Gambling: money and statistics

gambling cartoonNo, I’m not going to write about the morality of gambling.* I’ll save that for another post. This is about money. And numbers.

I attended the OLG four-community presentation in Wasaga Beach, Tuesday, and it got me thinking about what gambling means to the economy, what it means to the government, what effect it might have on things like growth and recession. It also made me wonder how governments became addicted to gambling revenue, but that, too, is for another post.

I also found some of the statistics presented interesting enough to do some extrapolation, which I’ll get to at the end.

What does gambling contribute to our economy? Well, the OLG and the province always like to tout the benefits: the OLG paid more than $2 billion profits into provincial coffers, in 2011. They’ve given more than $34 billion since 1975. That’s an average contribution of $149 per person in the province per year. OLG’s plans are to build that payment to the province up to $3.3 billion by introducing more and newer forms of gambling.

On a very basic level, that looks good. After all, at least some of that money would have had to come from taxes instead, so it can be seen as a user-pay system, or a self-tax system. Of that $2 billion last year, $120 million went to the Trillium Foundation, $10 million for Ontario Amateur Sport, and $41 towards problem gambling programs.

That’s an interesting ratio: four times the amount given to develop sports is given to treating the problems created by gambling. A point not missed by the audience.

The OLG made that profit from revenue of $6.685 billion. That’s a far more intriguing number. It’s just over one percent of Ontario’s GDP in 2011. As a former business owner, seeing a 33% profit margin is impressive. Extrapolating, it suggests OLG plans to increase net gambling revenues to almost $10 billion if the ratio remains the same. It will do this by expanding gaming sites, adding internet gambling, allowing bingo halls to run more games – making more gambling available to more people more often.

That doesn’t sit too well with me. The same people who won’t let grocery and convenience stores sell wine and beer because it might corrupt someone, will make gambling so ubiquitous it will be hard to avoid tripping over a slot machine (real or virtual). Online gambling will offer easy access, 24/7 from your home. Play in your jammies until the early hours. All you need is a credit card. Makes me wonder if the goal is to make gambling mandatory some day in the future, like taxes…

What happened to the rest of the money the OLG took in?

Online gamblingAccording to the OLG’s annual report, operating expenses were $4.975 billion. Of that, $1.835 billion went to payouts to lottery and bingo winners. Commissions ($648 million – this, I assume, was paid to operators ), marketing ($300 million – the amount paid for advertising is 7.5 times the amount paid to help problem gamblers), interest ($32 million), payments to the federal government ($228 million) and amortization ($226 million) gobbled up another 1.43 billion. Paying for the OLG and its 18,000 employees is one of those expenses. Six thousand of those employees got bonuses, too – $11.6 million worth. Not a large slice of $4.7 billion. Horse racing got $345 million; host municipalities got $92 million and First Nations got $117 million.

It almost looks like the OLG is on a drunken giveaway spree, handing out the bucks to everyone except, of course, the gamblers. Nice of them to give us back some of our money, though.

Who doesn’t want to get free money? That’s the attractiveness of hosting a casino: all you need to do is nod your head, zone some land, then sit back and watch the money roll in. Suddenly flush with cash, the town’s taxes plummet, everything gets rebuilt, new sports facilities sprout, downtown gets renewed, sidewalks rebuilt, streets paved with gold and the local politicians get halos.

Well, maybe not.

[pullquote]As an aside, based on media stories, all three seem worried that their slot machines will be removed from the tracks when the agreement ends, sometime in the next year.[/pullquote]The OLG presented the audience with examples from Hanover, Central Huron and Chatham-Kent: all three communities have an OLG money machine in a racetrack. Hanover has 130 slots; Clinton (Central Huron) has 123, and Hanover (Chatham-Kent) 130. All three are currently questioning whether the slots will remain in their raceways with the OLG’s new strategic plan. In 2011, Hanover received about $800,000; Central Huron $641,000 and Chatham-Kent about $700,000. Exuberant endorsements from their mayors, we were told.

Assume we could get, say, $1 million per year as a host community. That translates to just over 2% of our annual municipal budget. Minus, of course, what we would pay to our neighbours as per the memorandum of agreement we signed. We might end up with 1% of our budget as “free” cash. Does this mean your taxes won’t go up? Nope. The extra money would likely end up going to infrastructure improvements and maintenance required by the extra traffic, maybe to extra policing costs too.

