The Canterbury Tales has withstood the test of time because within them, Chaucer paints character portraits of the kinds of people he met in his time. I have read both modern translations and translations that are closer to Chaucer’s original, keeping in mind that English was a foreign language back then compared to anything we understand now. It’s the kind of thing that makes Shakespeare far easier to understand. In fact, I had the same problem with both Shakespeare and Chaucer back in school in that I felt like I was missing a vital ingredient in truly being able to understand and appreciate them.
While it took some time to get through this because I was constantly comparing the audio with the printed versions I have, I found that the extra time was well spent. I have a love for the printed word, but I tend to learn and retain information better through audio. As much as I hate to admit it, reading something like this is more akin to literary scholarship than it is reading an anthology of short stories as it might have been in Chaucer’s day. I found the audio version to be of immense value in that I could hear the stories perhaps as Chaucer himself might have told them to other people that he met along the way. The character studies become people, even if they are perhaps exaggerated here and there, and that sort of thing helps to bring both this work – and the history of the time in which it was written – to vibrant life. And now that my appreciation has grown enough to catch up to my curiosity, I can truly say that I understand now that it’s not simply the age of the work that makes The Canterbury Tales the classics they are. It’s the character studies and the stories that make them the classics they are.
As with any translation, there is the risk of potentially losing something. Advanced scholars might be more inclined to try the original versions after hearing this. As it is, maybe it’s the style, but it seemed to me pretty close. Most of what didn’t translate well for me was more a case of not understanding some of the vocabulary of the age, which is why I kept comparing the printed texts; I had to keep looking things up as some things that were common in Chaucer’s time simply do not exist in ours. Again, well worth it, I think, though I understand most won’t take that kind of time or effort. Audio will probably help considerably. There’s something about hearing things in context that help a reader to fill in the gaps. If you love old literature, or if you have a fascination with the Middle Ages as I do, this is positively a must-read, for through the arts we better understand our histories.