In hardcover this season from W. W. Norton is a splendid new English-language edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron, whose translator, Wayne Rebhorn, found time to answer some questions. (Also read Steve Donoghue’s review of Rebhorn’s translation of the Decameron in this issue.)
Steve Donoghue: Boccaccio’s Decameron! Even readers with little or no experience of the book will know one thing about it: it’s big! To a prospective translator, it must loom like some sort of appalling undertaking. What prompted you to consider sinking what must have been the labor of years into translating this whole vast work? The Decameron hasn’t exactly been ignored by English-language translators over, say, the last two hundred years? Was your decision to join that list a reflection of frustration with those earlier versions?
Wayne Rebhorn: I’ve been teaching the Decameron for years and been feeling increasingly dissatisfied with the two choices I had, Musa/Bondanella (Signet) and McWilliam (Penguin). There’s also the Oxford Classics version by Guido Waldman, but it plays fast and loose with the text, suppressing the headnote titles, for example, because Waldman doesn’t think we should have things that give away the plot. And there’s a very recent translation by Nichols for Everyman, which came out well after I had signed my contract with Norton. It has lots of errors and does such things as to suppress words when the translator feels Boccaccio is using two words when one will suffice.
SD: These sound like sizable shortcomings! Care to elaborate?
WR:The Musa/Bondanella version, by two Americans (which Norton has been using up to now in its Critical Edition), has the virtue of sticking close to the original, but the result is often rather inelegant English. For Boccaccio it was acceptable to repeat words in a way that violates basic English style, but since Musa and Bondanella follow him as he does so, they often produce something I would take a red pencil to as an editor, such as: “they spent their time together there having a fine time; and when it was time for the monk to leave . . .” Moreover, the two Americans make a fair number of errors, some of which are howlers. In one tale, a father recognizes his son, who is being lashed on his way to the gallows, by means of the birthmark on his chest, but Musa and Bondanella describe him as being stripped from the waist down, whereas Boccaccio clearly writes “from the waist up” (“dalla cintura in sú”).
The McWilliam version has produced what is probably the best translation of the bunch, one that attempts to capture the complexities of Boccaccio’s sentences while still being written in readable, albeit British, English. Though his work is admirable in many ways—and it is the only one that is fully annotated—McWilliam takes unnecessary liberties and makes some strange decisions with regard to diction. At one point, a woman who works for “the bread she eats” (“il pan che mangiar volea”) is said to earn “every morsel that passed her lips.” At another point, he calls an old woman who serves as a go-between a “beldam,” using a word for which the latest entry in the Oxford English Dictionary comes from the mid-nineteenth century. My fundamental complaint about McWilliam, however, is that he does not think Boccaccio’s style is exciting enough, so he adds words and expressions not just to clarify what is being said—a translator cannot avoid this maneuver at times—but to make it more dramatic. This urge to “improve” Boccaccio is evident, for example, whenever he spots Boccaccio using the verb piangere, “to cry.” In McWilliam’s version, Boccaccio’s characters never simply cry, or weep, or even dissolve in tears; instead, they almost invariably “burst into tears.” This may be good, readable, exciting English, but it is bad Boccaccio.
I honestly think my translation—which is in American English—is better than Musa/Bondanella, which is over 30 years old now, and is every bit as good as McWilliam. I did not envision it would be quite so huge a project when I started in 2006, but I was lucky that my editor at Norton, Pete Simon, was wiser than I and anticipated that it would take a long while and waited patiently for me to finish.
SD: The multiplicity of translations speaks volumes about the perennial appeal of The Decameron. You’ve now spent more time with the work than all but a handful of people on Earth—what are your thoughts on the source and nature of that appeal? After all, we don’t see crowds of scholars (or publishers, for that matter) rushing to pay their respects to Marguerite of Navarre . . .
WR: The first and most basic thing to say about why people still read the Decameron is that it is a comic masterpiece. Actually, there are tales that are tragic, others that are filled with pathos, and still others that are romances involving all sorts of adventures. But the vast majority, and many of the best, stories are comic ones. Boccaccio is thought of as being primarily a ribald writer—indeed, the Italian adjective derived from his name, boccaccesco, means just that—but it is also the case that a number of his funniest tales don’t involve sex. In essence, the Decameron appeals to us because we like to be amused, to laugh. It offers the enjoyment of a good joke, smutty or otherwise, and it appeals to us because it is irreverent, making fun of institutions and conventions (lots of shots at the Church, of course), because it’s skeptical about naive idealism, because it satirizes the pretentious. On the other side, it has a positive appeal that involves its celebration of the body and its desires, of wit and cleverness, even of a kind of shamelessness. I think of comedy as liberating us, especially liberating us from fear of powerful people, from fear of institutions, and most profoundly, from the fear of death.
