Scalzi Chaucer’d (Listen!)

August 14th, 2007

Old Mannes Werre - coverIn a fit of rage against working on my syllabi for the coming term, I took a snippet from John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War (chapter 9 for those playing at home) and, well, Chaucer’d it. That is, I took Scalzi’s text and translated it into Chaucer’s dialect. Details follow the audio.

Many thanks to Mary Robinette Kowal for the accompanying cover art, fashioned using the Historical Tale Construction Kit, which itself makes use of the famed Bayeux Tapestry.

Iohannis Scalzi, Olde Mannes Werre:

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Scalzi’s book is Science Fiction, which presents certain difficulties in translating into late Middle English. Below is Scalzi’s text, in blockquotes, followed by my translation in bold (with editorial comments in parens):

“I can take a shot,” Watson said, sighting over his boulder. “Let me drill one of those things.”

“I kan tak a shote,” quod Watson, lookynge right over his rokke. “Graunte me striken oon.”

“No,” said Viveros, our corporal. “Their shield is still up. You’d just be wasting ammo.”

“No,” quod Viveros, oure ledere. (The first troublespot: “corporal” is French in origin and doesn’t really enter English until the 16th c.) “Hire sheeld is stille up. Woldestow wasten iren arwes?” (Like “corporal,” “ammunition” is a French loan from the 16th c.)

“This is bullshit,” Watson said. “We’ve been here for hours. We’re sitting here. They’re sitting there. When their shield goes down, we’re supposed to do what, walk over and start blasting at them? This isn’t the fucking 14th Century. We shouldn’t make an appointment to start killing the other guy.”

“I deme hyt boledonge,” quod Watson. “Hereupon we have stynte stille for houres. Sitt we here. Sitteth they ther. Whanne hire bokeler (a bit of translator’s freedom here: a “bokeler” is a diminutive shield; Watson is more derogatory than Viveros in his regard for this “shield”) descendeth, oghte we to passe overthwart and anonright bigynne shetyng? This nis nat the swyving yeres of derke. (The other option here, which perhaps would have been amusing, would have been to have Watson point out that this is the fucking 14th century.) We ne noghte to make a tyme to bigynne mordryng the other man.”

Viveros looked irritated. “Watson, you’re not paid to think. So shut the fuck up and get ready. It’s not going to be long now, anyway. There’s only one thing left in their ritual before we get at it.”

Viveros loked anoyed. “Watson, thu art nat y-payed to thenche. So bokele thyn ers (The idiom “shut the fuck up” is not quite Chaucerian; I think “shut your ass up,” however, works fine.) and makestow redi. Ywis, hit wole nat be longe now. Ther is oon thynge lefte in hire parfournynge biforn we bigynne.”

“Yeah? What’s that?” Watson said.

“Ye? What thyng is that?” quod Watson.

“They’re going to sing,” Viveros said.

“Thei wol synge,” quod Viveros.

Watson smirked. “What are they going sing? Show tunes?”

“What wol thei synge? Passioun Pleyes?” japed Watson. (Middle English more regularly moves speech tags to the end of lines. The other change here is from “show tunes” to “Passion plays”: if one had to point to the medieval Cats, it would probably be something like a Passion play — especially something good and gruesome, like the coliphizacio.)

“No,” Viveros said. “They’re going to sing our deaths.”

“No,” quod Viveros. “Thei wol synge oure dethes.”

Anyone got any suggestions for another book needing to be Chaucer’d?

28 Replies

  1. #1 by Chris Hansen - August 14th, 2007 at 23:35

    How delightfully absurd! I read a bit and laugh, then read a bit more and laugh again.

    I love Mary’s rocket ship as well.

    Well done!

  2. #2 by Samantha Henderson - August 14th, 2007 at 23:51

    O, brilliant!

  3. #3 by Amal El-Mohtar - August 15th, 2007 at 03:44

    I found this via Mary’s journal, and I can’t stop listening to it! It’s beautifully done, and you’ve well and truly woken my nostalgia for undergrad and randomly spoken Middle English. Bless your heart.

