An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

February 18, 2014

Klitgård, Chaucer in Denmark

Klitgård, Ebbe. Chaucer in Denmark: A Study of the Translation and Reception History, 1782-2012. Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2013.

Reviewed by Candace Barrington (

It might not be clear to most Chaucerians why they should be interested in Ebbe Klitgård’s fascinating new book on translation and reception history, Chaucer in Denmark. Denmark, after all, is a small county, and it’s been nearly a millennium since Sweyn II’s failed invasion marked the end of Danish incursion on British shores. Beyond an epic hero (Beowulf), a tragic one (Hamlet), and Old Norse remnants in modern English (a “happy oaf”), the Danes’ literary and linguistic influence on the English seems to have been minimal, leaving most Chaucerians to assume they have no professional interest in Danish language or literature. So, in addition to providing an overview of Klitgård’s study, this review will also try to convince readers why his work is important to Anglophone studies in medievalism as well as to Anglophone studies of Chaucer.

Chaucer in Denmark is the first comprehensive study of a non-Anglophone culture’s reception and translations of Chaucer, an unexpected distinction considering that Chaucer’s works traveled to colonies throughout the British empire and were widely translated in the past century.  This is not to say nothing has been written on Chaucer’s global reception. A handful of studies have provided brief overviews, with tantalizing hints of Chaucer’s readership in French, Romanian, and Hungarian. And we get a sense of Chaucer’s place in many more cultures when we read the introductions appended to translations that now number over fifty contemporary languages, ranging from Arabic to Finnish and Mongolian. Despite being a goldmine of information, these resources have generally been overlooked by Anglophone Chaucerians. The most extensive study of Chaucer’s modern reception, Steve Ellis’ Chaucer at Large: The Poet in the Modern Imagination (2000), remains focused on Chaucer’s Anglophone reception and considers translations into only varieties of Present Day English and not other languages. Even when scholars have looked beyond the Anglophone matrix of Australia, Canada, U.K., and the United States, their engagements remain steadfastly with Chaucer’s reception in the academy.   Thus the only previous book to study extensively Chaucer’s non-Anglophone reception, Richard Utz’s  Chaucer and the Discourse of German Philology (2002), focuses on the ways German scholarship has shaped our understanding of Chaucer; he does not look at translations of Chaucer’s tales into German. Klitgård’s book covers new terrain and should inspire scholars to examine what these understudied non-Anglophone Chaucerian translations can provide, from useful prisms for examining the receiving culture to new perspectives on Chaucerian hermeneutics.

Chaucer’s Danish reception also undermines some easy assumptions about the trajectory of British cultural expansion. Whereas global translations of Chaucer’s tales might be expected to neatly map onto the outlines of the British empire, a remnant of the British cultural impositions, Chaucer has had a rich history Denmark, near a part of Britain’s colonial expansion. Klitgård reveals a history of Danes discovering Chaucer on their travels and in their studies, part of the bounty of cultural goods brought back home to displace the German tradition. At the same time, the story of Chaucer in Denmark belies the truism that a rising tide lifts all boats, showing how the increased dominance of English has not always resulted in a correlating increased profile for Chaucer in Denmark. The story begins at a point when The Canterbury Tales were mishandled because English was relatively unknown in Denmark, then moves through a period of increased fortunes as English overtook German as the dominant second language, and ends with the Tales sidelined once again when Denmark’s educated class became thoroughly bilingual. By placing those representations of Chaucer’s Tales in protean contexts (English education and the spread of English in Denmark; Danish scholars and their criticism; and, non-academic forms of information, such as encyclopedias, anthologies, and reference works), this reception history records an intriguing dance in Denmark between the upward linguistic fortunes of English and the mixed literary fortunes of Chaucer’s Tales, the contours of which should encourage scholars to trace those in other linguistic and cultural domains.

