Monday, January 23, 2006

Which Chaucer?**

A visitor kindly asked which translation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales I'd recommend (in the comments here). On the off chance that it's a real question rather than an internet politeness, I'll try to give an answer.

Beware, however, that I'm not a REAL Chaucerian, or even a real medievalist. I don't even play one on TV. (Though, seriously, how cool would a show like THAT be?) So if there's someone real out there, s/he will probably have a better, more informed suggestion. And if s/he shares, we'll all learn something!

I have to confess, I've never used a translation for reading Chaucer, though I understand why someone might want to use a translation. So it's a difficult question for me. (That and the "not a real Chaucerian" thing.)

Stage Whisper/Aside: Chaucer's Middle English isn't really horribly difficult for an experienced reader of English verse to read. There are some different words, but most editions gloss these and also explain more difficult readings. The word order of Chaucer's verse won't feel super strange if you're comfortable reading, say, Shakespearean verse. So, for someone who's comfortable with verse and looking at notes occasionally, I'd suggest going with an edition in Middle English. (If you're a lousy speller, you'll feel right at home with the orthography, too!) However, the question asks for a modern translation.

Here's what I think about when I consider a modern translation of Chaucer; I can't answer some of them for a reader, but his/her answers would guide my suggestions.

First, are you comfortable reading verse?

Would you prefer to read prose, knowing that it's not going to have the feeling of verse, or do you prefer a verse translation?

Do you tend to read introductory material to this sort of text, or do you tend to jump right in?

Do you like a more guided reading, or do you not want the feeling of an editor "between" you and the text? That is, do you like a text with footnotes, or do they distract you? Do you prefer not understanding some metaphors, or do you prefer foot or endnotes to explain things? (In other words, if you run across something about Zephyrus or Rams running, are you going to slide on by, or do you want to know what that means?)

Here, then, are some quick notes about what I found available on Amazon dot com. For most of them, you can look at some excerpts. You can compare the same stuff between different editions, so to get a sense of what you're most comfortable with. If folks have other suggestions I've missed, or considerations, PLEASE help me out here!

Caveat emptor: My personal preference would prioritize some notes or glossing; I'm neutral between verse and prose, except that I really like Chaucer's verse. I prefer notes in a text to having to run over to the OED or something. I also like information about cultural, classical, and Biblical stuff.

So, here are my winners:
First, in modern English translation: The Canterbury Tales in Modern Verse, Trans. Joseph Glaser.

Second place: Penguin Classics Canterbury Tales - Trans. Nevill Coghill

And, should you be willing to try a Middle English edition: Everyman Canterbury Tales, ed A.C. Cawley. In fact, I'd probably get this edition so that I had better notes and introductory material than any of the translations I found.

Bonus selections: On CD: The Canterbury Tales read in Modern English. I had this, but lent it to a friend. I vaguely remember enjoying it on a long drive.

And Helen Cooper's Oxford Guide to the Canterbury Tales is a helpful introduction, especially good at providing introductory material to the individual tales.

And the overall mini-reviews: NB. None of the modern translations has good enough notes for my taste.

Prose Translations:
Canterbury Tales: Side by Side - ME on the left (verso), Prose translation in italic on the right (recto). Few tales, and in a strange order in the table of contents. The prose translation seems okay, but the italics would get hard on my eyes quickly. No footnotes or vocabulary glossing. (I vote NO.)

Puffin Classics The Canterbury Tales. A "retelling" rather than a translation; the prose seems readable. No notes or glossing.

Verse Translations:
The Canterbury Tales in Modern Verse, Trans. Joseph Glaser - The verse feels very fluid and readable. There are a few marginal notes to help the reader. Some of the tales are abridged or summarized. Interestingly, the GP at least is in tetrameter. Maybe that's why it feels so light? My first choice for a translation.

Penguin Classics Canterbury Tales - Trans. Nevill Coghill; the verse of this translation reads very well for me; no notes or glossing. The table of contents gives a good sense of the organization of the tales, which I suspect reflects a good explanation in the introduction.

Viking Portable Chaucer - Basic verse translation, no notes or glossing. Some additional text excerpts, which might be of interest.

