Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Introducing the First FrenchBilingual Edition of Chaucer's Work
It all started a while back in Toronto, during the last congress of the New Chaucer Society – well before the familiar world ended. Sometimes during the congress, it was mentioned by Ruth Evans how the NCS ought to find ways to get closer to non-Anglophone Chaucerians, and France was mentioned at some point. That had me reacting for obvious reasons, as I had noticed the absence of French medievalists in the last few congresses. I knew the state of Chaucerian studies in France, but I had no idea so few of us actually moved around in international academic events. That is a strange state of affairs, especially for a poet like Chaucer whose writing is marked by internationalism and European culture, but who is at the same time “vraiment nôtre par filiation”, as Émile Legouis wrote one hundred years ago.
Medieval Studies in the Francophone World
Yet, we have to recognize here an unpleasant truth: Chaucer is fading away in the Francophone world and has been doing so for a while. As Frenchified as he was, he had the idea of writing in English; that is a crime the French cannot forgive. Not only because we are rubbish in English (think about John Cleese as a French soldier taunting King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of where we’re at), but because we have gradually stopped showing interest to our medieval past. There are no medievalists available to teach medieval English literature in France because universities have cut down those jobs: the fewer teachers you have in a discipline, the fewer students can learn about it and later on become teachers themselves. As a result, no university is now willing to create a teaching position in this field: correct me if I’m wrong but Sorbonne Université is probably the only one in France offering an introduction to medieval English literature and languages in its optional–but quite popular!–“Histoire de la langue” classes for third-year students. The situation seems just as complicated in other Francophone countries. Mary Flannery, for instance, recently discussed on this blog Chaucer’s appearance in Switzerland’s high-school curricula and explained that he
“is most often mentioned by name and much more rarely taught before university–my students very often have heard of (or even studied) Chrétien de Troyes in high school, but have often never heard of Chaucer.”
Indeed, according to my estimation, more than 60% of the Francophone population has never heard of Chaucer, while 92% of them know who Dante is, and 75% know Chrétien de Troyes! Sadly, things are not getting better, and medieval literature as a whole is disappearing. One of the latest reforms of the French educative system has even put the kibosh on the presence of medieval literature in the CAPES Lettres, the competitive examination for the selection of secondary school teacher.
Translating Chaucer? Why Not?
Something must be done. It was accordingly decided in Toronto during a meeting that turned into a dinner to propose a new edition of Chaucer’s poetry in French: the NCS and the Global Chaucers Project would support and encourage the endeavor, and I would be in charge of putting it together. I decided quite early on that the best way to introduce students (in high schools and universities) to Chaucer would be by producing a bilingual edition with a brand-new prose translation done by one single translator. Since no one in their right mind would agree to translate all of Chaucer’s work on their own, I thought I would do it. Mainly because I had a very specific vision of what I wanted to produce – something that might have been impossible to force on my fellow translators. It’s not that I had a clearly defined theory of translation, but I wanted to translate Chaucer in poetical prose, and I had a notion of how my own French could mimic Chaucer’s Middle English. The idea would be to almost transform Chaucer back in the original language that influenced him rather than modernizing everything. I will come back on this soon in a new blog post.
However, as I wanted to (re)introduce Chaucer in French, I tried to stay in touch with the real world: my edition would not only need to be bilingual but also instructive and affordable (otherwise what would be the point?). I was therefore delighted to work with a publisher as respected as Classiques Garnier who instantly accepted my offer of a complete bilingual Chaucer and offered me a contract for as many volumes as necessary. The texts themselves, of course, would not be enough to (re)introduce Chaucer, and I, therefore, commissioned a series of introductions. I would write the general introduction but then ask a dream team of Chaucerians to introduce each poem to a brand-new audience.
I’m incredibly proud to present here, for the first time, the outline of this edition and the names of the scholars who accepted my invitation.
Le Livre de la Duchesse : Ardis Butterfield
La demeure de Renommée : David Wallace
Anelida et Arcite : Candace Barrington
Le parlement des oiseaux : Susan Crane
Troilus et Criseyde : Barry Windeatt
La légende des dames vertueuses :Rosemarie McGerr
Poésies diverses : Anthony Bale
Les Contes de Canterbury : Helen Cooper
Boece : Tim Machan
Le Traité de l’astrolabe : Yoshiyuki Nakao
Volume 1 will be published in 2021 in Garnier’s “Textes du Moyen Age” series. The other volumes will then follow in the years to come. I would like to thank the New Chaucer Society, Global Chaucers, Classiques Garnier (especially Richard Trachsler) and all the scholars who have contributed, for their support.
I look forward to sharing with you all my reflections on this amazing project in future blog posts!
-- This blog post was written for and first published on Global Chaucers. --