Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A query: Chaucer translations?

by J J Cohen

Last year I mentioned in passing a course I'd newly designed called Myths of Britain. I'll be teaching the class again come spring, this time with ninety students and three TAs (the course is as much about mentoring graduate student teachers as it is about developing critical thinking through writing among undergraduates). So, considering the theme, I thought I might introduce some Chaucer this time ... and here is my question. If you've ever taught a Brit Lit survey, do you keep the Chaucer in Middle English (a la the Norton anthology) or do you utilize a snappy translation into Modern English? If so, what translation do you use?

My students will mostly be sophomores; most will not be English majors (though experience proves the class can cause sudden conversions). We want to challenge them, of course -- but I also worry that if we do Chaucer for only one or two weeks, and do him in Middle English, the students will be too wrapped up in just getting the langauge that they won't move to themes and analysis -- as they do, say, with our excellent translations of Beowulf, Marie de France, and SGGK.

What do you think?

17 comments:

Karl Steel said...

I'd advise going with the trans and bringing in some ME for particular sections and passages to give the students a flavor of the original. Maybe some of them will end up wanting to have more?

If I remember, waaaay back in last Fall, when I was teaching an Intro to Western Lit, I put the Hieatt trans on the syllabus primarily because used copies go for as cheap as a penny, and BC students on the whole tend not to have much money. Without the Middle English, I taught mainly in terms of structure and historical situatedness (Maybe not? It was an 8am class, and the students didn't much like me, or the time, or the school, or something).

But I'm guessing GWU students do have $$, so maybe you can give them a better trans.? How's the Jill Mann?

If you're feeling really fancy, you could get your assistant to assemble a sheet of multiple translations to see how, for example, grabbing her by the quaynte (or, given your theme, how the all important final lines of the Frank's Tale) get handled....

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Hm. Good question. If you have a version of the courseworks site, you can also make .pdf files of the original (I assume you won't be reading too many) so they have the option of reading in the ME instead or too...

Also: I just realized that I've never been taught Chaucer in a survey course. My Brit Lit survey in undergrad started with Shakespeare.

Prof. de Breeze said...

I teach Chaucer in my Brit Lit surveys every Fall. My students are community college sophomores, and I rarely have any English majors. I've always taught Chaucer in Middle English, though I often tell students that they should feel free to look at Modern English translations if they feel it necessary. I usually point them to the interlinear translations on the Harvard Chaucer page. In class, I always use the ME version, though I often translate on the fly, if you know what I mean.

In this regard, I like the approach of the Longman Anthology. The General Prologue is presented with facing page translation, but all subsequent Tales are presented in ME only. After working through the GP, students should start getting the hang of it.

meg said...

If you have time, you could compile a facing-page affair -- that's what I've done, back before we killed off our Med-Ren survey.

You could also give them the ME and provide a link to a translation online. My experience in general is that students groove on reading ME right up until the point where the frustration prevents them from patting themselves on the back. Have a pony helps stave off the frustration.

Eileen Joy said...

I always opt for the interlinear translations available on Larry Benson's website. Scanning the modern English translation just under the Middle English helps the students, I really believe, to get something of the Middle English as they are going along [so I concur with Prof. de Breeze on this]. In class, we would have that displayed on a screen [in a smart classroom] as we're discussing the text and I would also have my Riverside Chaucer with me.

Adam Roberts said...

Karl: "...how the quaynt gets handled..."

Ho ho.

When I started teaching, cost was one of my main considerations when setting students reading; but so much is available online now that it's less and less a factor. So, a fair chunk of Vincent Hopper's interlineal translation of Chaucer is available at Google books (here's the start of The Pardoner's Tale, for instance); and eChaucer has the whole thing translated.

Joseph Taylor said...

This may be pushing it in a two week period, but I liked Peter Beidler's edition of the Wife of Bath in ME. It is more difficult than a translation but about as easy as it gets reading ME. It offers translation notes in the margins (if I recall) and contextual notes as well. Further, it includes critical essays using various theoretical modes like (Feminism, New Historicism, etc). Sounds like a lot, but it is really very accessible and the essays are brief. It is pretty small and fairly affordable (though campus bookstores can certainly affect the price?). I had mostly freshman (albeit majors) and they surprised me with how quickly they grasped thematic currents in the text. The critical essays gave them a taste of specific modes of reading and opened up further focused discussion. It is possible to read the texts (Prologue and Tale) and perhaps Elaine T. Hansen's short Feminist essay and have some good discussion. The Arthurian nature of the tale could then reconnect the text with the course theme. Could be a stretch but I thought I'd throw it out there.

