The Medieval Review 12.06.29

Richmond, Lyn. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Merchant's Tale. Hesperus Classics. London: Hesperus Press Limited, 2011. Pp. 104. 6.99 GBP. ISBN: 978-1-84391-199-9.

Reviewed by:

T. Matthew N. McCabe

The Merchant's Tale follows The Book of the Duchess, The Parliament of Birds, and The Miller's Tale as the fourth Chaucer translation by E.B. "Lyn" Richmond to appear from Hesperus. Like the earlier volumes, this slender paperback places Richmond's translation opposite the text in Middle English (which, in this case, is reproduced from the Riverside Chaucer).

The book's press release states that Chaucer's Merchant's Tale "appears on AQA and OCR A- and AS-level English Literature syllabi and undergraduate courses," thereby giving some idea of the series' target audience. It is easy to imagine the text working well in an introductory course whose scope included only one or two selections from Chaucer. Thanks to its generally pleasing aspect and to Richmond's fresh, seemingly effortless translation, the volume also seems very capable of winning other, non-student readers to Chaucer.

Its cover sporting green pears, the volume is appealingly unpretentious. Richmond carries her learning lightly, and in nine pages her lively and perceptive introduction orients readers to matters of fabliau, social contest, the preceding Clerk's Tale, irony, characterization, tone, and narrative technique, as well as Chaucer's overall achievement. Line numbers are marked throughout both parts of the parallel text, a setup that would facilitate keeping translation matters in play, even in a course whose historical and philological dimensions were minimal. Printed unobtrusively at the back of the volume, twenty-four explanatory notes suffice for the prologue and tale together, and the book concludes with a one-page note on Chaucer's life.

Richmond's translation preserves Chaucer's couplet rhyme scheme and meter, although her rhymes and her iambic pentameter are both more regular than Chaucer's. Richmond creates sonic regularity without any detriment to fluidity of thought, and this fluidity, this ease of expression, is probably the greatest strength of the translation.

So much does Richmond allow the sound of the original to inform her translation that she is occasionally able to render complete lines virtually unchanged. Lines 51-54 provide a striking example:

"No other life," said he, "is worth a bean,

For wedlock is so easy and so clean

That in this world it is a paradise."

So said this aged knight, who was so wise.

Here, apart from changes in spelling, Richmond makes only three slight adjustments, all in the last line (originally, "So said this olde knight, that was so wise"). That such lines, essentially identical to Chaucer's own, should seamlessly blend with the rest of her translation gives an indication of just how Chaucer- like her poetry sounds.

Indeed, to this reviewer at least, Richmond's translation reads considerably more like Chaucer than do other modern English translations, but she achieves this likeness using techniques that (notwithstanding the passage just quoted) are often less conservative than those of other translators. One measure of conservation that would support this claim, for instance, is the relative frequency with which a translation uses a couplet rhyme close to, and in at least one rhyme-word lexically related to, the corresponding couplet rhyme in Chaucer's original. For example, I count as rhyme conservation not only the rhyme pair "bound"/"abound" for "ybound"/"habounde" (73-4), but also the rhyme pair "wot"/"forgot," corresponding to Chaucer's "woot"/"Wades boot" (211-12); I do not count "lead"/"knead," which corresponds to "may men gye"/"handes plye" (217-18).

Applying this measure to the first 80 lines of Richmond's translation, Chaucer's rhymes are conserved 50% of the time (20 of 40 rhymes). This closely approximates Nevill Coghill's rate of 55% (22 rhymes) for the same lines in the Penguin Classics version, but it deviates considerably from the rates of both David Wright's more loosely rhyming Oxford World Classics version (25% or 10 rhymes) and J.U. Nicolson's highly conservative 1934 "modernization" (95% or 38 rhymes).

Richmond's ability to escape the tyranny of Chaucer's rhymes even while working in a meter and rhyme scheme identical to his is often striking. Where Chaucer in the so-called "marriage encomium" has

And if thou be syk, so God me save,

Thy verray freendes, or a trewe knave,

Wol kepe thee bet than she that waiteth ay

After thy good and hath doon many a day

Richmond offers the characteristically lucid lines,

And if you should fall sick, may God forefend,

A faithful servant or some loyal friend

Will better serve you than the one who ever

Waits till your goods are hers, and ceases never. (89-92)

In altering line 89, Richmond not only solves the problem presented by the semantically evolved knave in the next line, by changing the rhyme, but also replaces a potentially obscure oath with a relatively clear one and repairs a metrical deficiency. The regularity of meter, like the regularity of number which Richmond gives to the next line ("servant ... friend"), are typical of the lucidity prized by her version.