  4. #4 by maryrobinette - August 15th, 2007 at 08:34

    I still laugh and laugh.

  5. #5 by Johan Larson - August 15th, 2007 at 10:36

    Would a rough-hewn soldier in Chaucer’s time really have used a latinism like “descendeth”, rather than some derivative of “to fall”?

  6. #6 by Avery - August 15th, 2007 at 12:12

    If you Chaucer’d Batman: The Dark Knight Returns you’d have “The Frank Miller’s Tale”.

  7. #7 by Michael Livingston - August 15th, 2007 at 12:41

    Johan: It’s tough to say with certainty how a “rough-hewn” fellow would have talked; too little of the written record comes from such folk. That said, I didn’t even blink at this particular usage — Chaucer has Oswald the Reeve use the word “descended” at the beginning of the rather unaristocratic and very idiomatic Reeve’s Tale.

    Avery: That’s brilliant.

    All: Thanks for the huzzahs. If interest is sustained, I may do more.

  8. #8 by Tim Walker - August 15th, 2007 at 13:08

    Greatest . . . thing . . . EVER.

    Wow. Good show.

  9. #9 by Nentuaby - August 15th, 2007 at 13:10

    Hmmm… Perhaps a rough hewn soldier mightn’t, but this is after all Chaucer’d and not Average Contemporary of Chaucer’d. Fictional characters always talk a bit funny. :)

  10. #10 by Kaytie - August 15th, 2007 at 13:36

    That was so cool. Oh, I miss my literature classes…

  11. #11 by Michael Livingston - August 15th, 2007 at 13:46

    I miss my literature classes, too, Kaytie!

  12. #12 by Ted Lemon - August 15th, 2007 at 14:39

    Really nicely done. Thank you.

  13. #13 by Tom Barclay - August 15th, 2007 at 15:56

    I may just do an internal biz communication in Late Middle English due to your inspiring work. We have a damned hard time getting people in one biz-silo to speak plainly to people in the biz-silo next door.

    This could help point out the problem just a bit. Too bad I don’t have a source for Old Low Norse, too!

    Thank you!

  14. #14 by Dave Hutchinson - August 15th, 2007 at 17:27

    What an extraordinary thing. I loved the accent; sort of Border Scots/Northumberland/Geordie. Marvellous stuff. I dare you to try it with Snow Crash;-)

  15. #15 by pcomeau - August 15th, 2007 at 18:15

    Thank you, that was great.

    As for other options, not sure. Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs could be good. Or on the horror front perhaps Lovecraft.

  16. #16 by Michael Livingston - August 15th, 2007 at 20:29

    Thanks, y’all. And I appreciate the suggestions. I mean, Snow Crash? Wow. That WOULD be interesting.

    And I will do more. Of that there’s no doubt.

  17. #17 by Mary Dell - August 15th, 2007 at 21:10

    Ooo, this is awesome. For a followup, how about something by Steven King? Or, if you really want to punish yourself, The DaVinci Code?

  18. #18 by DaveMB - August 15th, 2007 at 22:39

    DaVinci Code, as well as Snakes on a Plane, have been done by the anonymous author of “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog”. Unfortunately that site has been quiet for a month or two…

  19. #19 by Marie Brennan - August 16th, 2007 at 02:05

    This is fantabulous. I love hearing audio of older forms of English, and it’s all the funnier when it’s a translation of something like this.

  20. #20 by Johan Larson - August 16th, 2007 at 10:28

    If you are going to do any more translations, please consider “Gangster’s Paradise”, by Coolio, as a source text.

  21. #21 by Aimee Amodio - August 16th, 2007 at 10:45

    Michael Livingston… that is the coolest thing ever. You are my hero.

  22. #22 by Chris Gerrib - August 16th, 2007 at 11:18

    Wow! This is soo cool!

  23. #23 by Michael Livingston - August 16th, 2007 at 12:50


    Aimee: It took THIS for me to become your hero?

    Mary and Johan: Thanks for the thoughts! I’ve replied to your suggestions in a new post.

  24. #24 by Kate - August 22nd, 2007 at 01:19

    Very groovy sir!

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