Chaucer FYI - 3 The Miller's Tale

After the honor, glory and nobility of The Knight's Tale, it is easy to see a fall in progress as The Miller's Tale is read and understood. Where the Knight was hyper-focused on the importance of degree and keeping distance between the various estates, the Miller happily mocks degree in a number of cases. At one point he describes something as "shining like a noble new struck in the tower;" this phrase has two meanings, which are at least partially lost in modern parlance. Modern readers don't know that a noble was a kind of circulated coin which, newly minted, shone very brightly - they are therefore likely to dismiss the line as a whole as incomprehensible, and thus will also miss the pun on newly created nobility, the "new money" of Chaucer's time. The Miller also jokes that Alison is essentially a "fine fling for a gentleman, or a good wife for a churl," which, after the high-flung ideals of love in The Knight's Tale is a rather pertinent jab at idealistic or unrealistic love as well as at the Knight's respect for degree.

The Miller lets us know from the start through such hints as those listed above, as well as his drunken rantings in his prologue that he is telling a base tale for base men, and it is in this way that we see him as the first, contemptuous, and reactionary example of tale-teller interaction. In The Reeve's tale we will see the Reeve reacting violently against the Miller for making fun of carpenters by making fun of a miller, and so on down the line for many of the tales. Somewhat ironically, it is appropriate that the Knight has no real opportunity to react against another tale-teller since his sense of honor associated with his degree would prevent him from insulting someone of a lower class.

Now onto my rant:

Translating Middle English into Modern English is difficult for a number of reasons. Some of these I've made little effort to address in my translation - I generally don't modernize syntax too much, I tend to leave in some of the articles that are superfluous in Modern English, I don't make much of an effort to hold punctuation to Modern English standards; that is because these things do very little to impede the translation of meaning to a modern reader. They may make reading my translation somewhat more frustrating, but they also make my translation all the more authentic. What I do have an issue with, however, is the difficulty found in translating some Middle English words into a Modern English vocabulary.

This was not as difficult, interestingly, in The Knight's Tale or the General Prologue where the vocabulary was held to a higher (and as it turns out, more lasting) standard. In The Miller's Tale, however, where the speaker is expected to be more colloquial, it is possible to see the depth of the losses we've experienced in the English language.

The Miller's speech is wonderfully funny, but frustratingly difficult to understand - which makes it hard for a first-time reader to appreciate the humor. Chaucer can't be blamed for this, but translators who are too frightened of offending a reader or treating "The Work" with anything less than reverence and kid gloves can and should be blamed for some of the trouble that readers have in approaching Chaucer.

There are four examples I would like to bring to the fore in The Miller's Tale. One is excusable, one is frustrating, one is infuriating, and one is unforgivable.

The first deals with one of the in-text notes in my translation of The Miller's Tale - the word "hende" according to many translators means simply "courteous" or "helpful." The reason this is excusable in a translation is that the pun is so close to lost that it would be difficult to elegantly convey it to a modern audience. Courteous, helpful Nicholas is handy. He is a handy man, not a handy-man, but one who is useful. That is enough, for basic readers - those who are not college students. College students should also be able to find out, without reaching for a Middle English dictionary or reading a few dry articles, that Nicholas is a grabby man. That his hands wander. If you are reading the original Middle English, perhaps you should be able to extrapolate that from the word "hende" and the context, but it is unlikely that overtaxed students will be able to on a single read-through. Please, for goodness' sake, footnote that sort of thing.

The frustrating example of translation or glossing is at the "ers" end of the story, occurring in only the last couple hundred lines. The frustrating word is, of course, "ers." I remember the first time I read this tale; I saw the word on the page, looked at it, read it in context and thought to myself "no, Chaucer wouldn't talk about some guy kissing some girl's ass. I should check in the glossary." Then I did check the glossary, and "ers" wasn't in it. Then I checked a few translations; I found "bum," I found "buttocks," and I found "behind," but I didn't find anything that looked like "ers." That's when I had my first encounter with a Middle English dictionary, one that first defined "ers" as buttocks, but at least conceded that it was "colloquially, ass." An ass is an ass! Not a bum or a buttock! Chaucer used the word for a reason, and "ass" is a hell of a lot closer to the Middle English than "buttocks" is, and a lot more appropriate for the person telling this tale. Sanitizing the language of a potty-mouthed, drunken Miller so that a modern reader's delicate sensibilities won't be offended makes no sense; especially since the word that's being tidied up can be spoken on network television and in PG rated movies. Congratulations, you just made Chaucer more puritanical than Disney. You heathens!

The fourth, infuriating, example of translator frustration I want to discuss involves another in-text note I made to the reader. "Queynte," with various spellings, has many meanings in Middle English. It can mean clever, sly, strange, supernatural, occasionally rural (as an extension of strange), and according to the glossary of The Riverside Chaucer, can mean an "elegant, pleasing (thing)" - wait, that doesn't make any sense - or "i.e., pudendum" - well, that's better. I can type "pudendum" (a word I had honestly not encountered before a line note in this textbook) into Google and find out that it's a rather outdated way of saying "vagina." Not only does this textbook - which is honestly, a pretty good text - go out of its way to avoid saying "vagina" by being so vague as to say "elegant, pleasing (thing)" in its stead, when the book actually gets around to saying "vagina" it doesn't bother to use a word for the part, even a medical word, that anyone this century has ever heard of, no - they use an outdated Latin word that literally means "something to be ashamed of." Tell you what, I'm not ashamed - Nicholas grabbed Alison by her cunt. Ta-da! Now, wasn't that simpler than the hair-pulling exercise that The Riverside Chaucer put us through?

The unforgivable sin that I came across while translating may actually seem rather minor in comparison. At the end of The Miller's Tale, after we've been through ass kissing, cheating, trickery, and the general delightful nastiness of the characters the Miller sums up for us. How kind. One of the last things we hear about was how "swyved" the carpenter's wife was. Seeing an unfamiliar word, I looked at the note at the bottom of the page. Then, unable to believe the callousness of the editor, I looked it up in the back of the book, then another translation, then in a dictionary (which I can forgive because dictionaries aren't supposed to be read.) According to all these sources, "swyved" means "copulated with." Can we please, possibly, in any way, make that definition more clinical, less interesting and less funny for readers who are already trying to muster the strength to wade through a book that is rapidly falling out of our curriculum because it's inaccessible to modern audiences? Nicholas and Alison weren't copulating! Okay, well technically they were, but putting it that way in a translation or a glossary makes it sound like Alison wasn't cheating on her husband with their boarder before having her stalker make out with her ass only to have that same stalker burn a strip of skin as wide as a hand off her lover's ass with a hot plow blade just before her husband broke his arm by falling out of a barn because he thought Noah's flood was coming. Can we at least say "made love" or "had sex," because "copulated with" just doesn't quite fit the tone of this circus/soap opera of a story, now does it?

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