Prologue to the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: Modern English, French, and original Middle English,
English did not become modern until William Shakespeare and the King James translation of the Bible, a fact that will surprise many “modern” high school English students.
When April with its sweet showers
Hath pierced the drought of March to its root,
And bathed every vein in such liquor
By which virtue engenders the flower;
When the West Wind also with his sweet breath,
Has inspired In every woodland and field
The tender crops, and the young sun
Has half its course within the sign of Aries run,
And small fowls make melody,
That sleep all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them in their hearts),
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,
And pilgrims to seek strange shores,
To distant shrines, known in sundry lands;
And specially from every shire’s end
Of England to Canterbury wind their way,
The holy blessed martyr to seek
Who helped them when they were sick.
When I was a little boy the joke was told,
Q: Why did Peter throw the butter out the window?
A: To see the butterfly.
It is a joke that works in English but not in French, since butterfly in French is papillon.
Language barriers are large but none so great as that observed by the Welsh and English cleric Matthew Henry, There are none so deaf and none so blind, as they who refuse to see and will not listen.
Quand avril avec ses douces douches
La sécheresse de mars à sa racine a percé ,
Et a baigné toutes les veines dans une telle liqueur
Par quoi la vertu engendre la fleur;
Quand le Vent de l’Ouest aussi avec son doux souffle,
A inspiré dans tous les bois et champs
Les plantes tendres et le jeune soleil
A couru la moitié du cours en Bélier,
Et les petites volailles chante la mélodie,
Qui dormir toute la nuit avec l’œil ouvert
(Donc la nature les pique dans leurs coeurs),
Ensuite, les gens souhaitaient faire des pèlerinages,
Et les pèlerins cherchent des rivages étranges,
Aux sanctuaires lointains, connus dans les terres diverses;
Et surtout depuis la fin de chaque cours
De l’Angleterre à Canterbury se promène,
Le saint béni martyr à chercher
Qui les a aidés quand ils étaient malades.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 25 October 1400) is the grand daddy of English literature. Thank God he wrote in the vernacular and not in Latin as had been the custom. English is the most polyglot of languages and one may observe in Chaucer’s English bits of French, German, and Latin sprinkled throughout.
If one looks at the words of Chaucer and then listens to the sound, much of the meaning will become clear.
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Lost in Translation
Even the most literal of translations can be deceiving. That is a good thing for it means that Google Translate will forever require human intervention to determine the meaning of the words.
Listen is an active verb and if you don’t know what that means you haven’t been listening.
We do not know from a casual reading of The Prologue that the “ram” refers to Aries and the sign of the Zodiac that coincides with spring. Zephirius (Zepher) is the West Wind personified. The word priketh (prick) is a double entendre. Palmeres are those who carry the palm, a custom Roman Catholics continue to observe on Palm Sunday.
Otherwise, I try to stay true to the path Chaucer has taken. There are other translations. Mine is as literally as possible. Better to listen and learn.