THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
Translating complaint literature presents many challenges. Much of the material is driven by strong didacticism rather than artistic finesse, and therein lies a good deal of its appeal. This does not mean that didactic poetry lacks artistry, but force is at its core rather than charm. The standard evaluation of late Middle English literature is the intention to delight and instruct, to entertain and edify, directed to an audience seeking both. Rather than delight and entertainment, complaint verse concentrates on instruction and edification; it evokes moral outrage, pathos, fear and guilt, reflection and reform. Capturing that spirit is the translator’s job.
Selection of texts would be simple if restricted to material traditionally considered complaint literature. But since complaint is expressed, subtly or loudly in many genres, not all of which employ direct didacticism, the field of representation is expansive. Choices for the present collection were based on the desire to present a comprehensive survey of issues, styles and forms. The material’s potential for clarity and readability in translation also influenced inclusion. During the first half of the fourteenth century, decreasing later as English grew in prominence, some complaint literature was written in Anglo-Norman and/or Latin, and occasionally in bi- or trilingual form with English; these were excluded since the focus of this collection is on Middle English works.
Each form and each poet require sensitivity to individual voice. One of the greatest dilemmas for the translator is whether to retain verse form or convert verse into prose. The difficulty with the former is preserving meter and rhyme, which often requires substantial, often tortuous manipulation of the text at the cost not only of the artistry but the nature of the poetry. The latter has the advantage of retaining sense and spirit, but risks loss of prosodic effect. With a very few exceptions where translation into prose could not be successful, the texts in this volume are in prose. We have attempted to retain as much of the original tone, style, and language as possible; our aim is to preserve fidelity while creating readability. Still, some flexibility is often needed to untangle Middle English text and clarify its meaning. To borrow a phrase from A.V.C. Schmidt regarding his translation of Piers Plowman into prose, we have attempted to convey what the poets say without feeling obliged to retain the way in which they say it (xlii).
None of the translations are transliterations or glosses, and some have been treated more freely than others, depending on the difficulty and character of the poem. Word choice has often leaned to the original when more modern alternatives were available but made no improvement. Middle English is an exquisite language, capable of expressing in a few words what would require many more in modern English. However, there are some words and expressions that cannot be translated without sacrificing the prosody or that are simply impenetrable. In some cases, the original word or phrase, though archaic, has been retained. As Tolkien explained, “A real archaic English is far more terse than modern; also many of things said could not be said in our slack and often frivolous idiom” (Letter 171).
Discretion has also been necessary in determining stanzaic form where the original has none and punctuation where it is confusing. Capitalization is occasionally problematic since it is inconsistent within a text, between textual variants of the same poem, and between different poems. This applies particularly to religious terminology which moderns generally capitalize but medieval authors may not; we have tried to remain faithful to the original while respecting modern sensibility.
Reconstructing author and audience is a standard introductory element in editions of works. The main purpose is to place the literature in cultural and artistic context. Although background information and explanatory notes are offered in this volume, it is a translation, not an edition, so the topic of author and audience is touched upon only briefly and occasionally.
While a few authors are known, like Chaucer, Langland and Gower, the majority of the authors of the works included here are anonymous, and lengthy efforts at identification would probably not be enlightening, and perhaps distracting, in an introductory project such as this, and the same is true of seeking an audience. But a short primer on the process may be helpful.
Scholars seldom try to identify a specific person when considering authorship. but look to group, education, class, location and other factors that would facilitate literary interpretation. Clergy were the usual suspects until literacy spread, especially in the fourteenth century, and the possibilities widened. Scholars examine style, linguistics, historical and cultural references, mention by contemporary authors and other elements, and resulting opinions are usually conjectural and instructive to varying degrees.
Envisioning the audience involves much the same criteria, process and results. One of the dangers is using the assessment of the quality of a work to identify audience and author; a sophisticated poem must be for and by the aristocracy, and one of lesser artistry or knowledge of courtly environment (a criteria often used to judge romances) is by and for non-aristocrats. Critical study is moving away from this methodology in recognition of audience fluidity.
The concept of “an audience” is not always workable. Some texts, like those in Latin and/or Anglo-Norman, obviously required an educated audience. Others in vernacular English could appeal to a diverse group, particularly if presented orally in public, as some were. Manuscript evidence is also considered; the type of works included in a manuscript, which were often miscellanies, might suggest audience composition. If the manuscript contained primarily religious works, a clerical audience is suggested. However, many, if not most, manuscripts held works of various types, from saints’ lives to romances, which demonstrates either a diverse audience or one with wide interests. The quality of the manuscript is also used to determine audience: the more elaborate and expensive, the higher the owner’s class.
Manuscripts have their own problems. Often damaged and/or incomplete, the contents are scribal copies, which can be subject to dialectical differences from the original source, error, misinterpretations, faulty memory of oral sources, intentional alterations, and carelessness. Frequently they are produced much later than the composition of the original, which may have been copied and passed along many times, multiplying the accretion of error.
While this brief review of editorial procedures may make the scholarship seem tenuous, the discipline is nevertheless invaluable. It is also remarkable, considering the challenges involved in studying works from several hundred years ago: a language not yet normalized with many difficult dialects, sometimes specialized and obscure; corrupt manuscripts; and anonymous, occasionally cryptic authors. Also to be commended are the scholars who research historical documents and records, some spending careers on specific regions, and provide essential background to medieval cultural and literary study by both editors and translators.
Translators are indebted to editors, perhaps more suitably called “collectors,” of the original texts gathered from various manuscripts. Middle English works are sometimes included in survey anthologies, but the main sources are editions devoted to original texts, frequently focused on specific time periods and/or genres. Collecting and editing is ongoing, but its base is in the late nineteenth century. In 1864 the Early English Text Society began publishing a series of medieval works in separate volumes. The highly academic texts are still a primary source for scholars, and EETS continues to publish new entries annually.
For single volume collections, those of Thomas Wright, begun in 1839, remain seminal despite errors that have been corrected by modern editors with access to updated information. He supplies translations which, though archaic and closer to transliteration, are helpful in interpretation, especially for Anglo-Norman and Latin works. Many works bear titles supplied by Wright where they were absent in the original text, though some have been changed by more recent editors. Another valuable source is the 1959 collection by Rossell Hope Robbins, which benefits from historians’ scholarship lacking in Wright’s day.
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