Global Chaucer and Digital Humanities: Whither and Why?

On 2 and 3 February 2017, Global Chaucers’ ambassadors, Jonathan Hsy and Candace Barrington, traveled to the University of Virginia in order to speak to the Scholars’ Lab and the Medieval/Renaissance Colloquium about “Digital Hospitality” on Thursday afternoon, and to lead a roundtable on “Linguistic and Cultural Hospitality” with the Medieval/Renaissance Colloquium on Friday morning. In addition to the two events’ lively Q&As, we enjoyed ample opportunities to enjoy rich conversations with UVa faculty and graduate students before and after the scheduled sessions. Their probing questions and thoughtful suggestions helped us think about some of the next steps available to Global Chaucers.  All in all, the two days became less about what we shared with our UVa colleagues and more about the unusual luxury of measuring Global Chaucers’ development thus far and assessing the directions it could take in the future.

When we started this blog in September 2012, we didn’t really know what direction our fledgling project would take.  We were uncertain about what sort of global Chaucers were out there—and we certainly didn’t know how we could respond to what we did find. And though we had a website with a list of the translations and appropriations we had tracked down, it wasn’t entirely clear to us that we had a Digital Humanities project.

While we still aren’t certain the directions Global Chaucers will take, we now realize we have a viable DH project. Beyond the ongoing blog reports and the initial catalog of print texts, our website takes advantage of its ability to provide links to graphic novels, poetic performances, translators’ readings, spoken word and standup, and non-spoken languages (such as ASL). Our principles of digital hospitality and openness require, however, that along with embracing the inherent advantages of a digital archive we must also acknowledge and address the unanticipated challenges figured by two curious examples we’ve encountered.

In April 2015, we were pleased to discover a tweet by Sarah Bickley with her exciting, playful, and brilliant emoji translation of the first 20 lines of the General Prologue. We reached out to her, asking her permission to post on the site and added this screenshot with the link. This act of emoji translation—which went viral on twitter over the next week or so—invites such fascinating questions as “are these lines legible to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the GP?” In any case, our archiving of this tweet through a blog post demonstrates one downside to digital communication: its transience. Since the posting of this link, Sarah has since closed her twitter account, and the snapshot that now remains on the blog is a ghost of its former viral life.

On the first Whan That Aprille Day in 2014 (encouraged by the Chaucer Tweeter, LeVostreC), we posted the opening lines in twelve different languages. Some of the non-Roman scripts did not display well, so we took screenshots and posted them online. What we have discovered, though, is that the pleasure of encountering the text in an array of unfamiliar scripts and tongues is not accessible to all. One of our collaborators is blind, and she uses a screen reader to access online material; that device cannot read non-English texts or scripts. Moreover, image files without alt-text are completely inaccessible (there might as well be nothing there). The screen-grabbed emoji poem is likewise completely inaccessible for her at present. Likewise, any audiovisual materials hosted on our site are currently inaccessible to Deaf or hard of hearing visitors unless we embed captions. What might seem like digital openness to many can end up excluding some.

Just as the principle of digital hospitality requires us to rethink our digital presence, the principles of linguistic and cultural hospitality also require us to reconsider how we imagine Global Chaucers and its collaborators.  We began thinking that we would be creating an archive of data and texts that we would then analyze and disseminate.  Although we remain the project’s primary ambassadors, the active interest and participation of other scholars, translators, and enthusiasts means that we shouldn’t resist participants ready to take Global Chaucers in new directions. Not only does information want to be free, so do the voices and data assembled under the Global Chaucers rubric. We hope that the project becomes multi-faceted, with some of its aspect thriving without our direct involvement.

So what are some of the new directions that our UVa conversations helped reveal?

  • It’s time to rethink our initial parameters of “post-1945 translations and appropriations of The Canterbury Tales.” Our catalog now includes translations of and engagements with Troilus and Criseyde, The Parlement of Fowles, and Chaucerian lyrics; and the catalog spans works from as early as the sixteenth century.
  • Our catalog is diverse enough to justify bringing in colleagues with coding expertise, so that we can creating a database coding our collected information about the various translations—languages, translators, tales, dates, and source texts, for instance. That database will then be used to do more outwardly visible work, such as classroom-friendly mapping projects.
  • We need to determine the best way to archive the various forms of graphic, visual, and audiovisual media, including the possibility of a new infrastructure for such material. If Global Chaucers is to encourage an inclusive dialogue about Chaucer as well as more to provide more routes of access that allow us to discuss problematic aspects of his verse, then we need better ways to archive and present information.
  • We need to consider if its desirable to switch the Global Chaucers site into a maker space rather than a user space. If we decide to move in that direction, then we will need help to make the change.

