The Decameron: Translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn

The Decameron: Translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn

by Giovanni Boccaccio
     
 

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"Celebrated in the Renaissance as the foremost stylist of Italian prose, Boccaccio has seldom met his match in English translation...Wayne Rebhorn’s fluid and dynamic rendition hits the mark on every page." —William J. Kennedy, Cornell University
The year is 1348. The Black Death has begun to ravage Europe. Ten young Florentines—seven women and… See more details below

Overview

"Celebrated in the Renaissance as the foremost stylist of Italian prose, Boccaccio has seldom met his match in English translation...Wayne Rebhorn’s fluid and dynamic rendition hits the mark on every page." —William J. Kennedy, Cornell University
The year is 1348. The Black Death has begun to ravage Europe. Ten young Florentines—seven women and three men—escape the plague-infested city and retreat to the countryside around Fiesole. At their leisure in this isolated and bucolic setting, they spend ten days telling each other stories—tales of romance, tragedy, comedy, and farce—one hundred in all. The result, called by one critic "the greatest short story collection of all time" (Leonard Barkan, Princeton University) is a rich and entertaining celebration of the medley of medieval life.
Witty, earthy, and filled with bawdy irreverence, the one hundred stories of The Decameron offer more than simple escapism; they are also a life-affirming balm for trying times. The Decameron is a joyously comic book that has earned its place in world literature not just because it makes us laugh, but more importantly because it shows us how essential laughter is to the human condition.Published on the 700th anniversary of Boccaccio’s birth, Wayne A. Rebhorn's new translation of The Decameron introduces a generation of readers to this "rich late-medieval feast" in a "lively, contemporary, American-inflected English" (Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard University) even as it retains the distinctly medieval flavor of Boccaccio's rhetorically expressive prose.An extensive introduction provides useful details about Boccaccio's historical and cultural milieu, the themes and particularities of the text, and the lines of influence flowing into and out of this towering monument of world literature.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In time for Giovanni Boccaccio’s 700th birthday, Wayne A. Rebhorn, professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and translator of The Prince and Other Writings by Machiavelli, has provided a strikingly modern translation of Boccaccio’s medieval Italian classic. Fleeing Florence and the plague of 1348, 10 young men and women retreat to a country estate, “surrounded by meadows and marvelous gardens,” where they spend their days in leisure while the Black Death ravages the city. To fill their time, and affirm life in the face of death, they tell stories: on each of 10 days, every character spins a tale on a theme. Thus, there are 100 stories in total, which range in tone from tragic to triumphant and from pious to bawdy, and which serve as monuments to the rich medieval life and society that the plague was to fundamentally alter. Rebhorn’s translation is eminently readable and devoid of the stilted, antiquated speech associated with the classics. Indeed, at times the translator’s rendering of Boccaccio’s Italian into contemporary idiomatic American English feels jarring: “my cheesy-weesy, sweet honeybun of a wife.” But on the whole, his translation’s accessibility allows for the timeless humanity of the work to shine through. The Decameron affords a fascinating view into the lost world of late-medieval Italy, and the variety and volume of tales offers us a refuge and relief from the tragedies that haunt our own world. (Sept.)
Stephen Greenblatt
“The Decameron, an inexhaustibly rich late-medieval feast of narrative cunning, bawdy humor, and sly wit, is a celebration of the sheer pleasure of being alive…With gusto and energy, Wayne Rebhorn has risen to the daunting task of translating this great work into lively, contemporary, American-inflected English.”
Edith Grossman
“Wayne A. Rebhorn deserves our gratitude for an eminently persuasive translation of Boccaccio’s collection of tales…I celebrate his accomplishment.”
Leonard Barkan
“A lively, readable translation of the greatest short story collection of all time. The laugh-out-loud quality of Boccaccio’s delicious vernacular is admirably preserved.”
Valeria Finucci
“This superb, powerful, beautifully crafted, and indeed definitive translation of The Decameron introduces readers anew to the sparkling and colorful writing of a pre-Renaissance Italian master.”
Joan Acocella - The New Yorker
“A thoughtful piece of work… . This is the version [of The Decameron] I would recommend.”
Jane Tylus
“Ser Cepparello, Andreuccio, and Calandrino have never come across so well in English—Wayne Rebhorn’s vibrant new translation makes Boccaccio’s scoundrels and victims alike come back to life.”
Kirkus Reviews
A much-translated tale of plagues, priestly malfeasance, courtly love and the Seven Deadly Sins finds a satisfying new version in English. The Decameron, as its Greek-derived name suggests, is a cycle of stories told over a period of 10 days by Florentines fleeing their city for the countryside in order to escape the devastating Black Death of 1348. Perched at the very point of transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the author of those stories, Giovanni Boccaccio, was a narrative innovator: As translator Rebhorn notes in his long, circumstantial introduction, medieval readers were fond of grab bags of stories, but "there is no precedent in Italian literature for Boccaccio's use of a frame narrative to unify his collection." Boccaccio borrowed liberally from previously published anthologies, but as Rebhorn also shows, he added plenty of new twists and arranged his material to form a thematic arc: Day 1, for instance, centers on characters who got out of trouble thanks to their native wit, while Day 4 centers on the character flaws that keep people from getting what they want. What so many of his characters want, it happens, are things frowned on in polite society, as his ribald tale of the poor cuckolded owner of a conveniently large barrel so richly shows. Rebhorn's translation of Boccaccio's sprawling narrative, accompanied by informative endnotes, is sometimes marked by odd shifts in levels of diction, often within the same sentence ("That's when I felt the guy was going too far...and it seemed to me that I should tell you about it so that you could see how he rewards you for that unwavering fidelity of yours"); it is otherwise clear and idiomatic, however, and Rebhorn capably represents Boccaccio's humor and sharp intelligence. A masterpiece that well merits this fresh, engaging translation, which marks its author's 700th birthday.
Telegraph
“Fluent and elegant . . . the achievement genuinely honours its original.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393069303
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
09/16/2013
Edition description:
Rebhorn Translation
Pages:
1024
Sales rank:
381,287
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.80(d)