Rob Barrett said...

I don't teach anything from the Tales in my survey course, largely because it would take up 2 weeks of class time and there are other medieval texts I'd like to cover. What I do instead for Chaucer is teach the Parliament: it's only 700 lines long, so the students have more than enough time to reread it once or twice. (I have indeed had students who read the text three times in total--they got the Middle English.) Thematically Parliament covers much of the same ground as the Tales do. My first lecture is on bookishness and authority; my second lecture, on celestial harmony and earthly dissonance.

prehensel said...

Why not give 'em the Norton Critical Ed. (since it's pretty cheap, I think, and has fairly good translation notes)? Then you can provide links to online translations that you think are good so they have something to turn to if they get bogged down.
Then again, I've never gotten to choose my own books, so take anything I say with a grain of salt.

theswain said...

I have a syllabus, well syllabi, that I haven't taught but with a similar idea that I shop around on the market.....

In any case, I'd like to steal, er, see, yes see, yours if you are inclined to share with us!

As for the question, all I can say is "me too" to the Harvard site.

the rebel lettriste said...

I teach it in the original, in surveys.

Mainly, I do so because I am a sadomasochist. But also because I think it's important for Gen Ed students to get as much of a first hand experience with literature that they can.

They complain, of course. "It's so HARD!" But that sort of stuff can also open into better conversations about meaning, "understanding," how we read, why we read, whether it's ok to not "get it" on the first go-round, what comes from re-reading, whether reading aloud is useful and why, and what uses "difficulty" might generally have in thinking about/thinking through/thinking with literature.

And, I also point out to them that if they ever want to hold their own, education-wise, nothing quite beats being able to say, "yeah, I read Chaucer. In the original."

And, to conclude, many of them become English Ed. majors and end up teaching H.S. English. So I would be neglecting my duty if I didn't at least teach them the ME.

Ana said...

I was a grad student in an undergrad Chaucer class last year, and our professor did ask all of us to read the ME version in Mann's edition... but we were not too many.

Ana said...

I was a grad student in an undergrad Chaucer class last fall, the professor made us ALL read in ME from Mann's edition. Of course, we were only about 30 students.

Jonathan Hsy said...

I would find it difficult to teach Chaucer in anything but the ME! I find that preparing survey students *prior* to their first reading of Chaucer goes a long way; I read through the opening lines of the WBT and have them translate/paraphrase orally line by line. I then encourage them (as they read on their own) to try reading the text aloud and concentrate on the story or sentiment of the passages, and not get boggled down by individual archaic words.

I've taught "1 or 2 weeks of Chaucer" within survey courses before, and it seems to work when I use a convenient ME edition and refer them to the Harvard interlinear translations if they need them. As for non-Riverside alternatives, I'd go with the Norton CT selections (ed Kolve/Olson). The Mann edition is fine but my impression is that flipping the back for notes is a bit time-consuming (for survey students).

If someone were to force me to use an actual translation, I'd go with the Penguin CT (trans. Coghill) - it includes all the tales in modern verse and it balances the spirit and the letter quite well. The Signet CT selections (ed. Howard) offers facing-page, literal translations; I don't find this as effective since the facing-page too often disambiguates the text.

letty said...

This semester, I'll have to use Coghill (Penguin) for the first time. Reluctantly, because I prefer them to read the Middle English. In previous classes, it has always been the Riverside Chaucer, and I gave them a link to the aforementioned Harvard site if they needed help.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I want to thank, heartily, EVERYONE who has contributed to this valuable conversation ... one that leaves me no more certain of how to proceed than when I started!

Anonymous said...

I always stick to the Middle English. Kids soon get the hang of it and love reading it aloud. However, please check out my modern version of The General Prologue which my students find helpful. Note: It is not a translation - you cannot translate Middle English into English (unlike Old English).
Here is a link to my book:http://www.amazon.com/General-Prologue-Geoffrey-Chaucer-Introduction/dp/1481879049/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1371651807&sr=1-3&keywords=general+prologue+introduction