The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (trans. Wayne A. Rebhorn). W.W. Norton. $39.95, 1024pp.
It’s a polite commonplace among scholars to assert, as G. H. McWilliam does in the introduction to his 1972 translation of The Decameron for Penguin Classics, that the work’s 14th-century author, Giovanni Boccaccio, would be immortal even if he’d never written it. Since McWilliam’s translation—solid as a block of Carrara marble—had an enormous distribution in schools throughout the Western hemisphere, it’s likely true that countless students came away from their one exposure to The Decameron thinking it’s somehow comparable to such of the author’s other works as Il Filostrato, or On the Genealogy of the Pagan Gods.
Such a notion is ridiculous, of course. Without The Decameron, Boccaccio would doubtless still be preserved, the Latin scholarship of his middle age perhaps given exactingly annotated new editions in Harvard University’s ongoing I Tatti Renaissance Library (as are the works of a dozen of his Florentine contemporaries whose names are known only to scholars). But there’s more to immortality than preservation; it’s The Decameron that puts Boccaccio on the same shelf as his friend Petrarch and his idol Dante. J. G. Nichols invokes this august trio in the preface to the translation of The Decameron he did for Everyman Library in 2009. Nichols, a skilled translator of Leopardi and Foscolo, gives his edition of the work a sleek and erudite sheen, which is fine when Boccaccio is being sleek and erudite but which often fails to capture his more knockabout side.
It’s a significant failure, since that knockabout side more than anything else made The Decameron the gigantic success it was from its first appearance. The book’s opening gambit is as dark as gambits get: it’s 1348, and Florence is being ravaged by an extremely virulent outbreak of the Black Death—hundreds are dying every day. Seven young women and three young men decide to flee the city for the quiet of villas in the countryside, and there they pass the time by telling each other a series of stories over the course of ten days. Each day has a different master of ceremonies and governing theme, and although there’s plenty of Nichols’s sleek erudition on display, the main uniting theme of the whole getaway is license.
This central fact is understood quite well by Wayne Rebhorn in his excellent new Decameron, a massive and quicksilver volume, beautifully produced, which captures the coruscating mood-shifts of Boccaccio with more contemporary-feeling gusto than any English-language translation has yet managed. The solemnity with which these escaping young people elect their daily leaders is a neat counterbalance to the series of awful, scabrous, bawdy, unspeakable things—as Rebhorn puts it, unpermitted things—that happen in all of these stories, and Rebhorn understands this tidal fluctuation perfectly:
Participating in ritual impacts people, for by stepping outside their ordinary roles and abrogating the rules of society at least temporarily, they enter a liminal space and time that gives them a freedom, a license to engage in all sorts of normally unpermitted behavior. Boccaccio’s young men and women can thus tell stories that have made the Decameron synonymous with witty irreverence, mockery, and sexual license.
(The horror of Rebhorn’s use of such academic buzz-words as “liminal” is strictly limited to his introduction—none of his characters are depraved enough to talk that way—and in any case that horror is counterbalanced by the happy fact that Rebhorn is the first Boccaccio translator in 300 years to understand so clearly that the main thing being celebrated amidst all these fevered couplings is “intelligence in all its forms.”)
“Translation,” our translator tells us, “makes strangers feel familiar, but a good one should also allow us to sense something of the alien in our midst.” The care with which Rebhorn pursues this “clearly contradictory, indeed paradoxical” balance is downright charming, and it pays off: this is a Decameron at once elegant and effusive, as varied in its tones and moods as the original. It’s as bawdy and explicit as, say, Richard Aldington’s scandalous and much-maligned 1930 version; it’s as soundly researched as Nichols or McWilliam, and if it lacks the doyennish aura of command Frances Winwar was able to bring to her own 1930 translation (the only full version by a woman to date, it seems), it also lacks that version’s thee’s and thou’s, so lethal to 21st-century ears. Rebhorn’s Decameron will be the definitive one for a lifetime mainly because it manages the paradox he identifies: it sets this stranger down in our midst and proceeds to find our common dialects.
Evidence of his care and playfulness is everywhere, especially in the tell-tale details. This is amply true in such famous stories as that of the patient Griselda or the naive young woman Alibech and the randy monk Rustico (a tale so gloriously, sacrilegiously raunchy it cannot be bowdlerized and was simply omitted from many a pre-modern translation), but it also shows to keen effect in much smaller moments. Take as one example the tenth story of the third day: the Venetian cook Chichibio, in the employ of Florentine magnate Currado Gianfigliazzi, is cooking a crane in the kitchen for his master and his master’s guests when a girl he loves asks him for a thigh of the bird. Chichibio at first teasingly refuses her, and Boccaccio’s Italian wittily lampoons dimwitted Chichibio’s slurry, lilting Venetian accent, so different from the more clipped, punchy Florentine tone. It’s a little moment, but it demonstrates that Boccaccio was attentive to every tiny detail of his comedy—and it’s been the despair of English-language translators, who almost invariably fumble the moment. Aldington has it: “But he replied with a snatch of song: ‘You won’t get it from me, Donna Brunetta, you won’t get it from me!’” McWilliam’s is: “By way of reply, Chichibio burst into song: ‘I won’t let you have it, Donna Brunetta, I won’t let you have it, so there!’” Even Nichols renders it: “Chichibio chanted in reply, “Yon won’t get it out of me, my Lady Brunetta, you won’t get it out of me.”
But Chichibio isn’t singing or chanting—it’s just that because he’s Venetian, he sounds like he is, something Rebhorn catches: “Chichibio replied to her in his singsong way and said, ‘You’re not a-goin’ a get it from me, Donna Brunetta, you’re not a-goin’ a get it from me.’”
Rebhorn preserves the backdrop strangeness of Boccaccio’s world (night-time amorous prowlings happen not at the stroke of midnight but at “the stroke of matins”—and dozens of similarly clever adaptations) but he does more than any modern translator to redress the other side of his paradox and place in our own reality Boccaccio’s dukes, sultans, merchants, knights, bandits, aldermen, and especially those most glorious of all his creations, the women, the smart, scheming, opportunistic, hedonistic women to whom Boccaccio gave an unapologetic three-dimensionality they’d lacked in art since the days of Euripides.
It all makes for a very big book: the quality of Norton’s binding and paper-stock make this much the fattest as well as the prettiest English-language Decameron ever to appear in bookstores. That it should also be the best is rather fitting, here at the 700th anniversary of the author’s birth.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and Kirkus. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.
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