15.08.24, Glaser, trans., Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde in Modern Verse

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Robert Costomiris

The Medieval Review 15.08.24

Glaser, Joseph, trans. Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde in Modern Verse. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2014. pp. 296. ISBN: 978-1-62466-193-8 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Robert Costomiris
Georgia Southern University

It is a testament to the greatness and enduring interest in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde that so many of its admirers have over the centuries modernized the poem's idiom in order to share it with their contemporaries. Although not as robust as the Dante translation industry that sees a new Inferno practically every year, the translation (as it is usually called rather than modernization) of Troilus and Criseyde, is still impressive, especially since the poem is after all in English. My own probably incomplete search found nine translations of Troilus since George Krapp's 1932 version. Most of these translations maintain Chaucer's rhyme royal stanza form, one is in blank verse (Morrison), and two are in prose (Windeatt and Lumiansky). The majority of the translations are by medievalists; a few are by non-specialists.

The most recent entry into the field is Joseph Glaser's translation "in Modern Verse." This is a somewhat misleading way to put what Glaser does, because the verse is still rhyme royal, it is Glaser's English that is modern--at least most of the time. Glaser's impetus to translate the poem appears mainly to stem from his admiration for what he calls "a cracking good story" (xxxi). Like many of Chaucer's narrators, Glaser affects some modesty when, commenting on Chaucer's rapid shifts in style, he writes that, "I doubt I did full justice to Chaucer's astonishingly lively and spot-on flying changes, but it was great fun to try" (xxxiii). Certainly every translator must feel a similar sense of failure in the face of the difficult task of changing the language of a beloved poem. Glaser comes closest to revealing his goal as a translator at the conclusion of the "Translator's Preface" where he writes, "If my version of the tale leaves you wondering about the meaning of it all, bemused and somewhat disoriented, then I've done at least part of my job as translator" (xxxv).

Leaving a reader wondering about the poem's meaning, as well as bemused and disoriented initially sounds like the confession of a failed translator. Shouldn't a translator wish to clarify the poem's ambiguities in order to make it more comprehensible? Isn't that the goal of translation? But as readers of Chaucer's original Middle English version of the poem know, Troilus and Criseyde is a very difficult poem to sort out. The combination of comic and tragic, high and low styles, epic and romance, Boethian philosophy and home-spun wisdom is disorienting and it is to Glaser's credit that he does not try to iron out the poem's wrinkles in order to present a specific reading of the poem to his modern audience. Still, while I think I understand the sentiment behind Glaser's statement about his work, I would like to know what he thinks are the other parts of a translator's job. Translations purport to make a work accessible to readers who do not read the original idiom. Even Chaucer's Middle English, which is easier than many other Middle English dialects, has proven to be a stumbling block to readers since the late 16th Century--or at least translators assert that it is. My own experience is that with a little effort, perhaps little more than the effort needed to read a translation, most English literature students readily become competent readers of Middle English. And there are some distinct advantages to reading Chaucer's original rather than a translation. If one has to struggle a bit to understand the language of the poem, that investment pays dividends when it comes to grappling with some of the poem's thorny questions because one is, perforce, more deeply involved with figuring out what the poem is trying to say. Translations, while easing the path to immediate comprehension, can also inhibit the process of deeper understanding. New readers coming to Glaser's translation deserve to know why they should skip the more daunting prospect of reading Chaucer's Middle English and move directly to Glaser's modernization.

In order to evaluate the nature of Glaser's translation I will examine a sample of passages from his version and compare them with Chaucer's text, occasionally Neville Coghill's modern English verse translation available from Penguin Classics, and sometimes Windeatt's prose translation. Given the length of the poem, this small sample cannot be representative of the whole, but it will give prospective readers some idea of some of the contours of Glaser's work. Since Glaser does not indicate what text he is using as the basis for his translation I will use the Riverside Chaucer because it is usually the industry standard.

The first stanza of Troilus has notoriously contorted syntax that has probably made many a reader have second thoughts about reading the poem in Middle English. Chaucer writes:

If a translator wanted to sort this out entirely, the most straightforward thing would be to start with line five, jump back to line one, bring in line three, and somehow squeeze in line two right after Troilus's name. It would not be pretty or poetic, but it would clearly convey the sense of what is going on. Windeatt's prose version takes this approach:

Before I part from you, my purpose is to tell of the double sorrow of Troilus, son of King Priam of Troy--how his fortunes in love rose and fell from misery to joy, then afterwards out of joy. Tisiphone, help me to compose these sorrowful verses, that weep even as I write them (3).

Glaser, needing to maintain the rhyme royal, cannot be so direct. Thus we have the following:

What is different here? The first line is basically the same. The second line repeats the name Troilus, and adds the redundant "chief lord" instead of "king." The third line stays close to the original while the fourth uses the archaic "weal" rather than "well" and, in order to keep the rhyme, ends with "discord," a distinctly different idea from being "out of joy" or joyless. The fifth line too feels redundant--with a greater emphasis on the confirmation that the narrator has done his job rather than Chaucer's more incidental notion of getting it all in somehow before he's done. And finally, the last line of the stanza makes less clear than the original who or what is weeping. Chaucer's verb is clearly plural and thus the subject must be "vers" which could be either singular or plural. Glaser elects to use "weeping" instead and so in his version it appears that the narrator is weeping rather than the verses.

