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Canterbury Tales - Which Version is Best For You?
am 15. Juli 2000
Over some period I have read several translations of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. My first experience, selections in a highschool text, was not promising.
Translating poetry from one language to another is difficult and often unsuccessful. Translating Chaucer from Middle English is not much easier. Our language has changed dramatically in the last 600 years, to the point that Middle English is undecipherable. For example, we read Chaucer's description of the Knight's appearance:
Of fustian he wered a gipoun (Of course cloth he wore a doublet) Al bismotered with his habergeoun (All rust-spotted by his coat-of-mail)
Obviously, a glossary, diligence, and time are required for reading the original Chaucer. If you choose to do so, the Riverside Chaucer edition (edited by L. Benson) and the Norton Critical Edition (edited by Olson and Kolve) are highly recommended. The Signet Classic paperback edited by D. R. Howard modernizes the spelling a bit, but largely adheres to the original Chaucer and might be an easier introduction to Middle English.
Most of us read whatever version is assigned for classwork. However, I expect that you will find it quite helpful to pick-up an additional version or two of Canterbury Tales. A slightly different translation may entirely surprise you - you may even find it enjoyable. I suggest that you look for these versions:
Selected Canterbury Tales, Dover Thrift edition - provides a poetic, rather than literal interpretation, and is quite readable. The collection of tales is fairly small, however.
Canterbury Tales, Penguin edition, translated by Nevill Coghill, is an excellent poetic translation. It is a nearly complete collection.
The Canterbury Tales, Bantam Classic edited by Hieatt, uses the "facing page" format with the original Chaucer on the left and a modern literal translation on the right page. I found the literal translation a little wooden, but this edition can be quite helpful if you need some understanding of Middle English. (A guide to phonetics, grammar, spellings, and a glossary is provided.)
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Barrons Educational Series, uses an "Interlinear Translation" format in which each line of Middle English is followed by a modern translation (literal to make the comparison easier). I rather like this approach.
Canterbury Tales, John Murray Publishers, London is hard to find, but provides a partial translation to modern English, maintaining as much as possible of the Middle English. This is a rather clever approach, somewhat risky, but the translator H. L. Hitchins pulls it off. With some effort I could follow the text without continually referring to a glossary and in a limited way I was "reading Middle English".
Canterbury Tales, Pocket Books, prose translation by R. M. Lumiansky, is easy to read, but while the prose format adheres to the storyline, it is only a shadow of the poetic Chaucer. It might prove useful if you are not comfortable with poetry.
Good luck and I hope your expereince with Chaucer goes well.