Monday, October 1, 2012

Book Review: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, translated by Burton Raffel

Buy from the Book Depository
Title: The Canterbury Tales
Author: Geoffrey Chaucer
Translator: Burton Raffel
Publisher: Modern Library
Hardcover: 672 pages
Edition: Unabridged
Summary: (taken from Goodreads)
It would be impossible to overstate the influence of Geoffrey Chaucer’sThe Canterbury Tales. A work with one metaphorical foot planted in the Florentine Renaissance literary tradition of Boccaccio’s Decameron and the other in works ranging from John Bunyan, Voltaire, and Mark Twain to the popular entertainments of our own time, The Canterbury Talesstands astride the cultures of Great Britain and America, and much of Europe, like a benign colossus.  
Beyond its importance as a cultural touchstone and literary work of unvarnished genius, Chaucer’s unfinished epic poem is also one of the most beloved works in the English language–and for good reason: It is lively, absorbing, perceptive, and outrageously funny–an undisputed classic that has held a special appeal for generations of readers. Chaucer has gathered twenty-nine of literature’s most indelible archetypes–from the exalted Knight to the bawdy Wife to the besotted Miller to the humble Plowman–in a vivid group portrait that captures the full spectrum of late-medieval English society and both informs and expands our discourse on the human condition. 
Presented in these pages in a new unabridged translation by the esteemed poet, translator, and scholar Burton Raffel–whose translation of Beowulf has sold more than a million copies–this Modern Library edition also features an Introduction by the well-known and widely influential medievalist and author John Miles Foley that discusses Chaucer’s work as well as to his life and times. 
Despite the brilliance of Geoffrey Chaucer’s work, the continual evolution of our language has rendered his words unfamiliar to many of us. Burton Raffel’s magnificent new translation brings Chaucer’s poetry back to life, ensuring that none of the original’s wit, wisdom, or humanity is lost to the modern reader.

Overall Rating: 4/5

This is one of the best translations of Chaucer that I've read. And, having been an English major, I've read quite a few versions of Chaucer's stories. It makes a huge difference having a poet translate, I think. Raffel does an excellent job in maintaining the poetic integrity of the work while making it readable for modern readers.

I have heard many friends complain about how boring The Canterbury Tales is. I admit, there are some stories that are impossibly long-winded. (I'm thinking of the Parson's Tale here.) However, there are a few classics in here, such as the Wife of Bath's Tale, and the Knight's Tale. No matter what, it's amazing to see how each of these stories continues to be meaningful and have relevance to audiences today. There is something in every story that we can still see in today's world. Promiscuity, cheating, marriage, friendship, religion, etc. Chaucer covers it all.

If you're going to pick and choose, however, I think the funny ones are the best. There is some merit in the others, but Chaucer is at his finest when writes humor. He's sarcastic, clever, and gloriously irreverent. And he's not above a good fart joke. I'm not sure that can be taken as a sign of a brilliant writer, but Chaucer is one of the greatest.

Overall, I think classics are classics for a reason. The status of The Canterbury Tales is rightly deserved. Chaucer is undeniably clever and funny and brings up a lot of issues that are still worth thinking about. I think everyone should sit down and read this one; just be prepared for poetry, not prose, and know that it won't be a fast read. But it will be worth it.

*I was given a free copy of this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers' Program in exchange for an honest review.*