Modern Renditions of The Canterbury Tales

I’m searching, yet again, for the perfect translation – i.e. the one that is most suited to my tastes. Of course the scenario is slightly different to when I was reading Homer and Virgil, because here, the original by Geoffrey Chaucer was composed in English (albeit, 14th century English, which is more or less a foreign language anyhow). Here, I have the option of reading the Modern alongside the Middle English. Should I? Nah.

The original plan was to purchase my own copy of the latest Penguin edition, but I noticed that across the several branches of my local library, there are at least three different modern translations of The Canterbury Tales, and for what reason would I restrict myself to one? Original plans never work out; the word ‘deviation’ is in the dictionary for a reason.

Not that I’ll be reading all three. I just want to know what’s out there before committing myself to one.

David Wright, 1998

“David Wright’s new translation of The Canterbury Tales into modern verse–the first to appear in over thirty years–makes one of the greatest works of English literature accessible to all readers while preserving the wit and vivacity of Chaucer’s original text.”

When the sweet showers of April have pierced
The drought of March, and pierced it to the root,
And every vein is bathed in that moisture
Whose quickening force will engender the flower;
And when the west wind too with its sweet breath
Has given life in every wood and field
To tender shoots, and when the stripling sun
Has run his half-course in Aries, the Ram,
And when small birds are making melodies,
That sleep all the night long with open eyes,
(Nature so prompts them and encourages);
Then people go on long pilgrimages,
And palmers to take ship for foreign shores,
And distant shrines, famous in different lands

Nevill Coghill, 2003

“With their astonishing diversity of tone and subject matter, The Canterbury Tales have become one of the touchstones of medieval literature. Translated here into modern English, these tales of a motley crowd of pilgrims drawn from all walks of life-from knight to nun, miller to monk-reveal a picture of English life in the fourteenth century that is as robust as it is representative.”

This is the translation that Penguin offers, but the copy at my library is an illustrated edition!

When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then people long to go on pilgrimages
And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands

Joseph Glaser, 2005

“This daring new translation of 21 of the tales, most of them rendered in iambic tetrameter, conveys the content, tone, and narrative style of the original in a line as expressive as it is economical. An Introduction treats Chaucer’s works, influences, life, learning, and the world of 14th-century London. Includes a glossary.”

When April’s fruitful rains descend
And bring the droughts of March to end
Bathing each vine in such sweet showers
That young buds burst and unfurl flowers,
When West Wind too, and his mild airs
Inspires in fields and hidden lairs
Fresh-minted leaves and when the sun
Halfway toward the Bull has run;
When small birds sing for all they’re worth,
Wide-eyed all night with reckless mirth,
Mad for love in trees and hedges,
Why, then folks go on pilgrimages
And pilgrims yearn for foreign strands
And distant shrines in sundry lands.

Final Verdict?

I searched for lyricism and ornate poetry in The Odyssey, but with The Canterbury Tales, all I want is a good read in straightforward, twenty-first century language. It appears that Coghill’s translation is a slightly archaic rendering of Wright’s. Glaser’s is the most pared down; I quite like his style. Which will it be? Well, I want to read Wright because his appears to be the most ‘renowned’ of the modern renditions – critics have described it as “the best translation available. Ever” – but from the extracts I’ve read, Glaser’s appears to fit my criteria the best, so I think I’ll be reading Glaser.

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2 thoughts on “Modern Renditions of The Canterbury Tales

  1. I was going to skimp over this one, and buy whatever was at the bookstore, but I’m glad I did a comparison. Penguin has been disappointing me time and time again. First with Fagles and now with the Coghill. Maybe it’s true that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover… they make such good ones, though :)

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