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Decameron

Just as Hamlet has been described as full of quotations, so the Decameron may at times seem to be full of stories we have heard before. That so many later writers have drawn on this work is of course a testimony to Boccaccio's skill as a storyteller: few if any of these tales were of his own invention, but – as is often said about jokes – it is the way they are told that counts. To imply a comparison with telling jokes is not inapposite and is not to depreciate these stories: true words can be spoken in jest. The complexities of this work are such that not only the book as a whole, but each of the hundred tales has acquired its own extensive critical bibliography. Nevertheless, the essential thing is as always (in the words of Pope) simply to

. . . read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ
(Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 233–4)

which in this case involves being alive to the subtle play of the writer's mind over his narrative, and being especially sensitive to Boccaccio's nods and winks. In his Conclusion to the work he gives some advice to readers who might be offended by the inclusion of bawdy tales: they can easily check first with the summaries given at the head of the tales and thus avoid any which are likely to upset them (or, although Boccaccio does not quite say this, use the same method if they want to find those tales in order to read them). In his Conclusion he says he could hardly have avoided mentioning everyday objects, such as pestles and mortars, which might be thought by some to have a sexual significance, and in saying this he draws attention to their significance for the sake of any reader who might have missed it.

It is natural, when reading a book of short stories, particularly when they are placed in a fictional framework, to look for some purpose in their arrangement, and in the Decameron it is not difficult to find reasons for the way they are set out. Against what might be called the ''blackground'' of the 1348 plague in Florence, with its breakdown of law and order and the usual decencies, a civilized assembly of seven young women and three young men in a villa outside the city and their entertaining tales stand out in bright relief. At the same time it should be recognized that the reader does not remain conscious of this background for very long, as the stories themselves distract him. Similarly, order is given to the tales by various devices: many of them are grouped under common themes; they may be placed in opposition to each other, comic ones to contrast with solemn ones, and so on. All this is true, but it does not mean that the work as a whole is a kind of bourgeois epic, as has been suggested, or even simply one long story. Short stories are by their nature enclosed works, each with a beginning, a middle and an end, and however many there are, and however they are arranged, they remain separate. They are like sonnets in this respect and, like sonnets arranged in a sequence, they are strikingly ill suited to the telling of one long tale. Like a group of sonnets, however, they do have to be arranged in some fashion, they do have to be put down one after another, and their author does well to place each sonnet or short story in a position where it may be seen at its best, and this Boccaccio has done. There are patterns to be found, but they are such as reveal themselves to later consideration rather than in the act of reading.

It is also natural for anyone to ponder what each story adds up to, what its point is, or perhaps what moral comes out of it. In the Decameron we are again and again encouraged to do this, although often the encouragement is not explicit but implicit in the actions of the stories themselves. The storytellers frequently appear to be little concerned with moral issues. For instance the merchant Landolfo Rufolo (ii.4), after losing all his money by unwise investment in stock, decides to become a pirate (as an indirect result of which he eventually prospers); there is no adverse comment on this kind of business diversification, merely a slight hint of extenuation when we are told that he ''devoted himself to making other people's property his own, especially that of the Turks.''

There is even at times in the Decameron a pleasure in flagrantly unchristian actions, as in the tale (viii.7) of the scholar's meticulous and sadistic revenge on the widow, where the symmetry between the initial offence and the revenge triumphs over all other considerations: there is very often a Kiplingesque delight in getting one's own back. Again, sheer cleverness is often seen as an admirable characteristic, particularly when it enables people to extricate themselves from tricky situations, as with the erring wife in Arezzo (vii.4) who manages so unerringly to put her innocent husband in the wrong. And although friars are attacked fiercely for their failure to live up to Christian standards, this does not prevent our taking pleasure in the glorious lying eloquence of Brother Cipolla (vi.10), who could give Chaucer's Pardoner a run for his money. Both of them are adept at openly mocking their audiences in the very instant of deceiving them. Perhaps this glorification of smart-aleckry ought not to be so surprising: most of us have been familiar from a very early age with folk tales such as that of Puss-in-Boots, the arch confidence trickster; but it does shock when it comes in stories of such evident moral sophistication, in a collection where many of the tales exalt Christian values of honesty, trustworthiness, and kindness. Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest said of the novel she had written: ''The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.'' She had clearly not read the Decameron.

The desire to put one over on others is closely connected with an emphasis on worldly honour, most obviously in the great concern for reputation. This can be taken to extraordinary lengths, as when a man is prepared to commit murder (x.3) in order to take over his victim's reputation as the most hospitable of men!

We are not dealing here merely with the expected cultural differences between a fourteenth-century Florentine and ourselves: indeed the popularity of the Decameron over so many hundreds of years testifies rather to what we have in common with Boccaccio, which is basically our humanity. To try to extract a set of generally applicable abstract principles of morality from these tales is a waste of time. The moral attitude varies with the storyteller and the story, and the net result is a whole world of conflicting, and frequently unresolved, reactions and attitudes – in short, the world we live in.

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