Although we are not certain about the shape Global Chaucers will take, we are confident it will adhere to its initial values of digital, linguistic, and cultural hospitality despite the challenges those values might pose.  For these reasons, we were gratified to learn that our UVa colleagues shared not only our enthusiasm for Chaucer’s global reception but also our commitment to creating a global community.

Thank you Justin Greenlee, DeVan Ard, Zach Stone, Bruce Holsinger, Elizabeth Fowler, Anna Brickhouse, and the Scholars’ Lab staff for your gracious hospitality and for the opportunities to share our work and to learn from you.



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.

Sociologies of Translation

This week’s Penn Humanities seminar stepped away from the usual format (a presentation by a forum fellow followed by a response from another fellow) networkand paused for a bit to consider two important texts for translation theory: Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” and Bruno Latour’s “How to Resume the Task of Tracing Associations.”  Elsewhere, I’ve reflected on the ways the Global Chaucers project realizes some of the claims of Benjamin’s essay, the most important being the way a translation “must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.”[1]  Extending this concept (without necessarily buying into his transcendental inclinations), we can see how multiple translations might provide more fragments of the vessel, and we can expect that studying these multiple translations together will provide a more complex sense of the original than could the study of a single translation.

Latour, too, is interested in making connections among fragments. The associations he looks for would initially seem to be based on similarities; however, as his extensive citations of Gabriel Tarde suggest, the more significant associations are marked by differences.[2] From a sociological perspective, this difference means that in order to make those associations we must translate. Translation, in one form or another, therefore saturates our interactions and structures our relationships.  When we begin to examine multiple translations of The Canterbury Tales, a likely place to start will be at moments of difference, those places where translators found different solutions to a linguistic dilemma.  These points of apparent incommensurability guide us to places where meaning (in both Chaucer’s text and in the translation) threatens (or perhaps even does) fall apart; the translation, then shows us one possible way to re-associate the terms and thereby create meaning. When the translations are separated by significant temporal lengths or geographical spaces, the results can be an especially rich set of associations allowing us also to observe how meanings shift across time and space.

Latour also reassures that there is no urgency, no need to bring all the translations together in one grand Chaucerian vessel.  Instead, the sociologist’s networks of association allow us to consider the numerous combinations and unexpected hybrids, thereby allowing us to trace connections that make visible what is otherwise hidden to the monolingual reader.

My brief reflections touch only tangentially today’s fascinating conversation that explored the associations animating these two essays.


[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, vol 1, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Harvard University Press, 1997), 260.

[2] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford University Press, 2005), 14-16.

Translation, Metaphor

refineriesOur seminar’s first paper—Bethany Wiggin’s “Mixing Water and Oil: Environmental Humanities on the Lower Schuylkill River”—considers (among many other issues) two parallel rivers, the lower Schuylkill and the proposed pipelines delivering gas to refineries lining the lower Schuylkill. Although its environmental focus would seem to have little that pertains to my work with Chaucer’s global translations, Bethany’s paper and the subsequent discussion prompted these observations that might have implications for my project.

  1. How can metaphors help us better understand translation? Both words—one made of Greek lexemes, the other of Latin—mean carry over.

When Bethany’s paper asks us to consider the two systems as rivers—one an actual river, the other a metaphorical one—she is asking us to carry over the qualities that we’ve associated with the lower Schuylkill River’s historical degradation (corporate greed, political intrigue, polluted landscape, and uninformed consumers) to the proposed pipeline bringing petroleum by-products to the River’s refineries.

