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Translations and adaptations

I am returning to The Canterbury Tales these days, which led me to uncover some thoughts I wrote up on Chaucer a couple summers ago.  What follows originally appeared in slightly different form on a now-defunct blog for the Chicago Humanities Festival in July 2009:

Recently, I decided I should read The Canterbury Tales. I was feeling especially guilty a month or so ago for having earned a degree in English without ever having read any Chaucer.  I remembered that my parents, 2000 miles to the west, owned an ancient paperback edition of the book, and I thought I could implore upon them to lend it to me via mail.  A free book, no library deadlines–I was rolling.

But then, after I got over the excitement of my mother’s name scrawled across the title page in collegiate ballpoint (I’m really into the Benjaminian aura of artifacts from an archive), I realized I had a weird translation (circa 1955) on my hands.  The translator, R. M. Lumiansky, had changed Chaucer’s original poetry to prose in an effort to modernize the text for contemporary readers.  At first, I wasn’t sure what to think, or whether this is a legitimate practice.  But the more I thought about it, the sketchier it seemed.

Some friends had claimed that Chaucer’s Middle English is legible to the intelligent modern reader if one is willing to go a bit slowly, glean vocabulary from the surrounding context, sound out words, and so on.  However, this seems a little foolish if a reader untrained in Middle English is interested in Canterbury or other works of Middle English for purposes beyond a summary understanding.  I say so because it is hard to properly read, to gain the experience an author intended, or the experience of other readers fluent in the language, all while simultaneously learning to read, and seeking the genuine experience a fluent reader would find.

All of which is to say that a good reader definitely reads for the language, but that style (which is of course related) is very important, too.  I think a translated edition of Chaucer for the undereducated New English eyes of us philistines is highly useful.  But I also think that an author’s style must be retained.  Would you have Howl printed in a velvet-bound calligraphic edition with the lines broken differently?  Or–Pynchon.  Would you have Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) rewritten as an epic poem with the lines broken up differently than Pynchon has them?  Clearly, more than most novelists, Pynchon is highly interested in aesthetics, right?  See, for example, how he incorporates elements from different genres (songs, ditties, bits of dramatic-style dialog, writing descended from the Beats, writing descended from the Realists, etc.) many of which appear visually different on the page (symbols in mathematical formulas, abbreviations used for statistical evidence, wide margins for songs, ditties, dialog, and so on, titles for different episodes on occasion, etc.).  Wouldn’t it be wrong to translate Pynchon into some other language–say, French, but really it doesn’t matter and Urdu or Latin would do–and simultaneously spell out the abbreviations and the mathematical symbols, change the dramatic dialog to appear novelistic (e.g., ” ‘No’ she said” instead of “SHE: No”).  Instead, translating Pynchon into French, we should strive as desperately and as accurately as possible to maintain the excitement, the fanatic and frantic quality, of his (most often) prose.

So, authorial intent, I argue, is important.  So important, in fact, that it is awfully dangerous to tamper with.  Translations are necessary, because not every reader can be expected to know every language worth writing relevant and pivotal texts in.  But in translating Homer’s Latin to its English counterpart, we should end up with a translation by Alexander Pope or Robert Fitzgerald or Richard Lattimore or some other classics scholar (ideally, cum poet), not with Joyce’s Ulysses, even though many critics and literary historians claim that Joyce was trying to outdo Homer (hence, the schema from The Odyssey that sculpts Joyce’s chapters).  Similarly, they say sometimes that Gravity’s Rainbow attempts to top Joyce’s Ulysses, and I agree (from a perspective rooted purely within the text, obviously, and not from the viewpoint of any literary history, of which I know unfortunately little).

While I have barely started R. Lumiansky’s translation of Chaucer, it would seem impossible that it can avoid simultaneously adapting and translating his original starting text, the original Canterbury Tales.  I would say that Joyce does this (and more, certainly) with Ulysses, as does Pynchon with Gravity’s Rainbow, as do Charlie Kaufman and co. in transforming Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into the film Adaptation (2002).

A couple weeks ago, I emailed Christina von Nolcken, who teaches Old English in the English Department at the University of Chicago, and asked what translation of Canterbury she’d recommend to a monolinguist like me.  Interestingly, she writes, “Lumianski is fine, but  I’d recommend Norman Coghill’s translation for Penguin Classics–it is into verse, and quite close.”  Lumiansky doesn’t seem to have left much of an imprint on the cultural archive.  A Wikipedia search reveals very little about him.  His writing is sort of quaint and didactic in his preface, a little like his contemporary and fellow Columbia professor Lionel Trilling’s, I’d say.

I brought up these issues with my dad, a scientist who saves fiction for vacations.  He said, “Yes, it would seem that our Canterbury Tales isn’t right.  But does one read for the story or for the language?  If I recall properly, Early English is quite hard to read and, if not a translator, requires at least a gloss.  The best I can do is ‘sumer is a cumen in, loudly sing cuckoo.’  Which, as I remember it, is from our friend Chaucer.  Anyway, perhaps as long as the translation is true to the original intent, maybe prose isn’t important.”  But I disagree.

Posted in adapatation, literature, poetry, translation.

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