Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Canterbury Tales (Day 2: lines 6-10)



Today, we will be examining lines 6-10 of the General Prologue. This exercise will exclude reproductions of the phonetic inscriptions, since I feel such a copying involves too much of a time investment to include with every post; readers may expect this exclusion to become the norm unless otherwise noted for a post. The remainder of my analysis, however, the line scanning and translations comparisons, have remained included.

                The text reads
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open eye (3)

                A literal translation of this passage would look something like this:

Breath life has in every wood and field
The tender buds, and the new sun
Has completed its half course in Ares,
And small birds make music,
That sleep all the night with open eye

                As usual, it is a very rough rendition but we can see what is being conveyed in the passage: a force has breathed life into every nook and cranny of the world (into every wood and field), delicate, new buds have sprung forth into the new day’s sun at a moment on the calendar when the sun itself has completed its half-course in Aries, thus marking the season (Spring). All the while, birds make their morning music for people who have stayed up all night.

                Even in the present literalness we are able to discerned a lively moment rendered beautifully, one, moreover, which is hardly removed from our own time, one which both overworked students as well as partying youngsters are able to appreciate—staying up late into the evening only to find that, when you look out the window, your realize it is morning and the birds are singing. If we want to defend the thesis that Chaucer’s poem represents, and continues to represent, the human condition even after six-hundred years, then this passage, on the very first page of the poem, is all the proof you need that Chaucer’s text is concerned with people and their behavior, as small as it may appear.

                But, to get right to how the professionals have translated this passage, let’s examine David Wright’s rendition.
Has given life in every wood and field
To tender shoots, and when the stripling sun
Has run his half-course in Aries, the Ram,
And when the small birds are making melodies,
That sleep all the night long with open eyes (3)

                ‘Shoots’ is an odd word to use for (flower) buds. Not one which we would use today, I feel, but Wright did translate during the mid-eighties, so it was likely more common usage during his time. Continuing on this unusual usage, ‘stripling’ is unconventional phrasing; why? Was ‘young’ not a more etymologically correct usage? I do not see the point in using a word as seldom used as ‘stripling’ to convey youth or a newborn quality. But, those are all the features I feel the need to point out at this point; over all, I feel Wright has done an admirable job at translating Chaucer into modern English, even if he, at times, uses odd choices.

                Moving onto Peter Tuttle’s translation, however, we see…

Blown through every wood and heath
The tender buds, and the young sun
In Aries has his half-course run;
And little birds make melody,
That sleep all night with the open eye— (3)

                I only see two bits of lingual ephemera here that are worth commenting upon—Tuttle’s use of ‘heath’ and his use of a semicolon. Concerning the former, in Middle English the word “heeth” means field, whereas in modern English a ‘heath’ identifies a home of some kind (‘heath’ is archaic spelling for a living room, the fire place room for family gatherings in the evening). One cannot translate ‘heeth’ as “heath.” They are not the same; phonetically they share some similarities in pronunciation, but they mean completely different things, their referents are non-equivocal. Someone today would not make their home in a field. But, moving onto to latter issue, Tuttle’s use of a semicolon… I’m just not sure about this as I have come to be under the impression that medieval scribes did not use any kind of punctuation; of course, this sets as a precedent that none of our modern punctuation points would be used, but I see the value in using commas in order to fill-in for a caesura. A semicolon, however, tends to indicate a more dynamic alteration as it denotes a sentence, an idea, which is connected to another sentence but sort of like in a junior partnership; to demonstrate: are the birds melody truly tethered to the blooming flowers and newly risen sun? You could, but I am not positive that I am sold on the translation.

                Moving on to Roland L. Ecker’s translation

Through every field and forest, urging on
The tender shoots, and there’s a youthful sun
His second-half course through the Ram, now run,
And little birds are making melody
And sleep all night, eyes open as can be (1)

                Okay. I am not sure where he is getting the “urging on.” Nowhere does the Middle English original have anything which can be associated with an urging. The second line, appears well, if not still using the ‘shoots’ usage as Wright’s version held. Line three, though fairly convoluted, actually holds up well, if not for the odd gendering (why a ‘he’? The ME word for ‘his’ meant ‘it,’ not the male gender as we know of it today). Lines four and five, meanwhile, remain conventional. 

                With the portion of the post focused on translation now finished, I will move on to a scanning of the lines.
                                                              U    /       U   /   U    /       U     /       U  /
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

                                                            U    /     U   /                U     /    U    /   U     /
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

                                                              U      /   U   /       U       /    U  /     U     /
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,

                                                                  U  /     U   /      U     /    U   /    U   /
And smale foweles maken melodye,

                                                             U     /    U    /    U   /        U     /   U    /
That slepen al the night with open eye (3)

And so ends the second Chaucerian investigation.

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