Interspersed within this story is another, less obvious tale in which translations can reveal to English readers what they might otherwise overlook in Chaucer’s Middle English. For this reason, Chaucerians with no interest in medievalism can learn from Klitgård’s study. By carefully reading the Danish translations against their Middle English sources, he guides us through those moments where the Danish text illuminates the Middle English in ways unavailable to the non-Danish reader, thereby problematizing what Middle (and Present Day) English takes for granted. Sometimes it’s something as simple as the domesticating convention of translating place names, wherein the Tabard Inn becomes the “Herolds-Vamsen,” or herald’s coat, helping us keep in mind what “Tabard” would have evoked for Chaucer’s early audiences (120). At other times, it’s a matter of locating a Danish word that conveys more fully a Middle English word’s connotations now lost in Present Day English, the case when Uffe Birkedal translates in 1911 the Shipman’s disdain for a “nyce conscience” (I.398) as “øm Samvittighed” or tender conscience, “which in Danish has connotations to a softness that would be both foolish and too scrupulous in a character that makes stealing from others part of his living” (132). In the case of translating from historical forms of English to modern Danish, two languages that share a common Germanic ancestor, we can see how some syntactical patterns taken for granted in English are innovations unknown to its distant cousin. For instance, Otto Jespersen translates “elvyssh,” Harry Bailey’s description of the Chaucerian persona, “as ‘elleskudt,’ meaning hit or shot by the elvish people…[because] there is no idiomatic adjective correspondence in Danish” (105), reminding us that affixing the –ish suffix was somewhat uncommon in Old English and had reappeared as a rather recent strategy for converting nouns into adjectives modeled more on French than German antecedents. Other examples highlight the inevitable slippages of meaning that occur when an idea is so embedded in the source language that no translation can approximate it, a dilemma translators such as Børge Johansen  try to circumvent with comparable idioms, which in turn cause a new set of problems (220-233). Thereby re-awakening meaning in the source text, the translations allow us to engage more deeply with the Tales, initiating the hermeneutic conversation that Hans-Georg Gadamer finds beneficial to both interlocutors in the exchange. By providing numerous back translations into Present Day English and then carefully explicating what a Danish reader would see in the intermediate Danish translation, Klitgård guides his English readers into a textual world otherwise close to them. 

In telling “the particular story of how the most important medieval English poet has been translated, presented, analysed and discussed in one European country in the period from the Enlightenment to the present day” (273), Klitgård predominately examines three forms of reception: translation, reference works, and scholarship. The issues he examines in the translations include the use of archaic language, idioms, and euphemisms or deletions regarding sexually explicit passages, tale selection, and the translator’s general Chaucer biography and his complete works. With reference works, he is concerned about their accuracy vis-à-vis contemporaneous scholarship. And with scholarship, he establishes their contributions to the larger field of Chaucer Studies. To identify these bits of Danish Chauceriana, he has tracked down translations in textbooks, ephemeral magazine publications, and adaptations for the stage. Because Klitgård writes with a non-Danish audience in mind, he includes ample, well-placed background information on Danish culture and its history without overshadowing his main interest in Chaucer’s reception. 

Perhaps it is fitting a Danish scholar should produce the first study of this type. After World War II, the Danes were among Chaucer’s first and most prolific translators. As Klitgård’s thorough research establishes, the Danes had at this point already been translating Chaucerian texts for over 150 years. These translations predate any translations of Shakespeare into Danish, a fluke of literary history that arises here (and in the Americas) when Dryden’s and Pope’s versions of Chaucer are transmitted and translated without any reference to their Chaucerian source. The first oblique appropriation can be traced through a series of translations that begin with Dryden’s modernizations of the Wife of Bath and (via French and German translations and adaptations) end up as Johan Herman Wessel’s musical drama, Feen Ursel eller hvad der behager Damerne (1782); nearly a half century later, the second series of appropriations begins with Pope’s adaptation of the Wife’s Prologue and ends as Thomas Christopher Brunn’s Slagelse-Madamen (1823), a de-medievalized narrative poem set in nineteenth-century Denmark. Apparently neither Danish author realized his source was ultimately Chaucer. Shaped by the Danish sense of decorum and the public’s general unfamiliarity with English medieval culture, the translations are highly domesticated and refine any elements deemed coarse among bourgeois readers.

Klitgård continues his historical survey with the nineteenth-century nationalist turn to folklore studies. Among those active folklorist was Louise Westergaard, whose 1853 translations of Chaucer were part of her enthusiastic effort to introduce to Danish readers English writers she had discovered during her travels to England for the 1852 industrial exhibition in London. Relying on British scholarship and Thomas Wright’s midcentury collection of Chaucer’s works, her booklet, Chaucer, relates several tales by interweaving short passages in Middle English (using modernized spelling) with her glosses and explanatory notes in Danish. Primarily focusing on tales most amenable to Victorian tastes and sensibilities (such as The Clerk’s Tale and The Knight’s Tale), she selects for translation passages of high pathos in order to illustrate and exemplify the moral lessons serving her larger didactic purposes. By the second half of the nineteenth century, English begins to have an established presence in Denmark, and Chaucer’s elevated profile was aided by the work of Britain’s Chaucer Society and the Early English Text Society. During this time, anthologized Chaucer primarily consisted of “oblique translation mixed with summary” (92). Denmark also cultivated serious Chaucerians, such as Otto Jespersen, whose Chaucers liv og digtning [Chaucer’s Life and Poetry] (1893) included translated passages that moved beyond the usual tales of high emotion and didactic purpose.