Coghill's translation avoids all of these pitfalls, and at least here, shows a superior grasp of how to render this stanza into modern verse:

Coghill has managed to economically disentangle the syntax while maintaining the rhyme scheme of the original stanza. There is no redundancy or confusion but rather a clarifying translation more like Windeatt's in its effect. Were I to choose a translation based on this one stanza I'd choose Coghill's.

But Glaser's translation shines in other places. For example, in book 2 it is Glaser who stays closer to Chaucer than Coghill--and to good effect. The scene is when Pandarus is telling Criseyde about Troilus's love for her and Criseyde asks Pardarus for his advice about what to do. In the original Pandarus replies:

Coghill changes the sense of this by giving Criseyde more agency than we find in Chaucer's verse. He writes:

Glaser sticks closer to Chaucer here and better captures the mood of the scene:

Glaser's final couplet, that adds one more occurrence of the word love to Chaucer's lines that are already densely populated with that word, is particularly euphonious. Glaser's construction also capitalizes on the importance of the word "love" by repeating the parallelisms of "love for love" in both lines. This is a nice touch, I think.

Glaser's poetic sense is also apparent when he translates Chaucer's tiptoeing description of love's slow infiltration into Criseyde's initially resistant heart. Chaucer writes:

Glaser handles these lines like this:

Love's unwinding skein is a particularly felicitous replacement for Chaucer's "myne" because it captures not only the complex bundle of emotions involved but also emphasizes the length of the unraveling process that leaves Criseyde finally predisposed to think of loving Troilus. Glaser also replaces Chaucer's "by proces" with the more familiar "in time" but by pairing it with "not all in one stroke" he achieves a balance similar to that of Chaucer's "proces" and "sodeyn wyse."

But translations can also push issues along too fast. There is no question that Fortune plays a major role in Troilus and Criseyde, but it is an idea that is introduced slowly in Chaucer's poem, gaining momentum until it reaches a crescendo in book 4. According to the on-line Chaucer concordance, the word "Fortune" only appears four times in book 1 and twice in book 2. It is curious then that Glaser stresses the importance of Fortune so much earlier as we see in the scene when Troilus rides under Criseyde's window just after Pandarus has planted the seed in her mind that Troilus loves her:

Chaucer does not mention fortune here except tangentially through the word "happy," nor does Windeatt who uses the word "lucky" in place of "happy." Chaucer writes:

In Chaucer's version, Troilus's "happy day" refers apparently to his good luck in battle that day. It may also vaguely refer to his luck in passing by Criseyde's window at this moment. But Glaser's "fortune," used twice in two lines, brings to mind a power greater than Troilus or even his luck and the use of the word "here" in line 623 orients us to this moment under Criseyde's window rather than the battle events preceding Troilus's entrance into Troy. Additionally, Glaser omits both uses of the verb "seyen" as in "sooth to seyn" and "men seyn" without which these lines seem much less tentative than they do in Chaucer. Coghill also uses the word "Fortune" in this setting, but only once. And he keeps "they say" in the penultimate line of the stanza.

Beyond these details of Glaser's translation practice, prospective readers of Glaser's work will be pleased to find the translation preceded by Christine Chism's excellent "introduction." In twenty-three pages Chism ably gives readers some background on Ricardian era England and the poem's audiences, a discussion of the significance of the images in the famous Troilus frontispiece in CCCC Ms. 61, a brief exploration of how courtly love poetry might fit into the reality of Chaucer's world, as well as Chaucer's dependence on and deviation from Boccaccio's Il Filostrato. Chism's astute appreciation of Chaucer's achievement is clear when she writes: "Chaucer invites us to see Troilus, Pandarus, and Criseyde in the exigencies of their means, rather than the summations of their ends. In so doing Chaucer implicates the strategies of reduction, division, and elision that render judgment possible at all" (xxvi). One could not ask for a more succinct and cogent introduction to the poem.

Some aspects of the translation are a bit befuddling. Although the book title calls this a translation in "modern verse" Glaser inexplicably keeps the Latin incipits and explicits and translates them at the bottom of the page. He also retains a fair number of archaic words: for example, "indite," "weal," "westering," "oft," and "jangle" as well as other turns of phrase whose meanings might not be clear to modern readers such as "She was the foremost beauty in the press" (1.172), and "the coxcomb always pays" (1.214). Some parts of the poem, for example, both of the Canticus Troili, Antigone's Song, and Troilus and Criseyde's letters, Glaser italicizes--without indicating the reason why. The places where Chaucer has augmented or changed Boccaccio's Il Filostrato Glaser announces in the footnotes but without consistently reminding us why these differences might matter. Finally, the "Suggestions for Further Reading" containing only seventeen entries, none of them other translations of the poem.

No translation of Troilus and Criseyde can satisfy all readers' expectations: every reader will find elements to praise and blame depending on his or her own sense of what Chaucer is trying to say and what each of us thinks is most important to retain in the process of modernizing Chaucer's Middle English. If, as seems likely to me, Glaser's target audience is non-specialist undergraduates, then this translation meets their needs. It is clear, lively, and strikes a good balance between fidelity to Chaucer and the needs of modern readers who are not ready to jump into the refreshing pond of Middle English. Hopefully, Glaser's translation and his evident love for the poem will entice them to make that leap.

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