Botelho, Chaucer’s Brazilian Translator, in Connecticut 8 & 9 February 2017


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.

Campus Chaucer: The Resurgence of English-only Politics

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 ccdl_logosince 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 come-and-take-itmenacing “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.  081114_englishonly

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 The Prioress’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.

The False Quest: Eradicating Informational Entropy

georgetownexperiment1954In 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.


ሚያዝያ የአምላክ የዋሆች ዝናብ ሥር ወደ መጋቢት መብት ድርቅ የወጉትም ያዩታል, እና ከመታጠብ ጊዜ እያንዳንዱ እንዲህ ያለ ኃይል ፈሳሽ ጋር ሁሉ የደም ሥር በኩል ያበቅላል.

April’s rain under mild drought pierced right into March, and bathed each such power to grow through every vein with fluid.

ቀኝ ሥሮች ዙሪያ, ሚያዝያ ከማርች እስከ ለስለስ ያለ ዝናብ, ድርቅ ቀዶ እንዲህ ኃይል ጭማቂ ጋር በእያንዳንዱ ጆሮ በኩል እያንዳንዱ ፍሰት ታጠብ.

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.


Chaucer’s Chinese Names

An assortment of Chaucerian materials in Chinese.

Earlier this year, we began a delightful correspondence with Lian Zhang, a graduate student of Dr. Minghan Xiao, professor of English and American literature in Hunan Normal University. Lian’s extensive research on Chaucer’s Chinese reception has opened up many exciting new avenues of interpretation, but for now Lian has agreed to share a tantalizing tidbit: the myriad choices (and dilemmas) facing a translator needing to render Chaucer’s name in Chinese.

We think you will enjoy this small yet fascinating window into the complexities of translating Chaucer’s Middle English text into Chinese.

Confucius says: “If terminology is not corrected, then what is said cannot be followed. If what is said cannot be followed, then work cannot be accomplished” (名不正,则言不顺;言不顺,则事不成). Chinese people attach great importance to their names. A Chinese name suggests both family inheritance and good wishes for the person. The surname is put first to show respect for ancestors, and the given name is after the surname and generally indicates family’s expectations. Take Bai Juyi (白居易) (772-846 AD), a great poet in the Tang Dynasty, for example. “Bai” is his surname, and “Juyi” means living an easy and comfortable life, a simple and sincere hope from his family. What is different from the western tradition is that Chinese rarely name their children after their ancestors or relatives. The given names of the ancestors would always be taboo words for the descendents. Du Fu (杜甫) (712-770 AD), the Poet Sage (诗圣) in the Tang Dynasty, for instance, wrote poetry for over thirty years and never used the word “xian” (闲), meaning free and casual, a very poetic word in Chinese, simply because it is his father’s given name. Du has also been reputed as never mentioning Chinese flowering crabapple (海棠), a plant often praised in classical Chinese poems, as it relates to his mother’s maiden name. In addition to a surname and a given name, Du also had a style name “zi mei” (字“子美”), and an assumed name “Shaoling Farmer” (号“少陵野老”). While a style name is usually given by the family when the person is young and generally indicates family’s good wishes, an assumed name is more often decided by the person himself.

With such a rich history of naming culture behind, Chinese scholars would take translations of Chaucer’s name seriously. The name “Chaucer” has been translated into many versions, either a Chinese full name (with both a Chinese surname and a given name) or just a given name or an assumed name with all good meanings. Chaucer was named as “shao sou” (邵叟), “que sou” (却叟), “chuo sai” (绰塞), “qiao sai” (乔塞), “sao sai” (骚塞), “chao sai” (巢塞), etc, and all of these translations just deal with his surname “Chaucer”. One version including his full name is very auspicious as “qiao sai ji fu lai” (乔塞·极福来), which sounds close to the full name “Geoffrey Chaucer” and means “supreme blessing for Chaucer”. Yet a mistake occurs here, as the given name and the surname are put in the opposite order in the translation. The most commonly used translation for his full name to this day is “jie fu li qiao sou” (杰弗里·乔叟). The above mentioned name “sao sai” (骚塞) is also interesting, as “sao” refers to poets or literary men in classical Chinese, and likely originates from Li Sao (离骚) by Qu Yuan (屈原) (340-278 BC), one of the greatest patriotic poets in ancient China. Thus this name not only has a similar pronunciation but also suggests Chaucer’s literary achievements in history.

In 1913, Sun Yuxiu first introduced Chaucer into China, and translated his name as “xiao su” (孝素), two Chinese words with very good meanings. “Xiao” means filial piety, which is regarded as the most important of all virtues in traditional Chinese culture. “Su” suggests simple, plainness, and quietness. The two Chinese words combined sounds like the surname “Chaucer” in pronunciation, but this combination is more like a Chinese given name, or a style name.

From 1916 to 1925, Lin Shu and Chen Jialin published translations of nine of Chaucer’s Canterbury tales. In the translation for the Wife of Bath’s tale, Chaucer’s name was introduced as “cao xi er” (曹西尔). “Cao” sounds like “Chau-” in Chinese, and is a typical Chinese surname. This surname dates back to the days of the legendary Huangdi Emperor in the third millennium BC, and even today millions of Chinese people still bear this surname. “Xi” means west, an emphasis on Chaucer’s origin, and “er” could be taken as a mood auxiliary word in classical Chinese. Thus Chaucer got a full Chinese name here, with a Chinese surname and a given name indicating the poet’s origin.

