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  • Piers Plowman: The A Version by William Langland
  • Tekla Bude
Piers Plowman: The A Version. By William Langland. Translated by Michael Calabrese. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2020.

In reading Michael Calabrese's new translation of the A text of Piers Plowman—the earliest, shortest, and arguably most accessible version of William Langland's poetic masterpiece—I was struck by how thoughtful it is. Even Langland's "easy" A text is notoriously difficult, especially for college students, who are often reading the poem for the first time even as they're attempting to learn basic information about medieval English culture and society. Teaching Piers Plowman in this setting can initially seem more daunting than relying on old survey stalwarts such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or offering newer favorites such as the Roman de Silence. As Calabrese argues, however, the A text of Piers Plowman is an ideal poem for the beginning student of medieval literature. Though its themes and political concerns are deeply Christian and medieval, they are also modern: how do we care for our neighbors? how do we live well? what does it mean to be good? This translation thoughtfully guides its readers through this most "medieval" of Middle English poems.

Calabrese addresses his translation to students and teachers in the undergraduate classroom. The edition opens with a lengthy but not burdensome introduction to the poem. Copious engaging and conversational footnotes attend the translation itself, which is in a fluid, freeverse form that aims toward, in Calabrese's words, "readability and relatability" (xxxvii). This means that Calabrese opts for conversational free verse that retains a loose hold on alliteration in place of Langland's alliterative long line. It also means the introduction of modern colloquialisms and speech patterns (mostly from American dialects). While the language is modern, however, it does not aim to be particularly trendy, invoking contemporary cultural references without totally unmooring the translation from its medieval original. Calabrese's goal is to give "access and ownership" (xxxviii) to the most casual of Langland's readers and to draw them into its open-ended debates about justice, truth, and communality. I think he succeeds more or less well, depending upon which style or variety of modern English sounds most normative to any given reader. [End Page 215]

At times the translation sacrifices sonority for sense, but Calabrese has intentionally chosen to make this sacrifice. No translation of poetry will approach the magic of the original, he asserts; it is to the original, not a translation, that one should turn if one is seeking an experience of its auditory mysticism. Yet thanks to a loosely alliterative gesture, there are times when the musicality that emerges from Calabrese's version is as good as Langland's original, or at least nearly so. Compare Calabrese's "These days, in fact, wisdom and wit aren't worth a piece of straw / unless woven into some scheme, as a tailor weaves wool" with Langland's "Wisdom and wyt now is not worth a risshe / But it be cardit with coueitise as clotheris don here wolle" (11.17–18). As Calabrese affirms, properly enjoying Piers "means hearing and feeling Piers in the mouth and viscera and letting the body tell the mind what the poetry means" (xxxii). He makes a tacit argument here for teaching his translation alongside chunks of the original Middle English text; thus, it might have been helpful had this edition included one or two exemplary selections of from the A text (a version not every teacher has readily on hand) so that instructors could more easily demonstrate these visceral effects.

One of the arguments of Calabrese's translation is that Langland is a dramatist. The choices he makes in his translation of the text's direct speeches reflect this perspective. For instance, Calabrese has the pilgrim, plowman, and other figures in Passus 6 all speak, here and there, in a sort of rural register: "Check out these tchotchkes and my cool hat; / man, I walked wide in this world, in wet and dry" (6.17–18), the pilgrim says. Lady Mede sometimes slips into the discourse markers of Valley Girl speak: "Oh...


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