Home > Canterbury Tales, The > Introduction


I will be listening to the audio book of The Canterbury Tales (BBC Audiobooks America, translated by Burton Raffel) and using my paperback copy (Penguin Classics, translated by Nevill Coghill) as a reference.

As I am a bit of a literary purist, I often feel that I am cheating in some way when I listen to an audiobook. Combine that with having to use a version that has been translated from something that sounds so simple as “Middle English” and I feel rather ashamed of myself. Thankfully, the introduction quickly put my shameful misgivings to rest.

First off, many older books have a strong background in oral tradition, told and retold aloud before ever being committed to the written word. Raffel (the translator) even goes so far as to say that one would miss something of The Canterbury Tales without reading the poem aloud, even if it is just to oneself.

Secondly, Middle English is not so easy as it would seem. It starts off very simple: “Here bygynneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury”. And even the first three lines are doable: “Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour,”. Something about April showers taking away the dryness of March and making everything green and intoxicating. Then we come to lines four and five: “Of which vertu engendred is the flour; Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth,”. Okay, I think the plants are pollinating in the nice breeze. Really, though, what it comes down to is that I will miss a lot of what Chaucer is saying if I attempt to read the book in its original language. And to further put my mind at ease, Raffel says, “A great story doesn’t change, but the language it was written in does.” So there we have it. And I tell myself I can always go back and read the Middle English version once I’m familiar with the story.

Useful web resource: http://www.thegreatbooks.org/. This website offers a side by side comparison of the Middle English version and a translated version. Also fun to check out their library of other authors.
  1. February 9, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    I can say that you almost HAVE to read The Canterbury Tales out loud or have someone read it to you, to even have a CHANCE of understanding it! It is NOT cheating! Good luck with the Tales! Hope you’ll share which characters you like the best.

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