Chaucer’s name was more commonly recognized in China as “qiao sou” (乔叟). “Qiao”, a Chinese surname, sounds like “Chau-” in pronunciation, whileas “sou” sounds like “-cer” and means an old and wise man in Chinese, an image close to Chaucer’s portrait we have nowadays. This name is like an assumed name of the poet, as it suggests his profession or social status. It is through Fang Zhong’s influential translation of Chaucer’s works that this name has been made widely known in China. It is also the commonly used name by Taiwanese scholars.

Another Chinese name for Chaucer worth noting is “zhao sou” (赵叟), used by a couple of contemporary Chinese scholars. “Zhao”, or “Chiu” in Hong Kong, “Chao” or “Chau” in Taiwanese phonetics, sounds like “Chau-” in Chinese, and “sou” seconds what the word in “qiao sou” means. Moreover, “zhao” was the surname of the emperors of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) in China, thus the so-called surname of the state, and the most respectable surname for this period. Even today, “zhao” is among one of the most borne surnames in China. The Chinese emperors in ancient time would grant his loyal servants or brave soldiers the surname of the state, and the one who received this huge and rare honor would abandon his original surname. Chaucer, who also lived in the medieval world, would have found it a wonderful experience if he knew he was granted with the Song emperors’ surname.

Chaucer’s life stretched over sixty years, from the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD) to the beginning of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) in Chinese history. While the Yuan Dynasty was ruled by Mongolia Chinese and it is a little bit difficult to match their long Mongolian surname with Chaucer, I find the Ming emperors’ Han Chinese surname, “Zhu” (朱), or “Chu” in both Hong Kong and Taiwanese phonetics, a more suitable match, and we could only imagine how glad Chaucer would be as he is granted with an emperor’s surname of his living days.



Translating Basic Word Lists


In her lucid exploration of language data collection in the field once known as “lexio-statistic glottochronology,” Judy Kaplan’s “From Lexiostatistics to Lexomics: Basic Vocabulary and the Study of Language Prehistory” traces the persistent hold “Basic Word Lists.” Though the data behind those word lists have gone from being recorded and shared on note cards to being stored and processed on the cloud, they have continued to be presented as the scientific basis for big data theories regarding the prehistory of language.  As new data is brought into linguistic models, she suggests, it is made to fit the models’ theoretical conclusions rather than the new data requiring any adjustments to the model.

I was particularly interested in her discussion of the Basic Word Lists,* ranging from 15-215 items, comprising a basic vocabulary defined by its stability across time and cultures.  Identified as commensurate across all language systems, this stable lexicon includes terms like all, louse, seed, blood, claw, belly, bite, know, sun, yellow, night, new, and round. An essential (and somewhat dubious) premise behind the Basic Word List is the commensurability of these lexemes across languages (and across time).  With these word lists, mid-twentieth-century linguists created absolute chronologies of language development.  Most recently, archaeogeneticists and evolutionists have used this Basic Word List to push back the limits of language prehistory, albeit in less absolute terms.

One aspect of my study of Canterbury Tales translations also works with word lists. Unlike the linguists of Kaplan’s study, however, I’m interested in intense moments of incommensurability, those points when the receiving language exceeds the confines established by the source text’s language.  By and large, my terms have been cultural; for instance, I’ve examined the various ways translators express the idea of pilgrimage and salvation.  Additionally, some examples seem so natural that we are surprised when the translations betray their cultural situatedness.  In this category are terms associated with emotions, such as anger and joy.  What if we extend this investigation to include those supposedly stable terms? Would the literary context of multiple translations support my intuition that these terms are not nearly as stable as supposed?

*Thanks to Roger Bilosoly for sharing this fascinating link.  Be prepared to spend many hours tracing linguistic cognates.

Did Chaucer arrive in China via American Missionaries?

w-_a-_p-_martin__facultyThrough our correspondence with Professor SHEN Hong–a medievalist at Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China–we learned four interesting tidbits about the role Americans played in bringing English literature into China. According to Professor Shen,

1) American missionaries were among the first to introduce English literature into China through their writings and translations.
2) The earliest courses of English literature were established in missionary colleges and universities run by American missionaries.
3) American universities have trained Chinese students to be English scholars who, after returning to China, taught English literature to later generations of Chinese students.
4) Since the 1970s, quite a few American professors came to mainland China to teach English literature, including Chaucer.
At this point, we’re not certain if any of the Chaucerian corpus was among the texts brought by American missionaries. At first glance, this transmission route seems highly unlikely.  If, however, the missionaries were selecting works from among the literary anthologies circulating at the beginning of the 19th century, then the missionaries could have found selections appropriate to their needs.
We look forward to learning more about this line of influence through the ongoing scholarship of two graduate students, ZHONG Lian at Hunan Normal University and XIAOLEI Sun at Shanghai International Studies University.

Wales Book of the Year in 2015: English language poetry shortlist


In a bit of belated news, one of our favorite Global Chaucers, Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales, was short-listed for the Roland Mathias poetry award as part of the 2015 Wales Book of the Year selections (English language category).  Agbabi’s Welsh heritage adds another interesting dimension to her fabulous adaptation of The Canterbury Tales. (Thanks to Jackie Burek for the tip!)

(Image: Catryn Williams, “At y Chwarel”)