SD: “Fear of death” isn’t the kind of thing most readers associate with the comic hijinks you’ve been describing.
WR: The book is a framed narrative that was explicitly written as a response to the Black Death of 1348. The plague that afflicted Florence (and much of the rest of Europe) carried off thousands of people, killing maybe a third of the population of the city (estimates varied), and creating social chaos and desperation. In the face of that desperation, Boccaccio has ten young men and women escape to the countryside and tell stories for ten days. These stories are thus, ultimately, a response to the fear of death and the threat of social collapse that the plague meant for Florence. Even tragic stories provide a kind of order, having, as they do, beginnings, middles, and ends, but comic stories do more: they celebrate life, the life of the body and the mind, as I was saying in the previous paragraph. The Decameron is thus all about the consolation that literature gives us in the midst of the most horrible of crises; it’s about the power and value of storytelling. Some 12 years ago I was teaching this book on September 11, and was preparing to go to class when I learned of what had happened in New York City and Washington and Pennsylvania. Should I cancel class? Should I devote the class to talking with my students about the tragedy? Should I just teach it as though nothing had happened? And then it struck me: this is the perfect text for this day, a text about how people can turn to stories to help them cope with horror. Of course, I did talk with my class about 9/11, but we then moved on to Boccaccio with a renewed sense of just how important literature can be at such moments.
SD: Harnessing the power of Boccaccio’s stories to deal with—well, tragedy but also everything else?
WR: Many of these stories, including many of the best ones, involve characters who get out of trouble or fulfill their desires by making witty remarks or, more frequently, by telling stories. In other words, one of the things that Boccaccio is “teaching” us in and through his stories is that people use stories to navigate the world of experience, to make their way through the world. Take the very first story: it’s about the worst man who ever lived, but who, when faced with dying and being chucked out of the house he was living in because his landlords were afraid they’d be persecuted for having such a man in their house, makes up a phony confession that convinces a gullible friar he’s actually a saint. His confession is a marvelous performance–and it is, of course, a story, a story that reshapes the life of the teller in such a way that it turns things absolutely upside-down, allowing the teller to die peacefully in his bed, to protect his landlords, and, as an extra, to provide a new saint and some extra cash for the local community. The story is obviously a parody of a saint’s life, and as such, it is, as I said, liberating in myriad ways.
SD: Liberating, yes, and not only for the storyteller! Liberating for everybody else, depending on how they used what they heard.
WR: It’s about how important the interpretation of what we hear can be. As a person living the Middle Ages, Boccaccio knew that we should always interpret things, because Sacred Scripture, history, the natural world, stories–indeed, everything—was allegorical, and our job was to get at that “other meaning” contained in it. But whereas Dante expected us to read his poem from a Christian perspective, Boccaccio writes a secular work that stresses the importance of being good interpreters in a more earthly manner. It’s not casual that whereas Dante’s work came to be called The Divine Comedy (he never called it that himself, just the “comedía”), the very first word in the text of the Decameron is umana, “human.” We are being invited to read a human work in a human way. Even more, we are often confronted with tales, like that first story, where there is no readymade key, such as Christian theology, to explicate it. Is the worst man in the world who turns himself into a saint a thoroughly evil individual who deserves to be condemned and who will burn in Hell? Is he a hero in evil? Is he a kind of artist? Is he to be admired for his daring when facing the ultimate end–death? Dante makes interpreting his allegory hard at times, because working out such meanings makes us better Christians. Boccaccio makes it hard in a different way because wrestling with how to interpret his tales makes us better people.
In conclusion, let me say that the Decameron survives because it is entertaining, amusing, moving, and thought-provoking. It encourages us to adopt a critical mindset and to think hard about the world, even while we are also having a jolly good time. To put it in a nutshell: the Decameron is fun, but it would be more accurate to say, it is serious fun.
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. Wayne Rebhorn is the Celanese Centennial Professor of English at the University of Texas, where he teaches English, Italian, and comparative literature. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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