The OF Blog: Leatherbound Classics: Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

Somtime (faire Ladies) there lived in Arimino, a Merchant, very rich in wealth and worldly possessions, who having a beautifull Gentlewoman to his wife, he became extreamly jelous of her.  And he had no other reason for this foolish conceit; but, like as he loved hir dearly, and found her to be very absolutely faire:  even so he imagined, that althogh she devised by her best meanes to give him content; yet others would grow enamored of her, because she appeared so amiable to al.  In which respect, time might tutor her to affect some other beside himself:  the onely common argument of every bad minded man, being weake and shallow in his owne understanding.  This jelous humor increasing in him more and more, he kept her in such narrow restraint:  that many persons condemned to death, have enjoyed larger libertie in their imprisonment.  For, she might not bee present at Feasts, Weddings, nor goe to Church, or so much as to be seen at her doore:  Nay, she durst not stand in her Window, nor looke out of her house, for any occasion whatsoever.  By means whereof, life seemed most tedious and offensive to her, and she supported it the more impatiently, because shee knew her selfe not any way faulty. (Seventh day, Fifth story)

Along with Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarch, Giovanni Boccaccio was one of the leading writers during the 14th century flowering known as the Italian Renaissance.  Writing somewhat after the other two, Boccaccio's verse and prose have long been read and studied both inside and outside of Italy.  His most famous work, The Decameron, has been available in English for nearly four centuries. 

I first read Boccaccio's work in 1995, in an Oxford World's Classics.  At the time, I found the stories to be quaint, amusing, and translated into a clear, intelligible English that gave enough hints of the richness that must exist in the Italian original.  Unfortunately, one of the problems I'm encountering as I acquire and read the Easton Press editions of famous works is that too often they choose older, often less accurate translations for their works.  Reading the 1620 Fritz Kredel translation almost completely destroyed the esteem that I had for Boccaccio's story.  Kredel's translation, riddled with odd word choices, archaic (and inconsistent) spellings, and bowdlerized passages, contains very little of the magic that I found implied in the Oxford edition.  The prose is too stilted and there just isn't any sense of "life" in these stories; the outdated, inaccurate prose translation just makes a total mess of things.

This is a pity, for the Boccaccio that I remember (and which is but faintly found in this particular edition) is a rich feast of stories that contain slices of life from early Italian Renaissance town-life.  Structured around a frame story involving three noble men and seven ladies fleeing Florence during the initial Black Death (occurring less than twenty years before Boccaccio composed these stories), The Decameron contains ten sets of ten stories (many of them revolving around specific themes such as unfaithful wives or foolish people) that vary in tone from playful to admonitory to all parts between these two poles. 

Readers of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (itself published a few decades after The Decameron) might see some surface similarities between the two works, particularly in some of the story themes and even in how these tales are executed.  Those wishing to judge the superiority of one over the other likely will find Chaucer's work a more fulfilling read, despite its unfinished status at the time of Chaucer's death.  A major weakness in Boccaccio's structure is that although the stories by and large are entertaining, the frame story feels dull and lifeless in comparison; the ten noble storytellers fail to engage with each other (or with the reader) in the lively fashion that the Miller and the Reeve do in Chaucer's tale. 

This lack of a strong, compelling framework weakens the impact of the stories.  Even the best-told tales feel flat because after 5-10 pages, it's on to the next tale, with very little interplay (and that which present tends to be perfunctory and not played up to effect as in Chaucer's interludes) between the narrators to serve as an effective transition from tale to tale.  Furthermore, despite the ribald nature of several of Boccaccio's stories (unfortunately, three of these were deleted from the Kredel translation; he substituted three inferior imitations), the Easton Press edition fails to capture the lively spirit of these tales; it all just feels so drab.  This is almost always the fault of Kredel's pathetic translation, as in more modern translations, Boccaccio's wit and playful banter are more readily upon display than they are in this 1620 translation.

Would I recommend readers try reading Boccaccio in translation?  Yes, provided that they read a much more current and faithful translation.  Storytelling relies so much upon the artful use of language and poor translations, such as this archaic Kredel rendering, do no favors to author or reader.  The Decameron is one of the earliest frame/nested story creations of European literature and although it was surpassed by Chaucer and, arguably, Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa in structure and interstory connections, The Decameron is still a masterpiece whose brilliance still shines through even the worst of translations.

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