Bantam Classic The Canterbury Tales - ME on the left (verso), linear verse translation on the right (recto). No footnotes or glossary in text; glossary appended. The verse translation seems okay.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales An Interlinear Translation - no images available, and I'm not familiar with this edition. Not the complete tales, and seems to miss some obvious winners (the "Knight's Tale" for example). I don't find interlinear translations readable for very long.

Editions in Middle English:
The Riverside Chaucer, Ed. Larry Benson - This edition has all of Chaucer's known works. It's great, but also expensive, and probably more than a casual reader wants. Footnote glossing, line numbers, glossary in the back of the text, introductory material about Chaucer, the tales, and individual tales. There's tons of textual information that most readers won't find helpful, and may find distracting.

Everyman Canterbury Tales, ed A.C. Cawley - A basic edition, and one I really like, probably because my first CT was an Everyman. Some footnote explanations, with marginal glosses for vocabulary. Less full introductory material, and not much for individual tales.

Norton Critical Edition Canterbury Tales, ed. V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson (no images available on Amazon, so I'm working from the copy I had sitting around). - Nine of the tales, including (with prologues) "General Prologue," "Knight's Tale," "Miller's Tale," "Reeve's Tale," "Wife of Bath's Tale," "Clerk's Tale," "Franklin's Tale," "Pardoner's Tale," Prioress's Tale," and "Nun's Priest's Tale." It also has excerpts from the Cook's, Friar's and Merchant's prologues. Not the complete tales, but the ones most people read, probably. Explanatory footnotes and marginal vocabulary glossing.

This edition has bunches of excerpts from source texts and culturally significant texts to give context. It also has critical essays, most are of the "classic" essay variety, rather than the "wow, this is new and cool" variety. (In other words, this is like reading Darwin vs reading a current evolutionary theorist.)

The Signet Classic Canterbury Tales - degree mark glossing (the kind with the little circle degree marks, which you then try to find at the bottom of the page, not really user friendly). Selected tales, including most of the usual suspects.

Editions Amazon lists but without textual images or much information:
Ed John Fisher and Mark Allen, The Complete Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer. This looks expensive.

Ed. Jill Mann. Penguin Original Spelling Canterbury Tales. I'd guess this a fairly good edition, but that's a guess.

Next time: Which tales should someone read just for the fun of it? [I realized doing this little post that I have at least 7 texts of CT (counting the Riverside and Major Poems, which include CT, but also other stuff, and not counting various anthologies which include a Chaucer text or two). I cleaned out a shelf of excess Shakespeare editions last spring; looks like I should have included some Chaucer, too.]

**My title alludes to the very helpful Which Shakespeare? a user's guide to editions by Ann Thompson with Thomas L. Berger. If you're interested in learning about editions and editing of Shakespeare, this is a great place to start.


  1. A couple of quick comments:

    The Coghill verse translation is most Chaucerian's favorite verse translation. I prefer more literal prose renderings, if I want my students to have something to help them in comprehension alongside the ME, so I use David Wright's prose CT in modern English. (It's also cheap.

    And finally, the Kolve and Olson Norton Critical edition is in a second edition (be sure to get your exam copy!!) with more tales (13 or 14, I think) and more recent criticism, including the influential folks of the 90s (Dinshaw, Patterson, etc.). Next time I teach Chaucer -- in which I do a bit of everything -- I might use that edition with the soon-to-be-released Norton Critical Edition of Troilus and Criseyde.

    Oh, and the other problem with the Riverside is that the editors assume you're reading in the order they've printed everything (CT first) and thus the glosses get lighter as you go!

    Also, btw, there's a CT edition alone, ed. by Benson, and based on the Riverside. It's in paperback and much cheaper for CT courses where you want to do most or all of the CT.

  2. Um, that's Chaucerians' and ignore that "finally" in the second of four paragraphs! :)

  3. As a student of Chaucer, I'd recommend the Riverside Chaucer in Middle English along with the Chaucer Glossary ( It's really best to read it in ME than to read a translation. Learn to do the dirty work now and save translations for people like Langland!

    If a translation is a must, make your own- that way you'll be able to read and comprehend ME easily and you'll have a translation for future reference...