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Middle English texts and their translations? watch

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    I am getting rather worried by the fact that in their original middle english the texts on my medieval reading list seem impossible to decipher. I am currently reading them in translation, but I was just wondering how important it is to understand the original, and how you're supposed to go about it?!
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    I'm just starting A2 Chaucer, so there may be different expectations at your level, but I'm reading an edition of the Tales where the words out of use in Modern English are glossed at the bottom, its a Penguin Classics but I'm sure there will be this addition in most versions. Reading it the most common variation from the language I speak is the spelling; I find that saying something out loud or in my head will usually help me work out what word it eventually evolved into, to make sense out of it. This website is also very, very helpful: http://courses.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/CTlist.html - each Tale comes with an interlinear translation, so you can essentially have the Modern English immediately at hand to skim-read, to check you've understood the Middle English. I would imagine similar resources exist somewhere online for other Medieval texts.
    Far be it from me to advise a current Oxford student, so sorry if I misinterpreted what you asked as I'm you'd already know most of this - but for anyone else starting Chaucer, you might find that page helpful.
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    Well I studied some chaucer in my first year and that was relatively easy to read - most words were recognisable and those that weren't were glossed at the bottom of the page. The texts I'm talking about are way stranger than chaucer
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    Well, I only got the Canterbury Tales on my Medieval Reading list and I found that ok, maybe because I'd studied some Chaucer before. The Riverside Chaucer is a really good edition with great notes. In some cases, reading aloud helps, because words sound right but look wrong, if you know what I mean.

    However, some stuff like Gawain and the Green Knight is more incomprehensible. But I'm pretty sure that, like the Old English paper for Mods, translations just won't cut it; you'll have to be able to quote in the original. My tutor put that in bold on my reading list too...
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    Yeah the Riverside Chaucer was the one i used last year. I've got Gawain, The Owl and the Nightingale, Ancrene Wisse, Laymon's Brut, Pearl and/or Cleanness and Henryson's Fables as well as various things from Chaucer. PLUS a whole load of Renaissance stuff (including the Faerie Queene - argh). Fun times ahead
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    (Original post by dreamqueen)
    Yeah the Riverside Chaucer was the one i used last year. I've got Gawain, The Owl and the Nightingale, Ancrene Wisse, Laymon's Brut, Pearl and/or Cleanness and Henryson's Fables as well as various things from Chaucer. PLUS a whole load of Renaissance stuff (including the Faerie Queene - argh). Fun times ahead
    Oi, I won't hear a word against Spenser!:p:

    About the Middle English stuff: yes, I'm afraid it's fairly important that you do try to read the original texts, although if it makes you feel any better, some of those texts are about as tough as Middle English gets... You'll get the hang of it after a while, but until you reach that point, parallel texts are extremely useful and usually better than translations, because they help to ease you into reading Middle English. The good news is, though, that for the commentary paper (i.e. the one for which it's absolutely vital to know the original text very well) you'll get to choose texts that are comparatively easy to understand, like Troilus, Morte D'Arthur or Henryson's fables.
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    WIth Pearl/Cleanness/Gawain/Patience you could try using the Malcolm Andrew & Ronald Waldron edition - it's got a good glossary and notes at the bottom of every page. The Tolkein ed. of Gawain is also VERY good (the recommended text for my course, and rightly so). Piers Plowman is extremely readable when helped by the Everyman, ed. Schmidt (v. helpful line-by-line glossary at the side of the text means translation and understanding is virtually instantaneous).

    The language is tricky - and the dialects make it more so; reading Chaucer is like reading a different language from Langland...and he's different again from the Gawain-poet. But the best way to crack it really is to READ it and keep reading. Don't be too impatient with it, and allow yourself plenty of time. I find reading it annoying because I normally sit at my desk (because of the need for glossaries, etc.) instead of curled up in a chair! It does get easier though.

    As for the Spenser - the problem there is length rather than language (once you get used to the swapping of "u"s and "v"s...!). Good luck! (It's fun - like a fairy tale, in many respects).
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    (Original post by epitome)
    I find reading it annoying because I normally sit at my desk (because of the need for glossaries, etc.) instead of curled up in a chair! It does get easier though.
    I eventually settled for reading the texts for my course lying on my bed, because it was more comfortable than sitting at my desk and it left me enough room to scatter all the books I needed around me.
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    I eventually settled for reading the texts for my course lying on my bed, because it was more comfortable than sitting at my desk and it left me enough room to scatter all the books I needed around me.
    That works in theory. In practice, however, I end up asleep within about 15 minutes! Not good!
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    The problem I find is with memorising quotations for exams, rather than reading in the first place - as mentioned by epitome, there are lots of very good editions with on-page glosses. I would say, though, that maybe getting the everyman edition of Gawain etc. might be good as well as the Tolkien - the Tolkien is a very pure text, with great glossary at the back, but the lack of on-page material combined with the somewhat uncompromising spelling makes it scary. The Everyman ed. is spelling-modified, which does make it a bit *******ised, but it's good to look at to get an idea of how words are pronounced, which helps understand them, and the on-page glosses are decent enough. Looking at two editions side by side is time-consuming, but certainly better than using a translation for comparison when you're in trouble. It might take longer, but translations, however literal, can never keep alliterative verse intact or the subtleties of the language.

