I personally prefer to read The Canterbury Tales in the original English, but over the course of asking questions on this site I've come across several modern English translations.

One thing that I've noticed is that in most translations of line 715 ("Now have I told you soothly in a clause") tend to ignore the word soothly (truly) and replace it with a word like quickly.

Here's the Ecker and Crook translation:

As briefly as I could I've told you now
Degree, array, and number, and of how
This company of pilgrims came to be
In Southwark at that pleasant hostelry

Here's Duncan's translation:

Now have I told you briefly, in a clause,
The state, the array, the number, and the cause

Why do translations ignore the word soothly? It seems important to the passage.


Many renditions of the original English text use the word "shortly" instead of "soothly". For example, this version from Librarius:

Now have I toold you shortly in a clause,
Th'estaat, th'array, the nombre, and eek the cause
Why that assembled was this compaignye
In Southwerk, at this gentil hostelrye
That highte the Tabard, faste by the Belle.

Similarly in this, this, and this editions, all available on Google Books. I haven't been able to find anything pointing to which of "shortly" and "soothly" came first or which is considered more definitive. As with e.g. Morte d'Arthur or the plays of Shakespeare, I suspect that there are several extant versions of The Canterbury Tales with very small differences between them (a word here, some punctuation there) and nothing to place one of them above another in terms of 'canonicity'. Edit: my gut feeling was correct, as confirmed by Wikipedia (sourced to Helen Cooper's and Derek Pearsall's guides to The Canterbury Tales):

The Tales vary in both minor and major ways from manuscript to manuscript; many of the minor variations are due to copyists' errors, while others suggest that Chaucer added to and revised his work as it was being copied and (possibly) distributed. Even the earliest surviving manuscripts are not Chaucer's originals, the oldest is likely to be MS Peniarth 392 D (called "Hengwrt"), compiled by a scribe shortly after Chaucer's death. [...] No authorial, arguably complete version of the Tales exists and no consensus has been reached regarding the order in which Chaucer intended the stories to be placed.

Of course, setting aside the idea of a single authoritative edition, we can use some common sense and close reading to guess at which word was intended. In H.S. Toshack's workbook edition of the General Prologue, the difference between "shortly" and "soothly" in this passage is discussed on page 97, making a reasonable argument that "soothly" makes more sense:

'Soothly' (truly, accurately) fits the context better: in the next few lines Chaucer justifies that claim by laying out the framework within which he has offered his information. We have also seen Chaucer the Pilgrim, previously, taking great care to distinguish between what he has recorded as fact and what is just a judgement on his part. Additionally, 'shortly' would make 'in a clause' redundant, since it means much the same thing.

So it seems likely that "soothly" is the correct word to use in this passage (to the extent that it's possible to define a 'correct' version), but the prevalence of the "shortly" version explains why many translations into more modern English use words such as "briefly" rather than, say, "truly".

  • This is a really nice answer. Great work! – user111 Aug 3 '17 at 17:37
  • "I suspect that there are several extant versions of The Canterbury Tales with very small differences between them (a word here, some punctuation there) and nothing to place one of them above another in terms of 'canonicity'." This would be pretty easy to look up. But that's a minor critique, and the rest of this answer is really nice. – user111 Aug 3 '17 at 17:39
  • @Hamlet OK, I looked it up and learned that the situation is even worse than I'd imagined; now added some info about that and links for where to learn more. And thanks! :-) – Rand al'Thor Aug 3 '17 at 17:46
  • Usually a bad idea to make jumps in your reasoning :) – user111 Aug 3 '17 at 18:01
  • 1
    The Allen/Fisher edition (3rd, Wadsworth/Cengage, 2012) notes that Hengwrt has soothly, while itself following Ellesmere's reading shortly. – Brian Donovan Aug 5 '17 at 18:06

I checked Nevil Coghill's translation, where the relevant lines are translated as follows

Now I have told you shortly, in a clause,
The rank, the array, the number and the cause (...)

"In a clause" is not translated; the Norton Critical Edition and the Riverside Chaucer both gloss "in a clause" as "briefly". Preserving "in a clause" also preserves the metre and avoids using an obvious synonym of "shortly".

"Soothly" is also used in other parts of the Canterbury Tales, e.g. in line 117 of the General Prologue:

A forster was he, soothly, as I gesse.

In Coghill's translation:

He was a proper forester, I guess.

In line 468 of the General Prologue:

Gat-tothed was she, soothly for to seye.

In Coghill's translation

She had gap-teeth, set widely, truth to say.

In these two examples, "soothly" is interpreted as "truly, in truth" (see the Chaucer Glossary by N. Davis et al).

So where does "shortly" come from? The British library has a website where you can consult and compare Caxton's two editions of The Canterbury Tales. The 1476 edition says:

Now have I tolde you shortly in a clause

The (illustrated) 1483 edition says:

Now have a told you shortly in a clause

(There is only in difference: the 'e' at the end of 'tolde'.)

However, the Hengwrt manuscript renders the line as follows:

Now haue I toold yow / soothly in a clau{s}e

So it is a matter of conflicting sources for modern editions. For example, Nevill Coghill says in his translation that he consulted both Walter W. Skeat's seven-volume edition of Chaucer's works (Oxford, 1897) and F. N. Robinson's edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1933), and that where the editions didn't agree, he made his own choices. This explains some of the differences between translations. If they thought "shortly" was authoritative, they may have thought it was repetitive (due to "in a clause"); if they thought "soothly" was authoritative, they may have wondered how to render this into modern English at all.

Update: R. M. Lumiansky's prose translation (Simon & Schuster, 2001) has the following rendition:

Now I have told you very briefly about the rank, the dress, and the number of these pilgrims, (...)

Lumiansky wrote in his introduction,

I have tried to reproduced Chaucer's phrases exactly, almost word for word, in natural, idiomatic, colloquial, modern English, which will convey to the modern reader the same effects that Chaucer's idiomatic Middle English conveyed to his audience.

(In this quote, "almost" is the operative word.)

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