For librarians, teachers, students, and readers everywhere, a new translation of The Canterbury Tales is an event. Mark Flowers has written an extended review, which offers an overview of the options available and a clear idea of what makes this one different.
As this is a selected collection, click over to the Norton website for a list of contents.
Adult/High School–Filled with sex, adultery, high adventure, and fart jokes, and providing direct access to the ever-fascinating Middle Ages, The Canterbury Tales should, in theory, be a natural choice for teens. Unfortunately, even discounting the 600 years of cultural difference, the Tales remain frustratingly out of reach for most readers due to Chaucer’s Middle English, which, while technically readable, is filled with archaic vocabulary and tortured (to our ears) syntax. Traditionally, translators–from the indispensable Coghill (Penguin, 1951), through the questionable Wright (Oxford, 1985), all the way to the exciting-if-uneven Raffel (Modern Library, 2008)–have tackled both of these issues at once, rendering The Canterbury Tales in modern (if still poetic) syntax and vocabulary. In this new translation of approximately half of the Tales, Fisher instead addresses only vocabulary, leaving Chaucer’s Middle English syntax almost entirely intact. Indeed, on some pages, as many as 80% or more of the lines are direct transliterations, sometimes even including words that have changed meaning since Chaucer’s usage. The downside to this approach is obvious, and accounts for why Coghill, Wright, Raffel, and others opted against it: it makes for a much more challenging read. But the payoff is tremendous, allowing modern readers a truer taste of Chaucer’s language, and a sense of how simultaneously modern and distant Chaucer is, without having to learn the more specialized aspects of Middle English grammar and vocabulary. It also helps Fisher avoid the sometimes awkward and certainly anachronistic enjambment that Wright, Raffel, and even Coghill often employ. And complemented as it is by the original Middle English on facing pages, it is an excellent way to introduce students to at least short passages of Chaucer’s actual language without devoting an entire semester or more to studying vocabulary. For teens looking to read the Tales on their own, stick with Coghill or Raffel. But for teachers looking to introduce their students to Chaucer as a poet, rather than merely a storyteller, this book is an unquestionably strong choice.– Mark Flowers, John Kennedy Library, Solano County, CA