Soon after the turn of the century, in 1903, English became “a compulsory main language in the Danish gymnasium for the first time” (110), and with that change in status we see more translations of Chaucer, each attempting a different effect. All these translations were generally shaped by conservative social mores, and Vilhelm Møller’s perplexing decision to include The Summoner’s Tale among the limited number of tales he translated in 1901 meant he had to severely bowdlerize it. Uffe Birkedal’s translations of The General Prologue and The Nun’s Priest’s Tale try to convey a medieval sense by using poetic terms so archaic they have to be explained; at other times he invents archaic sounding words as he tries to capture Chaucer’s sense in poetry rather than prose. During the interwar years, English language and literature surpassed German in Danish schools. Significant Chaucerian scholarship came from Denmark with Aage Brusendorff’s The Chaucer Tradition, which established the canon of Chaucer’s works. He brought together Anglo-American and German research, each otherwise isolated from the other. At the same time, Niels Møller’s three-volume survey of world literature, Verdenslitteraturen, gave Chaucer a more sympathetic and accurate treatment, and Margrethe Thunbo’s highly redacted and illustrated volume of tales for children neatly parallels choices made for Anglo-American editions of children’s Chaucer.

The war years accelerated the general anglification of Danish culture, a paradigm shift magnified by Danish resistance to censorship during the German occupation and manifest in an increase in the proportion of translations from English relative to other languages. Translation of Chaucer’s tales reflect this cultural shift in number and kind. Transforming the tales into short stories in line with contemporary tastes, Lis Thorbjørnsen’s translations do not include explanatory notes and affect a certain sentimentality by evoking the Danish past with archaic word choices and native idiomatic expressions. On the other hand, Flemming Bergsøe’s reader-friendly poetic versions admitted more of Chaucer’s exuberant humor, captured his tone, and followed his meter, while avoiding useless archaisms. Jørgen Sonne, a poet of note, continued this post-war Chaucerian effloresence with a series of lively translations, first in the 1950s into prose (translating The Reeve’s Tale, The Franklin’s Tale, and The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, plus unusual choices such at The Manciple’s Tale and The Physician’s Tale), and decades later into poetry (translating “To Rosemounde,” “The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse,” and excerpts from The Book of the Duchess, The Parliament of Fowls, and “Merciles Beaute”). His unusual choices helped to fill in gaps of Chaucerian works previously not available in Danish.

The postwar period also features the only two complete (or nearly complete) translations of The Canterbury Tales, and each translator approached his enormous project differently from the other. Beyond one being in prose and the other in verse, each strove for different effects. Mogens Boisen, a renowned translator whose reputation often overshadowed that of the authors he carried over into Danish, relied primarily on R. M. Lumiansky’s 1948 modernization of the Tales into English prose. Boisen worked to make the medieval English tales accessible (even palatable), and the end result is a translation that avoid difficulties by veering toward euphemisms and direct moralizations. Børge Johansen’s 1958 poetic translation works to capture medieval authenticity by tending toward the old-fashioned, both retaining the old Danish spelling system (which had been reformed in 1948) and finding comparable generic forms (such as using a form of Danish folk poetry used for occasional verse with “dubious syntax, rhymes and idiom” for The Tale of Sir Thopas (221). He undergirds this mediated authenticity by relying on (and acknowledging) valid scholarship and Skeat’s Middle English edition. These remain the only complete Danish translations of The Canterbury Tales.

After this profusion of translations, Chaucer’s visibility in Danish culture has paradoxically diminished as the English language’s has risen. Since 1960, English has become widely read and spoken among the educated classes, and most “important English literature in prose is translated with a year of publication” (237). Left behind are older English works, such as Chaucer’s. Except for Shakespeare and Dickens, these older texts are seldom retranslated because they appeal primarily to highly educated readers who no longer need a native, Danish text to stand in for the foreign, English text. In schools, Chaucer is predominately taught either in Middle English or in modern English translations via extracts found in English literature anthologies. (By including Chaucer and other Middle English in their curriculum, Danish universities differ from those in other Scandinavian countries that begin their English literature studies with Shakespeare.) When Chaucer’s tales do appear outside the academy, they are translations of modern English popularizations, such as Barbara Cooney’s children’s picture book, Chanticleer and the Fox. By illustrating the provisional nature of any translation project, Klitgård’s Chaucer in Demark provides a salient reminder that Chaucer’s reception in non-Anglophone cultures is no less complex and no more predictable than the more familiar Anglophone reception in the Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, and United States.

With the commendable precedent for the study of Chaucer’s non-Anglophone reception now in place, Chaucerians and medievalists should encourage similar studies by our colleagues in predominately non-Anglophone universities and cultures.  Such work enriches the study of Chaucer in important ways, yet its survival is not necessarily ensured.  Because we know first-hand the difficulties of maintaining medievalist lines in English departments where we serve an English-speaking student population, we should be sympathetic to the even more precarious situations of Chaucerians housed in foreign-language departments. By attending to what they can tell us, ordering their books for our campus libraries, and by incorporating their research and translations into our own studies, we can support their important work and their careers.  We have just begun to listen to them; it would be shameful to lose their voices now. 

Candace Barrington
Central Connecticut State University