    For memorising quotations, excessive as it may sound, I find it useful to familiarise myself with the conventions of spelling and grammar of the regions and times when these texts are produced. If, in one exam, you're writing on Chaucer's London bureaucrat, Langland in Worcestershire, Gawain-poet in the North-West, Scottish poets - not to mention a range between Laymon and Spenser! - the only way, for me at least, to be able to consistently remember how to spell things is to learn the conventions of things like gh/yogh, verb endings, mon etc. At Cambridge at least, we're expected to know the exact spellings rather than just spouting off improvised 'Menglish'.

    Spenser is amazing, but it's not worth trying to race through. This may sound pretentious/hyperbole, but things are so labyrinthine and complex that you could write thousands of words on a single stanza easily - most of my 5000 word dissertation last year focussed on five lines (II.xi.61.1-5) and their implications!
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    Looking at two editions side by side is time-consuming, but certainly better than using a translation for comparison when you're in trouble.
    Oh. So. True.
    (And it *does* take flipping ages. But who says a Friday night can't be fun when it involves a tricky Mid Eng passage and a glossary or three? Ahem.)
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    (Original post by epitome)
    That works in theory. In practice, however, I end up asleep within about 15 minutes! Not good!
    Ah, but only if you're facing the same direction you would if you were actually going to bed. If your head is facing the wrong way, though, you can prevent your brain from thinking "bed... sleep... never mind about Pearl..."
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    Well... I only read the modern English editions and I got high 2.1s/firsts on the relevant essays. Not that I'm suggesting anything!
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    (Original post by more adventurous)
    Well... I only read the modern English editions and I got high 2.1s/firsts on the relevant essays. Not that I'm suggesting anything!
    Fair enough, but you're still missing out on some great texts that way. Translations just aren't the real thing.:dontknow:
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    I don't think they're great... Middle English isn't my thing. If it is yours, then you should read the real thing of course. But if you're only doing it because you're required to take that module, why bother? Sure - try it - but if you find that it's more trouble than it's worth (for you), don't take the trouble. Trying to decipher Middle English just gives me a headache...
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    (Original post by more adventurous)
    Sure - try it - but if you find that it's more trouble than it's worth (for you), don't take the trouble.
    As I said, fair enough; I'm not saying you're wrong.:dontknow: I definitely agree with that bit, I just think people should give it a serious try before giving up on it altogether, because reading it does get a lot easier after a while... Middle English literature may not be as readily accessible as the literature of other periods, but nevertheless it deserves a chance, even if it's just studied as a compulsory paper. Sometimes you can make chance discoveries within compulsory papers as well, and you won't know until you try. Actually I never thought I'd like Middle English either; I thought the Chaucer we had to read over the vac was a pain to get through and not really worth the trouble, but I ended up finding the drama and the romances surprisingly interesting and entertaining.
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    Also, I have to do an essay before I go back. I was thinking of this one (on The Owl and the Nightingale) - '"it is a tribute to the power of the poem that critics have interpreted it in so many different ways" - how far do you agree with this statement?'. How important do you think understanding the original text is in a question like that...?
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    It's not so much "understanding the original text" that hobnob (and I, silently) argues - it's simply that you are not really reading *The Owl and the Nightingale* if you aren't tackling the language in which it was written. Of course you could answer a question like the one you cite only with reference to translations (and I imagine you'd slip in quotations from the original, to look well-read ), but it's only one step up from using Spark Notes (or York Notes, or whatever) to answer a question on Middlemarch or Milton. It can be done, people get decent marks with it...but it just isn't engaging with the literature.

    Of course sometimes things need to be speed-read, and shortcuts taken, but if you have the time then it's my preference to use it to read the texts properly...given the amount of money I'm paying for the privilege. It's not that translations are awful, it's just that they're not The Thing Itself - which, after all, is what we're all meant to be interested in taking a look at (theoretically, I know)! Ho hum. *shrugs*
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    (Original post by epitome)
    It's not so much "understanding the original text" that hobnob (and I, silently) argues - it's simply that you are not really reading *The Owl and the Nightingale* if you aren't tackling the language in which it was written. Of course you could answer a question like the one you cite only with reference to translations (and I imagine you'd slip in quotations from the original, to look well-read ), but it's only one step up from using Spark Notes (or York Notes, or whatever) to answer a question on Middlemarch or Milton. It can be done, people get decent marks with it...but it just isn't engaging with the literature.
    :ditto:

    You could probably answer this particular question anyway, as it's more concerned with the history of criticism than with the text itself, but it could be a bit tricky to argue for the 'power of the poem' without having read the original text. And it isn't as though tutors won't notice either (my Middle English tutor was scarily good at picking out the people who had only read translations and asking them specific questions about the text during tutorials). As far as I remember, one of the main points of criticism of finals essays on Owl and the Nightingale that keeps coming up in examiners' reports is that students don't seem to know the original text.
    If it's your favourite text, though, and you don't want to write on another question, there's a good parallel text edition which might be worth getting.
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    gawain takes some getting used to. the paradox is that if you read enough, you'll start to get it; however, you need a LOT and time and patience to read enough in the first place.

    with henryson though, i find that the best thing is to read certain bits out loud. visually, it looks awfully wrong most of the time. phonologically, it sounds like a tramp from glasgow and actually makes some sense!

    when struggling with middle english, just read aloud and see what happens.
 
 
 
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