It probably has not been till recently that I began actually reading those warning signs at the beginning of books. They generally read “A Note on the Text” when what many of them should actually read is: “How We Endeavored to Do Everything in Our Power to Destroy This Work of Art.” For we find that much tampering is done with a lot of the texts that we read, and this certainly is true the further in history we go back. It is nearly impossible to reproduce some texts completely. Though only now is this truly being an issue when I read, I have always felt some aversion to reading something that has been tampered. I believe this is why I struggle now to appreciate the Russian literature I loved so much only two years ago. It is not to say that I think Crime and Punishment is not as good as A Tale of Two Cities, but unless I learn Russian (and figure out what exactly they are attempting to do with the seemingly strong capriciousness of their names), I simply cannot appreciate the literature as I do English.
My next planned book was to be The Faerie Queene but as I hinted above, I am struggling to find a suitable edition that is not either abridged into obscurity or altered into a dark equivocalness. And apparently this highly important poem is not widely distributed. Thus my search for my Queene continues. I had this same, though less intense, issue when searching for The Canterbury Tales. Now if any of you reading this happen to be looking for a version of The Canterbury Tales, I have a suggestion, and you can take it or leave it.
The Tales seem to be available pretty much any place you go. I have a delightful Half Price Bookstore here in town which has multiple copies, and the nearest Barnes and Noble has plenty. However, the many you will find in the bookstore are usually highly tampered with. That is, a majority of the Tales are translated (though perhaps not the correct terminology) into modern English to help today’s reader better understand what Chaucer is saying. Let’s be honest, the word eek serves more as an onomatopoeia today, but the 14th Century Englishman said eek to mean also. Other words such as Clepe or y-cleped mean call or called. (E.g. the boy was cleped Peter.) All this, I am sure, is very interesting. The point I want to argue is that though it may seem beneficial to use a modern day translation so that we are not altogether befuddled, I would argue for at the very least a middle English version with helps. One very important creed I adhere to is such: If I can do it, so can you. And I am fairly confident that I can handle a middle English text (East Midland dialect) with minimal experience.
The reason I urge trying out a non-translated version of the Middle English (or Faerie Queene, Hamlet, Paradise Lost etc.) is that when we read we should strive to discover as close we can what the author is trying to say. Any time you have a translation, the added baggage is that you have an interpretation. An example would be the very poor version of the Tales I am currently reading. I currently have the Wordsworth Library edition (the only Middle English edition at the bookstore) which has the helpful glosses on the side. The beginning reader should have these glosses as mentioned above. However, one quickly picks up on the language and before long can interpret the words for himself. Here are three examples of unhelpful glosses:
- Devysen = work out. In context the phrase is “Ne couthen devysen how” which I believe would naturally be translated “He could not devise how.” (Notice the lovely double negative!) Now, I do not want to undermine the editor who is a college professor. Indeed, he is correct and his gloss can be helpful. However, the word devise can also mean “to plan, to form, to arrange in the mind” etc. In my opinion, the gloss did not need to be there at all because I can figure out that it meant devise and do the other work myself. It is a minor detail in any case.
- Schapen = made. “Crist was a mayde, and schapen as a man.” Consider the difference in how two different versions of the same tale (Wife of Bath’s) help the reader out with this line. One focuses on the word mayde (or maide) the other on schapen. When I read the line I think “Christ was made (formed) and Shaped like a man.” The other version I happen to have (the Norton) actually puts the note on the word maide and declares it to mean virgin. Though I will not consult the whole context, I am going to venture in knowing the tale that that is an accurate interpretation. The other version, the Wordsworth, ignores this word altogether and instead emphasizes schapen which could very well mean made but frankly, I like shaped better.
- Soun = sound/tone of voice. “That I am dronke: I know it by my soun.” (I chose the word before I read the line.) Here is a rare instance where the Wordsworth edition wins. For soun is interpreted sound as one would naturally guess, but the Norton says it refers to the tone of voice. Now sound basically means tone of voice, but the reader is capable of figuring that out on his own. The Norton in this case, is putting too much interpretation in the footnote, and, once again, the Wordsworth is irrelevant. For anyone reading that line would know “That I can tell I am drunk by the sound of my voice.”
I certainly did not plan to get so technical in this post. However, if you stay with me, I have a real treat. Now, I hope that I have displayed my point. When looking for editions of old books, how they were edited is actually very important. After purchasing this version of the Tales, I have become annoyed as I will get out with the unnecessary glosses and have declared myself to someday purchase a version with nobody telling me anything. Furthermore, I discovered a sundry amount of lines missing in which my fury reached its climax and did not abate until a plethora of pacings across the room superseded by smoke steaming from the lobes and nostrils lead to a visit to the computer and a “finishing” of the Squire’s Tale. As I was rudely interrupted, so was he.
I do understand that many of my readers or anyone who happens to sovereingly stumble upon this thing has no intention of ever reading anything that I read for fun. I do understand that many of my readers are fellow readers of the Bible, and here I will make a last argument and leave it at that. When choosing a Bible, the English person can be overwhelmed to no end with the many translations. I adhere to three major translations and one what I will call a “loose” translation. Perhaps the best translation is the New American Standard followed by the English Standard and the New King James. The New International version is a good translation to a point. I am not here to cast judgment on anyone reading the NIV as I turn to it as well for enlightenment on the text. Perhaps then I will turn to a more learned man on the subject. The following is pastor John Piper on the issue. (This, I confess, is the treat I alluded to earlier.)
There is no more important book to study than the Bible. If what it is saying is true, than we had best do something about that. If it is false, than we must leave it off altogether. But we cannot know either of the two unless we look into it. Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher telling us it is false does not make it false. Thus, a version with all the words is crucial is knowing what it says.
Lastly, concerning how we read, I have found it important to ween myself off of helps as I argued for earlier. When regarding the Bible, you almost cannot find a good one without the section headers. A header appears harmless at first glance and has many benefits, but I would argue one does not need to stick with the headers forever. When you read anything it influences what you continue to read from that point on. For instance, today I read a chapter (may it be two) of David Copperfield in which the heading to the chapter read: “My first-half at Salem House.” Thus, before reading one word of the chapter, I was fairly confident it would have a good deal of description about little Davy’s first-half at Salem House. When reading the Bible, the same will be true. Before reading Psalm 35 we are told that “Great is the Lord” (ESV header) as if we did not already know this and would not know it coming out on the other side of psalm. It is not to say that these section headers are wrong or unhelpful but that in many cases they unnecessarily tell us something that we could have arrived at without their help. For when you read Psalm 35, it is nearly impossible to argue against the author’s belief that the Lord is great, and you will surely find a whole lot more than just that bit of information.
In thinking this while I read, I discovered I longed to read a Bible without section headers. I can now lead you to two good Bibles I am aware of that do a pretty decent job of minimizing distractions. The first is the one I recently obtained, the ESV Legacy Bible. The really nice thing about this one is that it does have section headers but it places them to the side allowing you to “ignore” them while you read but use them when needing to find a quick reference. The other one I have heard about is the Inductive Study Bible which I believe comes in the NASB version. I have not actually tried this one out but was referred to it by a friend.
As I stated earlier, there was no intention on getting so technical in this little post, but I do hope you enjoyed a good read if you have made it this far. The issue of finding a decent text translation and editions will always be a difficulty for people with disorders like myself. It is the hope of your author that the seemingly never-ending search for his queene will be shortly realized as an encouraging discovery. May it not end as my pilgrimage to Canterbury ended in frustration and disappointment but in the continuous and everlasting bliss of perfected text with no distractions and above all nobody telling me what to think.