14.08.04, Klitgård, Chaucer in Denmark

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Sif Rikhardsdottir

The Medieval Review 14.08.04

Klitgård, Ebbe. Chaucer in Denmark: A Study of the Translation and Reception History, 1787-2012. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2013. Pp. 297. ISBN: 978-87-7674-705-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sif Rikhardsdottir
University of Iceland

Ebbe Klitgård's volume Chaucer in Denmark: A Study of the Translation and Reception History 1782-2012 places itself very consciously within the critical arena of medievalism, by the author's own words, in its focus on the post-medieval dissemination of a medieval author, more specifically the Danish reception of Chaucer´s works from the late eighteenth century up until now. The underlying goal of the volume is to use Chaucer as an exemplum to illustrate the "history of English education, culture, language and literature in Denmark" (13). The focus remains throughout on Danish readers and the Danish cultural context and the signification that the shifting Anglo-Danish relations--as illustrated through Chaucer translations--have had within Denmark.

The volume is arranged chronologically, moving chapter by chapter through the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each chapter focuses on major personages connected with or involved in the promotion or translation of Chaucer in Denmark during a defined historical period, ranging from Thomas Christopher Bruun (1750-1834), the first Professor of English at the University of Copenhagen, to Wikipedia. The volume is intended to encompass the span of Chaucerian influence (or presence) in Denmark and Klitgård states that he has sought to include all published Danish translations of Chaucer as well as "everything substantial published about Chaucer in Danish or in a Danish context in that 230-year period" (13). The selection of the timeframe of the volume coincides with the first appearance of a Chaucer text in Denmark. Johan Herman Wessel's musical drama Feen Ursel eller hvad der behager Damerne, which appeared in 1782, owes its roots to The Wife of Bath's Tale, although it has gone through multiple stages of rewriting and lost more or less all traces of its origin and is not attributed to Chaucer at all. Wessel's musical drama is a Danish version of a German Singspiel, which has passed through several French rewritings or inspirations, but ultimately takes its main plot from John Dryden's version of Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale, published in 1700. The final chapters conversely discuss the prevalent influence of American culture in contemporary Denmark and seek to contextualize Chaucer within that discourse.

The book was originally written as a Danish Dr.Phil. disputats (a senior doctoral dissertation) and that origin is evident to some extent in the structure. Following a short introduction, which provides an overview of major sources and the structure of the book, there is a methodological chapter where Klitgård delineates the critical parameters of his study. Drawing on previous works on the post-medieval reception of Chaucer, such as Steve Ellis' Chaucer at Large, Klitgård situates his study within the theoretical framework of reception and translation theory and more indirectly within the critical schools of New Criticism, structuralism and narratology in its emphasis on textual analysis. The remaining chapters focus on selected timeframes that exemplify, according to Klitgård, representative periods in the historical development of the English language in Denmark.

The first chronological chapter focuses on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (chapter 3 in Klitgård's overview) and traces the earliest evidence of Danish adaptations of Chaucer's works. In the 1780s French and German were the main foreign languages in Denmark and English had little to no presence and the sole evidence of Chaucerian influence remains indirect. Klitgård provides a historical background as well as some comparative textual analyses, pointing out how adjustments are made to adapt the texts to the cultural sensitivities or proclivities of the Danish readers by reducing their presumed "foreignness." The first adaptation to appear in Denmark, Wessel's musical, is followed by a second adaptation of The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale by Professor Thomas Bruun in 1823. The renaming of the student Jankyn as "Rask" in Bruun's adaptation provides an amusing private joke that those familiar with the history of Nordic philology will appreciate. Rasmus Rask--later to become one of the major Nordic philologists and a professorial colleague of Bruun's--had been, like the fictive Jankyn, a poor student of Bruun's at the university (48-49).

The following chapter commemorates the first real Chaucer publication in Denmark, which appeared in 1853 in Louise Westergaard's publication of a booklet on Chaucer, intended to be the first volume in a series on English poets. Besides this first volume on Chaucer, the series was never published. Klitgård measures the reception of Chaucer against the general historical development in Denmark, which is represented mainly through biographical accounts of the major translators and promoters of Chaucer or Chaucerian literature. The time period is marked by an increasing influx of nineteenth-century English literature and the growing international exposure of Danish culture through the works of Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard. Westergaard´s work furthermore appears in the wake of the first wave of the women´s rights movement and her apparent indignation at the cruel treatment of Griselda in The Clerk's Tale provides an interesting addendum to the reception history of the Griselda tale (78-79).

The next three chapters move from the nineteenth century into the twentieth century, providing an overview of the Chaucer translations or studies interspersed through the period and a discussion of the cultural implications of the translation activity (or lack of it). Chapter 8 (in Klitgård's overview) focuses on the German occupation of Denmark during the Second World War and the pro-Britain sentiments that follow the end of the war as well as the impact of Karen Blixen's (known by her pseudonym Isak Dinesen) popularity in the USA. Chapter 9 presents the first two complete (or near-complete) prose translations of The Canterbury Tales, which both came out in the 1950s. The final chapter lastly covers the latter half of the twentieth century up until 2012. Klitgård makes a note of the fact that there are no recent Danish translations of any of Chaucer's major works and that the 1940s and 1950s mark the "peak points of Chaucer translation in Denmark" (235). His observation that "many Scandinavian English departments today hardly include anything medieval at all in their English literature syllabi" (238) provides an interesting input into the larger discussion of academic policies and their implicit (and explicit) cultural effects.

While the focus of the volume is on Chaucer, the study reveals much more about Denmark and Danish cultural history in the late eighteenth century and up until our days. It should be of interest to scholars working on Chaucerian reception as well as on Anglo-Danish cultural relations, on the history of English instruction and education in Denmark and those interested in translation theory inasmuch as the Danish latter day transmission of Chaucer's works becomes an example of the shifting inter-cultural paradigms associated with the status of the English language and English culture (both British and American) in Denmark.

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Sif Rikhardsdottir

University of Iceland