Canterbury Tales

Geofrey Chaucer (1343-1400) Translation by Burton Raffel

The Canterbury Tales (CT) is modeled after Boccaccio’s Decameron and the Arabic Thousand and One Nights. CT covers a pilgrimage in which 30 travelers must tell two stories each. As Chaucer finished only 24 stories, CT is considered to be unfinished. The tales are satirical and cover the core issues of society, morals, marriage, politics, religion, etc. If we are to consider ourselves students of literature, we must read it.

Geofrey Chaucer (1342-1400) was the son of a prosperous wine merchant, well educated, a public servant, a squire to the King, briefly a Member of Parliament, and a diplomat; his avocation was poetry, yet, he has ranked, alongside Milton, as the greatest poet in English literature, after Shakespeare. Unfortunately, Chaucer wrote in Middle English (which flourished c. 1100-1500) which is largely unintelligible to non-scholars today. In the 1300’s, English, as we loosely know it, was the language only of commoners; French was the language of the affluent and of the courts; Latin remained the language of the Church and of academics. Until the 1960’s, there were few, if any, translations, and most, even school children, such as yours truly, read Chaucer in his original Middle English. By the 1970’s, students had viable translations to use, side-by-side with Chaucer’s version. They are now easy to fathom for all and regale us with humorous and interesting stories, most of which have been copied by endless writers to the current day, with their themes re-emerging endless in films and on TV. To miss Chaucer, as with many classics, is to miss “the original”.

In 2008, Burton Raffel, a Harvard professor and renowned translator, completed what is likely the best translation yet of Chaucer’ Canterbury Tales (CT), it was this marvelous translation that inspired me to re-read CT at this late date. Notwithstanding the brilliance of this translation, it remains a translation, and, as Burton points out, “A translation is not an original nor can it ever be.” Translators are forced to be editors in part, and, in poetry, where they seek to write metered and rhyming lines, they are required to re-write the text. Those of us who love word and are amateur etymologists, we must note that many words overlap; many words have multiple meanings, and meanings can change fairly rapidly, even within decades. Over centuries, the meaning of words becomes a guessing-game. Notwithstanding these monumental issues, Raffel has strived to be as faithful as he could to the original, but he ends by saying “Comprehension [not reproduction of words] is the goal of translation”, and, therefore, “Caveat lector,” or “Reader beware.” As such, we-laymen shall never be able to appreciate the full beauty or the actual text and meaning of Chaucer, but we give thanks to Raffel and other translators for making it possible for us to follow Chaucer’s tales at all.

To omit this masterpiece from our reading is to leave a gaping hole in our literary data base. If you haven’t read it, do it now and relive life in the 1300 and glean its oneness with our society today. The Canterbury Tales is a masterpiece for all men in all ages.