Gambling and drinking cartoon
Even if we kept it all for ourselves (as one councillor has suggested), and damn the rest of the region, is that money enough to make us want a casino? If I’m going to sell our municipal soul, I think I want a bigger slice of that pie for the town. As Faustian agreements go, we’re not getting much from our side of the bargain.

Besides, we might think we’re agreeing for “just” 300 slots, but the OLG said it could expand the site’s licence to other games anytime in the future. The demographics change when you have other types of gambling, but I didn’t hear anything to suggest the town will have a say in that expansion.

If the cash doesn’t move me, the opportunity to create 80 to 90 jobs in the area is more attractive. Any job creation is welcome, but I get an uneasy feeling these aren’t the “quality” jobs some folks are expecting.

From what I understand, many of these jobs would be similar to what the hospitality industry already offers – janitorial, serving, cooking,security, valet parking, landscaping, counting cash. Whether these (non-union?) jobs would pay better than the hospitality sector or offer any benefits would be up to the private operator. They aren’t government jobs: the OLG won’t be running these new casinos.

Will a private operator pay more than $10-$12 an hour for someone to sweep the floor and polish the slot buttons? I wouldn’t expect so. Any new jobs are better than no jobs, but my passion to create more McJobs is somewhat less. Would you like fries with those casino tokens?

Back to the money. According to the OLG, the net revenue from adults to the gaming industry in Ontario is $459 per year. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but that’s money that doesn’t go directly into the economy – it doesn’t create jobs outside the gambling sector. It doesn’t buy anything from local merchants or restaurants. It goes directly to the government. Well, okay, two thirds goes to the OLG and its minions, and the remaining third gets into public coffers.

Most economists measure consumer spending as a yardstick to whether we are in or out of a recession – it’s called the consumer confidence index. See here for the Canadian index. It’s a simple measure of consumption – consumers who are confident in the state of the economy buy more stuff. Recessions happen when that confidence falls to a point where we stop buying and start hoarding (okay, it’s one reason; there are others, but it’s a big part of it).

A strong consumer confidence report, especially at a time when the economy is lagging behind prevailing estimates, can move the currency markets quickly. The idea behind consumer confidence is that a happy consumer – one who feels that his or her standard of living is increasing – is more likely to spend more and make bigger purchases, like a new car or home, leading to a stronger domestic economy and consequently a stronger currency.
Source: www.investopedia.com/walkthrough/forex/advanced/level8/consumer-confidence-index.aspx#axzz29kZLXgcV

Gambling cartoonIs gambling measured as consumption? Does the money pushed into slots contribute to the level of confidence? Is gambling measured in the index? I can’t find anything online to suggest that it is. So rather than spending that $459 on, say, a new TV, a shelf of books, a library of DVDs, new skates, skis or a bicycle, a purebred puppy, teeth whitening or any other goods and services – this money is spent on gambling. It bypasses the usual consumer channels. Gambling doesn’t add to the consumer confidence, even though the money is still flowing out of consumers’ pockets.

Yes, there is trickle down and spin-off – some of the money goes to suppliers, some to wages – and thus some gets back into the general economy. But how much? How much just ends up fattening the bank accounts of the operators? I don’t know, but clearly it’s not as beneficial as if it were all spent in a retail store.

Would $6.7 billion have a positive effect if it was spent in retail instead of gambling? Of course, but overall not as much as you might imagine. It’s about 4% of Ontario’s total retail sales (2011 figures). So it would help, but wouldn’t change the world. A few hundred people spending an extra $459 each every year in a local business could make a real difference to the local economy.

As a personal choice, I’d rather buy that shelf of books from local bookstores than pump quarters into a noisy metal machine and walk away with nothing. At the end of the day, I will have something to show for my money, not to mention many more months, even years, of enjoyment from the books.

It strikes me that putting the money directly into the economy helps buoy consumer confidence (thus the economy) better than spending it on gambling, and it might help keep us on the farther side of a recession. The OLG’s own statistics show that Ontario’s gambling revenue didn’t seem significantly affected by the last recession, so gamblers apparently don’t seem to feel the need to hoard as much as consumers when the economy tanks.**

Let me wind up with some thought on statistics. According to the OLG’s own estimates. 3.4% of Ontario residents have a “severe or moderate” gambling problem. In Problem Gambling in Canada (see footnote), the authors quote a 2005 study of Ontario residents by Wibe, Mun and Kauffman, that has a higher number: 5.8% are “at risk of gambling problems,” 2.6% have “moderate problems” and 0.8% have “severe problems” (the latter two combine to make the 3.4% OLG mentions).

We have around 21,000 people in Collingwood. At 3.4%, we expect to have more than 700 people here with “severe or moderate” gambling problems. Another 1,218 (5.8%) are “at risk”. That’s about 2,000 local adults for whom gambling is or may be a problem. These are your friends, relatives, neighbours. That concerns me. These are the people most likely to be found in a casino that’s in our back yard – especially during the week when there are fewer visitors.

We have about 16,000 adults 18 and older here. That means about one in every eight adults who may have or who have a problem with gambling. If the government was to allocate funds to problem gambler programs by that percentage, they would have to spend more than $250,000,000!

Add in about the same number of people from Wasaga Beach, and more from Clearview, Springwater and Town of the Blue Mountains, and we have more than 5,000 people in our immediate vicinity who either have or are at risk from gambling problems. That’s a lot of people in our region who may find a casino an irresistible place to spend their money.

I just don’t see 5,000 people lining up at the problem gambling office to voluntarily disbar themselves from the irresistible urge to push quarters into that hungry metal mouth, while others shove past them to get at the seats they vacated. I guess they’ll still be able to enjoy the province’s online gambling sites, when they are launched. The government may not want you in the casino with your bad habits, but it still wants your money, and won’t even mind if you play in your jammies.

~~~~~

As you might gather from the above, I am less than enthusiastic about having a casino here. I’m still open to debate and to having my mind changed, but it has to be a lot more compelling an argument than what I’ve heard to date.

Worth reading: Public Affairs 101 on gambling
The Walrus: story on Alberta’s gambling
Stats Canada report on gambling, 2011
The Social Effects of Gambling

~~~~~

* In the book, Problem Gambling in Canada (Tepperman and Wanner, Oxford University Press, 2012), gambling is identified as a learned behaviour; like smoking, like watching TV, playing sports or reading. Adults often become gamblers because of how it is portrayed in family or social situations. Because gambling is legal, it gets advertised in mass media, making it appear on the same level as consumer goods and entertainment, banks, and music concerts. From buying lottery tickets to trips to Las Vegas, how gambling is perceived in the home affects how children will develop as adult gamblers; just as children brought up by smoking parents are very likely to become smokers themselves.
** While this was also noted in the UK, in the USA, the pattern seems different. Overall the US gaming industry lost about 5.5% revenue during the recession, with New Jersey reporting a 13% drop from casino revenue. How much of that was caused by an increase in online gaming or in the general increase in gambling opportunities as more and more states legalize it, is unknown. Also, the US was hurt more by the recession than was Canada.

Goodbye, Carlos Fuentes: 1928-2012

Carlos FuenteI was in a bookstore in Israel in 1980 or thereabouts, looking for a book in English to read during my visit. I found Terra Nostra, a 900-page novel by Carlos Fuentes, in a Penguin paperback edition. I had read another Fuentes’ book, A Change of Skin, a few years earlier, so I picked it up.

I’ve carried Terra Nostra with me ever since that day in Israel. It’s still on my bookshelf. I don’t remember if I ever finished it. I remembered that book this morning when I read that the Mexican writer, Carlos Fuentes, had died last night, at age 83.

I’ve read three of his 15 novels. Years after I had bought Terra Nostra, I read his book, The Old Gringo, an enjoyable tale which was turned into a good film in the late 1980s. Buried on my shelf this morning I also found Christopher Unborn, which I read some years ago. I’ve also got the novel that first brought him to international attention, The Death of Artemio Cruz. I can’t recall if I ever read it, but believe I did. It came into my collection around the time we moved up here, and like a lot of books I brought with me and stacked two-three deep on my shelves, I may have simply forgotten it. I tend to read mostly non-fiction these days, and not as much fiction as I once read.

Another novel, The Years with Laura Diaz, is up there, too, but unread and waiting. Not sure why I got it then forgot it. I now feel compelled to re-read his novels.

These might might be among my stash of “retirement novels” – books I meant to read when I retired because I never found the time to devote to them when I was working. I have several shelves of them, many now mixed with books I’ve read. Maybe it’s time to start reading them.

I recall Fuentes as a complex writer, with shifting tales woven into each novel, with transient perspectives, often with historical material that underlaid the novel’s time line.

Fuentes had the distinction of being what he himself called, “a pre-modern writer.” He used only pens, ink and paper to write. According to Wikipedia, he asked, “Do words need anything else?”

I can appreciate that sentiment, because I started out with pen and paper, although the geek within me really like this computer for composing, today. Still, there’s powerful magic in writing that is not found in word processing.

Fuentes said that he detested those authors who from the beginning claim to have a recipe for success. In a speech on his writing process he related that when he began the writing process he began by asking, “Who am I writing for?”

Looking through Terra Nostra today, it seems dense and meandering, like Joyce or Tolstoy. I found a bent corner at page 476. I wonder if that’s as far as I got, 40-plus years ago. I started to read from that page this morning and got sucked in for several pages. I think it’s a sign I should start reading Fuentes again from this book, rather than the newer Laura Diaz.

I was introduced to Fuentes back in the mid-late 1970s. I was reading Latin American authors – writers like Marquez, LLosa and Asturias, and many others. There was a paperback publishing wave headed by Bard/Avon to translate these authors for a North American market. Penguin followed and published others. I read dozens of them in that period – I still have many of those books on my shelves now. I enjoyed reading them; the authors had very different perspectives on life, on society, on government. It opened a new world to me and lead to my first trip to Mexico, more than 35 years ago.

Among my favourite books in that publication boom period was El Presidente by the Guatemalan author, Miguel Angel Asturias. I liked it so much I bought it in Spanish to try to read it in the original. I didn’t do very well, but I still have the Spanish version upstairs, along with a Spanish version of 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Marquez, and a more recent book by Paul Coelho, El Alquimiste. Someday I may try again, reading a line in Spanish, trying to translate it, then reading it in an English edition to see how well I did.

The BBC story on Fuentes’ death notes,

He was associated with the Latin American Boom – a literary movement made up of mainly young authors whose politically critical works broke with established traditions… His narrative, like that of his contemporaries of the Latin American Boom, was rarely linear, instead relying on flashbacks and changing perspectives.

The world lost a great author yesterday.More than that: he was a social commentator and champion of the people. But he lives on through his work and will continue to inspire writers for many more decades.

54,232 words… and it’s done

The Municipal MachiavelliI passed 54,000 words yesterday in my book on Machiavelli for municipal politicians. A little tweaking today, and an additional selection from The Discourses pushed it to 54,232 words. It prints out at 163 letter-sized pages.

Even though that count includes chapter titles and subheads, as well as the opening notes and quotes, dedication, bibliography, and back page copy, it’s still about 20,000 more than my original target. I just don’t seem to be able to stop working on it. I’m still reading books about him and his writing – bios and denser, academic tomes by scholars like Mansfield and Benner mostly. I find material to add daily.

I still have a dozen books in transit from various Abebooks sellers, too. There may be more lurking within their pages. I have amassed a large box of books by and about Machiavelli already. But I’ve stopped buying more, at least.

The size concerns me. Will it deter a potential publisher? I hope not.

The average typed, letter-size page has about 500 words in 12-point text (mine is mostly in 11pt Calibri). A typical paperback novel page has about half that, usually 10 pt. type. So based on paperback size, the book would exceed 200 pages. Not quite Tom Clancy or Stephen King, but still substantial.

A trade paperback around 6×9″ has roughly 340 words per page, so at that size it would be about 160 pages. But due to the formatting style I’ve used (including numerous quotations from Machiavelli’s works and others offset with whitespace for clarity), it is probably 25-40% larger in size than a book with simple, linear text. That would make it 200-225 pages.

A paperback novel-sized book with similar formatting would come in at over 250-280 pages.

As a comparison, most paperback copies of Machiavelli’s The Prince – my basic source – are around 100-125 pages, sometimes fleshed out to 150 with selections from others of his works, glossary, intro and so on. I guess I’ve gone a bit overboard.

But the content is basically finished, just some tweaking, editing and a little tightening to do. I really have to stop adding to it, despite my obsession to make it as rich, as clear and as full as I can. But I must stop because I have to return to my third book for Municipal World, and get it completed for publication in December.

I think it’s my best book to date, and I’m proud enough of it to consider self-publishing if I can’t find a print publisher willing to take it on. But that’s an other hurdle to tackle a bit later…

Fifty thousand words…

This morning I crossed the 50,000 word mark in my book on Machiavelli’s The Prince for municipal politicians. It’s longer than I had originally intended, but I think it’s a reasonable length for the content. I’m pleased with the current draft and should have my reading and self-editing done by next Monday. Then it’s on to my next book, about e-government.

I have an overhead of perhaps 2,000 words I could reduce it by through my own editing. Primarily that would involve deleting the addendum with the maxims from his Art of War and from Sun Tzu’s book of the same name, trimming the conclusion a tad, and reducing some of the extraneous references in the bibliography. Other textual edits in the biography and intro material might gain me 200-500 words. I can’t see how it could get any lower.

Problem is, it could get longer. As I continue to read and study, I gain more insight about the work that I want to insert into my own text. Damn, but I find it difficult to write fewer rather than more words when I enjoy the subject so much! I had to trim 3-5,000 words from each of my last two books to make them fit into the publisher’s format.

Along the way, I’ve accumulated a large box of books about and by Machiavelli, including no less than ten translations of The Prince, with at least two more still in the mail. Why so many? because many of the translations are rather dodgy, especially the ones now in the public domain.

I’ve enjoyed working through how each translator tackles Machiavelli’s language, however. It’s given me some insight into how he wrote, as well as into the varieties of understanding each translator has. Just looking at how each one presents a word like fortuna or virtu is enlightening.

I’ve read two biographies of Machiavelli, am part way through a third, and received a fourth by mail this week. There’s a new bio due this fall I’ve already pre-ordered from Amazon.

I wanted to rewrite the selections I’ve taken from the public domain sources, which often sound too archaic and stodgy for modern ears. I’ve used more modern translations as my guide when looking for appropriate wording. That meant I needed to compare several versions of the same paragraph simultaneously. A lot of work and I spread books all over the dining room table as I hunted through the translations.

Sometimes when I have a few minutes, I’ll create a post that shows how all these translators handle one paragraph. It’s interesting to compare them. I did something similar with various translations of Chaucer not long ago. I wish I could read Italian, particularly Renaissance Italian to translate it myself.

I’ve also learned a great deal about how various translators and commentators assess and translate Machiavelli’s writing and how they each conclude meaning from his words.

A lot of the books I’ve bought are analyses of his works, not simply translations of original documents. A few are university-level scholarly works. Some are about Machiavelli and modern politics or management. Not all have proven relevant to my work, but most have something to offer.

I also got an audio course from The Great Courses, called Machiavelli in Context. I’ve been listening to it on my MP3 player when I walk the dog, and in the car. Have heard the first 7 and a bit lectures out of 24, each 30-40 minutes long. I have enjoyed several of their courses in the past, and recommend them to anyone who likes learning.

I think I’ve probably killed a few acres of forest printing earlier drafts, but that will end soon, once I finalize the submittable draft. That’s a few days away, but the end is in sight.

Scribble, scribble, eh what?

Typing cartoonJust passed the 13,000 word mark on my current book about Machiavelli and municipal politics, this weekend. So far, I have gone through explanations of Chapters 1-10 of The Prince. The Prince has 26 chapters, so I’m about 40% of the way through my analysis, more or less on track for a 35,000-40,000 word book.

It’s a little tough in places trying to fit Machiavelli’s words and ideas to modern issues and themes, but so far I think I’ve done a fair job of finding relevant metaphors, issues and events. The next chapter, on ecclesiastical states, might be a bit of a stretch, since their relevance today is minimal, so I suspect I’ll need to conflate a couple of chapters here.

[pullquote]It’s a little tough in places trying to fit Machiavelli’s words and ideas to modern issues and themes. [/pullquote]I hope to have the core material written over the next two weeks.I’m working with several translations of The Prince, but the core material I’m quoting comes from the public domain Marriott translation. It’s a bit of a stodgy version and isn’t broken into paragraphs for easy reading. Fortunately for me, I have a print version that is, so it’s a bit easier to find material and to read.

Once the basic overview of The Prince is complete, I’ll bring in selections from The Discourses to bolster my arguments, as well as throwing in some quotes from Sun Tzu, Han Fei Tzu and one of my favourite books on leadership – Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power. Then I’ll try to add a few examples from Canadian municipal politics to it. Toronto these days seems to have a wealth of stories.

I want this to be about the same size as my last two books, so I have to try to focus and not be too long-winded.

One of the books I’ve been reading recently while doing this is Maurizio Viroli’s Niccolo’s Smile, an excellent and highly entertaining biography of Machiavelli. Understanding the events that shaped his life makes it easier to understand Machiavelli’s political theories.

I’ve also been reading books and online essays/articles about Machiavelli’s political theories, ethics, and morals. Some have been a bit densely pedantic (is that an oxymoron?), but others have given me some material to consider.

Well, back to work… 1,000 words a day is my minimum target and the day’s not getting longer.

On translating Chaucer and the joys of Middle English

Geoffrey ChaucerIn my last two visits to the nearby Chapters, I picked up from the bargain books section two recent, hardcover, versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. One is a new verse translation by Burton Raffel published in 2008, the other a prose translation by Peter Ackroyd, from 2009.

These join the dozen or so other versions of Chaucer’s works I already have on my bookshelves: the Riverside Chaucer (third edition), several venerable Penguin editions (both original and translations), the New Cambridge edition, the Portable Chaucer, Hopper’s interlinear translation, and a few others. What always surprises me is how widely these translations range in wording, rhythm and style.

Chaucer, of course, wrote in Middle English, a form of English that’s not quite like our speech today, but close enough that anyone can stumble through most of it without needing a glossary. I have only skimmed some works on learning Middle English, not studied it beyond casual reading. For me, trying to read and understand Chaucer in his original tongue is part of the pleasure of it. I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I figure out a verse that looked cryptic at first but clarity has broken upon me, or when the words coalesce into a tale.

There are four things to keep in mind when reading Chaucer. First is to try to read it aloud. The sound and rhythm of the spoken word often helps makes the meaning evident. Chaucer wrote to be heard, not just read. You can hear some Chaucerian poetry online to get a sense of how it sounded – a lot more Germanic than it does today. But just reading him aloud helps you appreciate his work.

Second is the pronunciation. Many words and letters were pronounced somewhat differently in Chaucer’s day, much more like Romance languages: most letters are pronounced and few are silent. For example, what we would see as a silent ‘e’ at the end of a Chaucerian word, such as ‘grete’ and likely pronounce as “greet” today would have been sounded as ‘eh’ in Chaucer’s day” ‘grey-teh’. You can get basic pronunciation guides online, too. It’s not difficult.

Third is the spelling. Chaucer didn’t use spell-check (neither, it seems, do most Facebook posters, but I digress). He was not always consistent in his spelling. Many common words in his day were also spelled differently than today. These words can look odd, but when you say them aloud, you realize they’re familiar words with different spellings. For example, these lines from the Knight’s Tale (Knightes Tale, lines 2160-64):

“His coat-armure was of clooth of Tars,
Couched with perles whyte and rounde and grete.
His sadel was of brend gold newe y-bete,
A mantelet upon his shuldre hanginge
Bret-ful of rubies rede, as fyr sparklinge.”

You should understand most of that pretty easily. Shuldre today is shoulder, sadle is saddle, perles are pearls, clooth is cloth, and so on. But what is y-bete, or brend, or armure? That’s where translations or glossaries help.
In prose translation, this can be rendered:

His tunic, blazoned with his arms, was of cloth of Tartary, laid with pearls, white, round, and great. His saddle was of burnished gold, freshly forged. A short mantle hung upon his shoulders, stiff with red rubies sparkling as fire.

And here it is in poetry (from an online interlinear site):

His tunic with his coat of arms was of cloth of Tarsia (in Turkestan)
Adorned with pearls white and round and big;
His saddle was newly adorned with pure gold;
A short cloak hanging upon his shoulder,
Brimful of rubies red as sparkling fire;

Raffel, I see, translates Tars as “Persian”:

…His coat was Persian silk,
Embroidered with pearls, great, and white as milk.
His saddle was hammered out of bright new gold,
And the mantle hanging high across his shoulders
Was heavy with fire-red rubies, sparkling in sunlight.

Fourth reminder is that words come and go in English, and can even change meaning from one period to the next. In Chaucer’s day, for example, the word silly meant “happy, blissful, blessed or fortunate.” By the early-16th century, it meant “deserving pity or sympathy.” It took on its current meaning of “empty-headed” or “lacking good sense” by the early 17th century. (See Steinmetz: Semantic Antics). When you read Chaucer, you will find words no longer in use, as well as words that have shifted meaning since his day. That’s one reason having a modern translation is handy. When you come to an incomprehensible line, you can see how it gets translated into today’s speech.

The structure of Middle English – the grammar – is similar enough to modern English that it’s not hard to figure out. Adjectives tend to follow nouns rather than precede them (“perles whyte” rather than “white pearls”). But if you have no problem with the syntax of Shakespeare or the King James Bible, Chaucer won’t pose significant problems,

Ah, but you also need to know where you’re reading in order to find the translated lines. In Hopper’s edition, those lines above are numbered 1303-06. In Raffel’s new translation, we find them at 1290-94. But the Riverside, New Cambridge and Penguin (original spelling) versions all use the numbering noted above.

It can be tricky finding the reference. Many translations are unnumbered, making it difficult to locate a particular line. Ackroyd’s prose version has no references, either (the lines above appear about a third of the way down on page 57):

His coat of arms was woven of rare silk and embroidered with white pearls; his saddle was of newly beaten gold, and the mantle around his shoulders was studded with glowing rubies.

Morrison’s translation in the Portable Chaucer (revised edn), is:

Over his gear a Tartar coat; each fold
With large pearls was embroidered, round and white.
His saddle was of forged gold, beaten bright.
A little mantel from his shoulders spread
Brimful of fiery rubies, glittering red.

Coghill’s translation in the Penguin Classics edition reads,

His surcoat was in cloth of Tartary,
Studded with great white pearls; beneath its fold
A saddle of new-beaten, burnished gold.
He had a mantle hanging from his shoulders,
Which, crammed with rubies,dazzled all beholders.

Here a re a few other translations of those four lines from the Web. First this one:

His coat-of-arms was cloth of the Tartars,
Begemmed with pearls, all white and round and great.
Of beaten gold his saddle, burnished late;
A mantle from his shoulders hung, the thing
Close-set with rubies red, like fire blazing.

Which I find a bit stilted (begemmed, rubies red, etc.). Then this one:

His coat of arms of cloth from Turkestan,
Adorned with large round pearls of polished white;
His pure gold saddle was a wondrous sight;
A short cloak on his shoulders all admire,
Brimful of rubies red as sparkling fire;

And this prose version:

His tunic, blazoned with his arms, was of cloth of Tartary, laid with pearls, white, round, and great. His saddle was of burnished gold, freshly forged. A short mantle hung upon his shoulders, stiff with red rubies sparkling as fire.

And this poetic version:

His surcoat was of cloth from Tartary,
With all the large white pearls that it could hold.
His saddle, newly forged, was burnished gold.
A mantle from his shoulders hung, attire
Brimful of rubies sparkling red as fire.

And finally this verse translation:

His surcoat was of cloth of Tartary,
Adorned with pearls, white, round and bold.
His saddle of pure freshly-beaten gold,
A short mantle on his shoulder hanging,
Dense with rubies red, like fire sparkling.

You can see how different each version is, yet how similar. The original is not really very difficult to understand – at least to my eyes – but every translator finds in it a different sense or colour. Every version above sounds particularly different from the original when read aloud, both in wording and in poetic rhythm.

Are any of them better? Is there a definitive modern translation? I have not the academic background to judge. I enjoy reading Chaucer in almost all forms, including my stumbling and fitful attempts to master the original. But these two latest versions of the Canterbury Tales are among the most enjoyable I have read in a while, and I would recommend them to anyone. You merely have to decide whether you want to read Chaucer as epic poetry (Raffel) or stories constructed like modern fiction (Ackroyd). I like both, and of course the bargain-book price didn’t hurt.

All of this is to explain why, despite several translations on my bookshelves already, I continue to purchase – and delight in reading – new translations of Chaucer.