach takes an entirely different tack. Developed in collaboration with other faculty teaching Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales at universities with multilingual students, this approach centers on an exercise highlighting the bi-lingual / bi-literate expertise of students by using non-Anglophone translations of the Tales. Rather than seeing these translations as cribs for unsteady readers of Middle English, the exercise highlights the ways translations can reveal less apparent aspects of the Middle English text. Moreover, bringing translations into my classroom allows students to explore (for example) the difference between a Christian pilgrimage and a Muslim haj in the Arabic text, the discomfort with sexuality in the Korean translation, the celebration of sexuality in the Brazilian translation, and the avoidance of religion in the Chinese translations.
Even monolingual students are fascinated by the ways the translations help them see the Middle English text from a new perspective. This fascination is especially pertinent when translated words embody ideas that seem timeless and unchanging to the students. Although they may have never taken a pilgrimage, they assume all pilgrimages have basically the same purposes and make similar demands. When a Turkish translation embeds sexual attitudes similar to the students’ own, they are more open to hearing what it says about Muslim dietary practices. Most significantly, the translations help students see where the tale’s perspectives do not align their own: that the anti-Semitism in ThePrioress’s Tale might be deeply engrained, that the misogyny in The Merchant’s Tale might not be an eccentricity, or that the piety in The Second Nun’s Tale might not be a medieval aberration.
Bringing The Canterbury Tales into contact with other languages—either through the etymology exercises or the non-Anglophone translations—provides students with the necessary knowledge to question the premises underlying English-only politics. Although I’ll probably reveal my thoughts on those ill-begotten policies, the class’s careful attention to Chaucer’s language and its engagement with languages past and present, I suspect, will do the work for me.
In her 8 November presentation “Crypto-Monolingualism: Machine Translation and the Poetics of Automation,” Avery Slater challenges us to consider the ways machine translation has relied on efforts to locate, nay create, a singular language that eradicates impediments to communication caused by linguistic diversity. In pursuit of this goal, proponents of machine translation ignore the fact that linguistic messiness starts with individual languages. Although that messiness complicates translation, it is not caused by translation.
In its earliest iterations, machine translation sought a way to account for, reign in, and even take advantage of the paradoxes of informational entropy. On the one hand, an unambiguous event can be easily conveyed because it contains a limited amount of information. On the other hand, an ambiguous event, while more difficult to convey because it contains more information, can also be a compact and efficient vehicle for conveying that load of information, a realization which poets have long relied.
In order to circumvent and circumscribe informational entropy, machine translation initially sought a mono-language identified as a “new Tower of Anti-Babel,” whose desideratum seems closer to an Ante-Babel, that mythical period before linguistic plurality. Reaching this desired mono-language meant more than a simple unified linguistic experience; it also promised to eliminate equivocation and ambiguity. This natural generative language (NLG) becomes the code into which all languages can be re-encrypted. Moreover, each utterance in this language would point to a single, predictive meaning.
By integrating statistical models into their algorithms, more recent forms of machine translation would seem to have abandoned the formulaic substitutions based on dictionary definitions and syntactic rule books. And yet, as I discovered when I typed in, word-by-word, Catullus’s Poem 101, I initially received a predictably awkward rendition of the poem’s lines. Halfway through, however, those lines disappeared and were replaced by a crafted translation of the lines. I haven’t yet found their source—a 100% match did not appear when I googled the translated lines—but they are not the same as the one provided by the initial algorithm. Instead, they reach into the internet, filching how others (most likely humans) have translated those lines. What I was given felt closer to the results that would have been provided by the person hidden inside Benjamin’s deceptive chess-playing machine.
The quest for reliable machine translation seems partially propelled by fear of the fallible, “wrongly” biased translator. As Slater discusses, however, even the most mechanized translation devises embed the biases of their designers. And the latest translation software that relies on human translators cannot escape the preferences of certain powerful groups of translators.
Of course, these “failures” are not really failures, for all they do highlight what makes language such a fascinating and endless source of study: its essential aleatory nature that allows it to convey information both compactly and expansively, efficiently and gloriously inefficiently.
For these reasons, I’m enthralled by the parlour game of translation tag that retranslates translations through google translator. Here, I begin with a Modern English translation of the first four lines and then retranslate it into Afrikaans, Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, and Armenian. For Afrikaans, I provide only the translator’s rendition into Afrikaans and then back translated into ModEnglish. For the other four, I first provide the translation from ModEnglish into the receiving language and then the back translation into (just as I did with Afrikaans). Beneath that is the translation from the language just above it and its back translation into ModEnglish. Thus, the third entry under Albanian is the translation from Afrikaans (rather than from ModEnglish), and the fourth entry is the back translation into ModEnglish.
When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout through every vein with liquid of such power.
Wanneer sagte reën April se die droogte van Maart reg deurboor om die wortel en gebaai elke spruit deur elke aar met vloeibare van so ‘n mag.
When pierced soft rain, April’s drought from March right around the root and bathed every stream through each ear with liquid of such power.
Kur shirat e butë të prillit kanë shpuar thatësirë e marsit të drejte në rrënjë, dhe bathed çdo dal nëpër çdo mënyrë me të lëngshme e fuqi të tillë.
When soft April rains have drilled the March drought right at the root, and bathed every pack in any way with such force liquid.
Kur shpuar shi të butë, thatësira prillit nga mars djathtë rreth rrënjës dhe i larë çdo rrjedhë nëpërmjet çdo vesh me lëng e fuqi të tillë.
When perforated soft rain, drought from March to April, right around the roots and wash each flow through each ear with such force juice.
Right around the roots, from March to April, soft rain, drought surgery to power wash with juice in each ear through each flow.
عندما الأمطار لطيف في ابريل نيسان قد اخترقت الجفاف من حق مارس إلى الجذر، واستحم كل برعم من خلال كل عرق مع السائل من هذه السلطة
When the rain really nice in April, has penetrated the drought of March to the right of the root, and bathed each bud through every race with the liquid from this authority
الحق حول جذور، في الفترة من مارس إلى أبريل المطر الناعمة، جراحة الجفاف لغسل السلطة مع عصير في كل أذن من خلال كل التدفق.
Right around the roots, in the period from March to April of soft rain, drought surgery to wash power with juice in each ear through the whole flow.
Երբ ապրիլյան Նուրբ անձրեւները պիրսինգով երաշտի մարտի իրավունքի արմատի, եւ bathed յուրաքանչյուրը բողբոջել միջոցով ամեն երակային հեղուկ նման իշխանության.
When drought root March April Gentle rains pierced right through every vein and bathed each sprout like fluid power.
Ճիշտ է շուրջ արմատներին, ի մարտից մինչեւ ապրիլ փափուկ անձրեւի, երաշտը վիրահատություն է լվանում իշխանությունը հյութի յուրաքանչյուր ականջին ամբողջ հոսքը:
Right around the roots, from March to April in the soft rain, drought surgery to power wash the entire flow of juice in each ear.
I’m not certain why Amharic, the ancient Ethiopian language, would be the one to introduce such modern notions as surgery and power washing, but am certain that the insights gained through such a game are limited. Obtaining the insights revealed by translation requires a deeper knowledge of language than currently available via machine translation.