The Canterbury Tales: a new translation by Sheila Fisher

A couple of weeks ago, I received a review copy of Sheila Fisher’s new translation of the Canterbury Tales. It’s published by Norton, and I had noticed it on my last visit to the Norton offices because it has the coolest jacket art ever.

I expect I’ll be recommending this translation in future editions of >The Well-Trained Mind and The Well-Educated Mind. You can, of course, read the Canterbury Tales in Chaucer’s own Middle English, and more or less figure out what’s going on. In fact, if you had an introductory British lit survey class in college, you probably read the Prologue–maybe even out loud. (If you’re curious, or want to review, you can listen to readings of the Middle English on the Chaucer Metapage.)

However, as Sheila Fisher notes in her introduction, not everyone has the time or inclination to plow through the Middle English–and if you intend to assign the Tales (or the cleaner portions therein) to a high school student, I’d recommend not torturing them with the Middle English unless they happen to be fascinated by the idea.

Here are some of the best-known lines from the Prologue:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendered is the flour…
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open ye–
So priketh hem Natur in hir corages–
Then longen folk to go on on pilgrimages…

Compare this to Sheila Fisher’s translation:

When April comes and with its showers sweet
Has, to the root, pierced March’s drought complete,
And then bathed every vein in such elixir
That, by its strength, engendered is the flower…
And when small birds begin to harmonize
That sleep throughout the night with open eyes
(So nature, stirring them, pricks up their courage),
Then folks, too, long to go on pilgrimage…

And now compare an older translation by J. U. Nicolson, which you’ll get if you go cheap and buy the Dover edition of the Tales:

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower…
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)–
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage…

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the Nicolson translation, except that it was written for readers who spoke nineteenth-century English. (It was actually first published in 1934, but Nicolson’s language clearly harks back to an even earlier era; it was often part of translation strategy, early in the twentieth century, to make classic works sound “classic” by using widely-understood but archaic vocabulary.) If you’re going to read a translation, read one that speaks your language–and that’s particularly important when you’re introducing teenaged readers to great literature. The literature is already complex; you shouldn’t add an extra level of unnecessary difficulty by mixing in archaic words and constructions. (“To generate therein and sire the flower”?)

The Fisher translation, generally, also stays a little closer to Chaucer. Notice, in the very first line, that “Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote” becomes “When April with his showers sweet with fruit” in the Nicolson translation, introducing a whole new phrase (where did the fruit come from?) in order to keep the rhyme. In the third line, Nicolson renders “licour” as “liquor”–which you’d think would be a close match, but in fact isn’t because the word liquor has shifted meaning considerably away from licour. The Middle English word primarily meant “a liquid found in, or derived from, plants or animals” (thanks, University of Michigan MED), and the context makes it clear that this licour is a transforming, creative liquid; it produces something brand new–spring flowers! Elixir, Fisher’s choice, is a word derived from the Middle English term for an alchemical potion that could produce life as well as turn base metal to gold. So the connotations of the word fit the context perfectly. (The Fisher translation also has the Middle English text side by side with the modern translation, which makes comparison easy.)

I could go off into geeky analysis of other lines too, but you get the idea.

The Fisher translation also keeps much of the syntax of the Middle English, which can be viewed as either an advantage or a problem, as this School Library Journal review points out. (I don’t actually agree with the reviewer that the Fisher rendition is harder to read.) Check out the Norton book page here, the page here, and the Barnes & Noble page here.

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4 Responses to The Canterbury Tales: a new translation by Sheila Fisher

  1. Michael says:

    Very glad to hear about this translation. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of the Middle English geek-raps, but this one of the Prologue is a great favorite with us:

  2. CaptiousNut says:

    Hi Susan,

    Are you closing comments after a week or so? I’m just getting caught up on my reading and seem to have missed a narrow window on your previous posts.

  3. LibraryLover says:

    That is super geeky & fab. :) I enjoyed the analysis very much. Do more!

  4. It’s always a tough decision with teens – do you try to stretch them by offering the unchanged original text or do you make reading more accessible so as not to put out the fire. I love what you’re doing here, in Oz we have an educational crisis setting in – a giant gap between boys and girls in reading levels in mainstream schools – and the reason boys give for not wanting to read – it’s boring.

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