If "forefend" (20, 89) risks sounding precious (at least to North American ears), Richmond's diction is fresh and lively on the whole. Fillers occur no more frequently than in the original and, as in Chaucer, they never appear from metrical desperation merely. Contemporary fillers like "you bet your life" (88) and "Ask anyone at random ..." (3) contribute to a general sense of fluidity and ease that, mutatis mutandis, it is tempting to call Chaucerian.

One thing that is lost amidst the breeziness, however, is the elevated tone that the Merchant's high rhetorical style has in comparison to other Canterbury tales. Obviously no translation can capture every quality of the original, and here is one place where distortion is manifest.

Yet the privileging fluidity is true to Chaucer in other ways. Indeed, Richmond's ability to draw on the whole range of Chaucer's writings, not only on the lines which she has directly in front of her, suggest her intimate knowledge of her subject. She opens her version of the tale with an appeal to documentary authority which approximates a gesture common in Chaucer and in medieval narrative poetry in general:

In Lombardy there lived some time ago

A worthy knight, whose birthplace, records show ... (33-4)

While no equivalent for "records show" is in the original--

Whilom ther was dwellynge in Lumbardye

A worthy knyght, that born was of Pavye ...

--we might suppose that there easily could be. Elsewhere she introduces the oath "By the Mass ..." (61) where no oath is in the original. Interestingly, this particular oath is rare in Chaucer, and one might quibble that the strictures on swearing would prevent so image-conscious a pilgrim as the Merchant from speaking these words. But this is a quibble. Richmond adds Chaucerism to Chaucer again when she recasts

Biforn hem stoode instrumentz of swich soun

That Orpheus, ne of Thebes Amphioun,

Ne maden nevere swich a melodye.


Before them instruments such music made

That Amphioun and Orpheus in the shade

Had never uttered such sweet melody (503-5),

lines which evoke Orpheus' journey to the underworld but also recall Chaucer's famous invocation of Polymya, who "Singest with vois memorial in the shade" (Anelida and Arcite 18).

Misreadings of any real seriousness are very few. Richmond misconstrues married folk as a category separate from "worldly folk" when she renders

Housbonde and wyf, what so men jape or pleye,

Of worldly folk holden the siker weye


Husband and wife, however men may joke,

Walk much the safer way than worldly folk. (177-78)

If we accept John Manly's argument that the two references in the tale to "folk in seculer estaat" (110, cf. 39) reflect Chaucer's intention to reassign The Merchant's Tale to a religious persona, the equation of married folk with "worldly folk" is especially clear. Alternatively, we might take the two uses of the word seculer as allowing Chaucer to characterize his speaker as having a peculiarly heightened sense of his own layness. Richmond is probably wise to skirt a complicated issue when she renders line 39, describing January's long career as philanderer, "As do those fools who love outside the law" (originally, "As doon thise fooles that been seculeer"). But on any interpretation, lines 177-78 must mean something like, "They may only be layfolk, but as layfolk go, married people have it best and safest."

Purple passages, with their more complicated syntax, raise special difficulties, perhaps especially when astrological references are present.

Were it by destiny or simple chance, By heaven's influence, or the unending dance

Of stars, or by their new conjunction then,

It was decreed that heaven's plan for men

Was to petition Venus and her works

(For all things have their time, say learned clerks)

That any woman should attain her love,

I cannot say ... (755-62)

Where Chaucer has, in one of several parallel conditional clauses, "Or [were it] by constellacion, that in swich estaat / The hevene stood that tyme fortunaat for...," a construction that might defeat a reader unfamiliar with medieval astrological practices, Richmond wisely substitutes a simple, direct expression: "It was decreed...." At the same time, the subjunctive "were decreed" would seem preferable for maintaining the hypothetical mood that must be sustained until line 762. More seriously, the next part--"heaven's plan for men / Was to petition Venus and her works / ... / That any woman should attain her love"--is certainly garbled. In the original, the subject of both actions, "gete hire love" and "putte a bille" is the same ("men"); besides producing a bad sentence (possibly the only one in the whole translation), Richmond's lines also have the unfortunate effect of suggesting that May could be initiating the affair with Damian, a suggestion otherwise not found in the tale.

Infelicities like these are very few. Typographical errors are virtually absent. This is good translation that will help win new readers to Chaucer, and we should hope Richmond continues her work on the tales.

Copyright (c) 2012 T. Matthew N. McCabe

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