Chaucer’s Voices


Hadieh Shafie, 10450 Pages (2011). Photo: Sothebys.

There are several passages in his canon where Chaucer’s voice seems clearest to me, where I can imagine sitting in the same room with him, where I hear him read his lines aloud. In The Canterbury Tales, these passages are not all associated exclusively with either the narrating voice or any particular pilgrim. Truth be told, my selection shifts with experience and age. These days my ears seem to be attuned to the Wife of Bath’s lament at the passing of her youth (III.469-78), the pilgrim’s sly “And I seyde his opinion was good” (I.183), and Harry Bailey’s repeated efforts to “turne rancour and disese / T’acord and love” (IX.97-98). In these moments, I hear the voice of an urbane and humane man with many talents and varied experiences, able to keep his judgments in check and his sympathies close by. That voice, I realize, is my own creation, the consequence of my engaging a text that speaks differently to me year to year, day to day, even hour to hour.

Lately, my pre-Barthesian sense that I can hear Chaucer’s voice speaking in the texts has been enlarged by hearing its most recent manifestations, those of his translators into languages other than Present-Day English. Since the mid-twentieth century, translators have reconceived part or all of The Canterbury Tales in more than fifty languages from every corner of the globe. Just over a year ago, Jonathan Hsy (George Washington University) and I set out to locate and study these translations (and other appropriations). (You can find an up-to-date catalogue, as well as blog postings about some of our finds, at Unlike most Chaucerians, we find ourselves in contact with our authors, for many of these translators and adaptors are currently working, eager to share what they have learned. The translators especially have much to teach us, for who would better know the Chaucerian text than someone who has struggled to account for every word? To varying degrees, these translators share with all modern readers the question of how to interpret six-hundred-year-old poetic expression. Then they must deal with how to embody (without calcifying or betraying) that poetry. Many of their receiving (or target) languages are vastly different from Chaucer’s Middle English, with no ties to Indo-European and using semantic and syntactic rules far from those in English. Compounding the difficulty is the problem of cultural difference. How does a translator configure in Chinese a notion of sin requiring divine forgiveness when that culture does not carry such a concept? Footnotes and glosses are possible resources, but they do not eliminate the need to express in literary language an approximate concept. Through extensive written interviews with these translators, I have come to hear not one Chaucerian voice but many voices, each with a different perspective on what it means to collaborate with Chaucer in a new language.

In some cases, Chaucer’s is the voice of dissent. When John Boje translates The Canterbury Tales into Afrikaans, Chaucer’s voice in ‘n Keur uit die Pelgrimsverhale van Geoffrey Chaucer gains a certain edge inherent in any skeptical observer of Afrikaans culture during the apartheid period. Terms, locutions, and values associated with the very conservative culture of the Reformed Dutch Church (with which 90% of Afrikaners affiliated and which re-inforced the South African government’s apartheid policies during the years Boje translated most of the Tales) provide a useful linguistic cluster around which Boje develops the less favorable characters, either among the pilgrims or within their tales, thereby using the Afrikaans language and cultural values to critique those values.  A similar dissenting voice speaks when Iranian Alireza Mahdipour translates the Tales into Farsi. By appropriating the stance of the Chaucerian pilgrim who abrogates responsibility for the tales’ message—طبع من کُند است و قاصر این زبان منقبت—Mahdipour acerbically appraises the conservative government’s mismanagement and misunderstanding of the values it claims to control and interpret.

In other cases, the Chaucerian voice embodies the old ways. Nazmi Agil’s Turkish Canterbury Hikâyeleri domesticates Chaucer’s text with Turkish oral folktales and idioms he heard from his grandfather and on the radio. By reimagining Chaucer’s Christian voice as an old-fashioned Islamic one, he creates a text sympathetic to contemporary Turks. Similarly, José Francisco Botelho’s Chaucerian voice speaks a Brazilian Portuguese associated with the south of his country, far from the urban modernity of São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, and where the old cavalheiro of the pampas still sits around telling tales and dispensing wisdom. Contos da Cantuaria combines well-known proverbs, decassílabo (a traditional Portuguese verse form), rima toante (a low-status rhyme scheme), and pajada (oral poetry from southern Brazil) to create a new language for conveying Brazil’s fictional Middle Ages.

These and other translators provide intriguing test cases for such theories of translation as those of Walter Benjamin and Hans-Georg Gadamer, urging us to see translation as revealing what is not fully apparent in the source language or as providing access to embedded meanings otherwise unavailable in the original text. Their voices allow us to hear Chaucers—apartheid-opposed, Khamnei-weary, Islamic-clever, pampas-wise—that Geoffrey Chaucer could not imagine. Because these voices would have been unimaginable to him, they might seem either wrong or unworthy of serious consideration to those of us within Chaucer Studies. If, however, we grant that these voices are latent within the Middle English verses, then we can see that the translations provide enormous potential for our study of the Tales. They direct us towards forgotten etymologies and meanings excluded in the original but embraced or exposed in the receiving language, and they let us hear more distinctly the range of diverse voices making up The Canterbury Tales’ chorus. In short, they provide a way to hear anew the inherent polyvocality and multi-layered semantics in Chaucer’s Middle English lines.

And what do these twenty-first-century Chaucers sound like? CLICK HERE to listen to Lauri Pilter, Chaucer’s Estonian translator, reading the Wife of Bath’s lament from her prologue (III.469-478).
For more examples, see

Candace Barrington is a Professor in the Department of English at Central Connecticut State University. She has established, with Jonathan Hsy, an online digital archive of post-1945, non-Anglophone Chauceriana, Global Chaucers: