Geoffrey Chaucer, factotum of Plantagenet England and author of countless inimitable works of poetry, wrote towards the end of the 1400s his magnum opus The Canterbury Tales, wherein we follow a wide assortment and slice of society as they make pilgrimage towards Canterbury.

Chaucer was a man whom had interacted with everyone from the highest to the lowest in 14th century England from kings to serfs, and had even travelled Europe and communicated with the princes of that time. It is therefore little wonder that the cast of his Tales stem from such diverse societal layers as Millers, Knights and Friars.

Japanese translations of this Middle English do exist, albeit fewer than other English works. I will in this short post look at perhaps one of the most colourful characters of the poem who gives no fucks about swearing upon God, his organs or other divine items, much to the ire of his fellow pilgrims, and Chaucer having meekly to apologise to the reader.

How does a Japanese translator from the early 20th century then handle the sulphurous tongue of Robin the Miller?

The most prominent swear from Robin is probably this one, occuring when the Innkeeper tells Robin the Miller to politely let the monk tell his story, to which Robin replies:

'By goddes soul,' quod he, 'that wol nat I;/For I wol speke, or elles go my wey.'
('By God's soul,' said he,'that will I not; For I will speak, or else go my way')

"By God's soul (...) that will I not" is very much the Middle English equivalent of "I fucking well won't," due to how religious swears were much more potent back then.

Japanese swearing works somewhat differently, with it being more sociolinguistically dependent, that is, ranging from using the wrong pronoun (informal versus formal), or dropping honorifics. There is, however, slang and profanity akin to our own, typically deriving from the realm of the sexual or religious, for example chikushou means "livestock" or "beast (of burden)", but can be used as a fairly mild expletive, but once it is used as a term of spite towards another person it is very much equivalent of "you fucker," since the term in Buddhist religious context refers to one of the realms of rebirth, that is the Animal Realm.

Thus, we turn towards the Japanese translation from 1926, which was done by Kenji Kaneko (金子健二, 1880 - 1962) and the it was released in two volumes, whereof the Miller's Tale, was part of the first one.

Returning to Robin's reply to the Innkeeper:

"Iya yosanu. Doushite mo hanasu nda. Naranu nara katte na koto o suru."
"Nay, I'll not stop. I will absolutely tell this story. If not, do as you please!"

No swear word in site, but only overly informal speech, plus archaic elements such as yosanu rather than the modern yosanai ("stops not").

Elsewhere Robin attempts to use polite language, but because he is more more dipped in plonk than Dionysus, he fails in quite his unique style, first using sessha (拙者, "this clumsy one"), a pronoun typically used by samurai when self-deprecating themselves:

"Daijoubu sono o-samurai no aite wa sessha ga hikiukete hitotsu omoshiroi o-hanashi o o-mimi ni ireyou."
"It is all right, Humble I shall be the one to challenge the good sir knight's story with a most interesting one for you all!"

Which corresponds to:

'I can a noble tale for the nones,/With which I wol now quyte the Knightes tale.'
('I can a noble tale for sure, with which I will now match the Knight's tale')

That very much comes prior to the former quote where Robin swears upon God that he will tell a story. Notice how the translator has used o-samurai, an honorific version of samurai, as a localisation for "knight," hence my translation choice.

The only one to seriously swear in this part is the Innkeeper himself where he furiously admonishes Robin:

「糞!話すなら話せ、馬鹿野郎!! 氣を狂ってゐるがる。」
"Kuso! Hanasu nara hanase, bakayarou!! Ki o kurutte iru garu!"
"Damn it! If you must tell, then tell, you bloody idiot! You have lost your mind!"

And even this is remarkably unprofane in its meaning.

It is true that kuso (糞, "dung/shit/faeces") can mean literally "shit," but it can also run the gamut from "fucking hell" to "darn it." It is a common expletive, whereas bakayarou (馬鹿野郎, "damn/bloody idiot") could perhaps be stretched to be considered mildly profane, but even then it is hardly as profane as the Innkeeper's original line:

(...) 'tel on, a devel wey!/Thou art a fool, thy wit is overcome.'
(By the Devil, do continue! Thou art a fool, thy wit is extreme.")

Where in our day and age "by the devil," is not only fairly mild, but it is outright archaic and you would probably only encounter it it Dickensian works at the utmost, when it comes to modern works.