When we think about metaphors, it is convenient to think about them as consisting of a vehicle (the image) and the tenor (the message). In this case, the vehicle (the river) is a potent metaphor because it carries multiple messages.  In addition to the negative qualities specifically associated with the Schuylkill River that Bethany’s paper asks the metaphor to carry, the more general river metaphors bring other, more positive, associations with them. From this perspective a river is a natural resource enabling movement and providing food beauty, purity, and recreation.  By identifying the proposed pipeline as a metaphorical river, she simultaneously reminds her audience of what it resembles (the environmentally dubious lower Schuylkill River) and what it does not resemble (the ideal river of beauty and benefit).

When we use metaphor to think about translation, it reminds us that the translation is both less and more than the possible meanings carried over from the source text.  In addition to losing some meanings and associations inherent in the source language, the translation picks up additional meanings enabled by the receiving language and culture. Metaphor reminds us of this inevitability.

  1. Can we identify something as deliberately untranslatable? What is the difference between accidental and deliberate untranslatability, say the difference between Linear A and the Voynich Manuscript? And what is the difference between two forms of deliberate untranslatability, obfuscation and ambiguity?

This series of questions stems from questions about ways individuals and institutions have purposefully obscured the public’s understanding of the two rivers in question through purposeful misdirection, obscure jargon, bureaucratic obfuscation, and hidden documentation.  In this case, the deliberate untranslatability (at least for a certain audience) seems to de-legitimate the documents, records, and accounts associated with control of the two rivers. When we are discussing the public good, transparency and translatability are imperative. To deliberately prevent citizens from translating murky intentions into clear purposes undermines the credibility of the source text.

Chaucer’s translations show him dealing with moments of untranslatability, places where he seems to stutter and stumble when the source text either reveals its own inability to present a concept or resists relinquishing its meaning into another language. Whether deliberate or not, these moments of untranslatability imply the source text is hermeneutically complex and resists easy interpretation. They do not, however, necessarily de-legitimate the source text or its purposes.

Global Chaucers Roundtable at NCS 2016 in London

London_2-1371043833Global Chaucers is sponsoring another roundtable at the next New Chaucer Society Congress. Titled “Translating Global Chaucers,” the roundtable will continues the Global Chaucers conversation begun at the 2014 Congress. The focus will be on translations of Chaucerian texts into languages other than standard Present Day English. Participants include translators, scholars, and teachers outside the Anglophone inner circle (UK, US, Canada, Australia, and NZ). Their presentations consider the ways translations

  • reflect the particular linguistic, cultural, or social context in which they appeared;
  • reveal understandings of Chaucer’s texts unavailable to an Anglophone reader; and
  • take advantage of verse or prose forms (or other stylistic conventions) available in the receiving literary culture but not in English.

The five participants are

  • Stephanie Downes, University of Melbourne, Australia, “Vilains mots! Nineteenth-Century French Translations of The Canterbury Tales”
  • Marcin Ciura, Independent Translator, “In the Margins of the Polish Parlement of Foules”
  • Züleyha Çetiner-Ōktem, Ege University, “Reinventing Chaucer’s Sir Thopas from a Turkish Perspective”
  • Denise Ming-yueh Wang, National Chung Cheng University, Taiwan, “When Global Chaucers Go Local: Reading Chaucer in Taiwan”
  • José Francisco Botelho, Independent Translator, “Contos da Cantuária: Chaucer in Brazil”

We’re super excited about the international panel, with its mix of translators and scholars!

Global Chaucers and Digital Humanities: new Accessus article

Mehmet Güleryüz, "The Evening Sun," 2013, from his exhibit "With One's Eyes Open” at The Empire Project (Istanbul), 7 March-27 April 2013.
Mehmet Güleryüz, “The Evening Sun,” 2013, from his exhibit “With One’s Eyes Open” at The Empire Project (Istanbul), 7 March-27 April 2013.

We’re excited to announce that our article, “Global Chaucers: Reflections on Collaboration and Digital Futures,” appears in the latest issue of Accessus.  In it, we consider what Global Chaucers can teach us about Chaucer, digital humanities, medievalism, and collaboration. A lot has happened with GlCh in less that three years, and we value getting to share what we’ve learned from the thrilling experience. Our deepest gratitude to Eve Salisbury and Georgiana Donavin, Accessus‘s editors.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In The Renaissance Chaucer, Alice S. Miskimin writes

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

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

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