The Decameron

Translations into English

The Decameron's individual tales were translated into English early on (such as William Walter's 1525 Here begynneth y[e] hystory of Tytus & Gesyppus translated out of Latyn into Englysshe by Wyllyam Walter, somtyme seruaunte to Syr Henry Marney, a translation of tale X.viii), or served as source material for English authors such as Chaucer to rework. The table below lists all attempts at a complete English translation of the book. The information on pre-1971 translations is compiled from the G.H. McWilliam's introduction to his own 1971 translation.

Year Translator Completeness/Omissions Comments
1620 Anonymous, attributed to John Florio Omits the Proemio and Conclusione dell’autore. Replaces tale III.x with an innocuous tale taken from Francois de Belleforest’s “Histoires tragiques”, concluding that it “was commended by all the company, ... because it was free from all folly and obscoeneness.” Tale IX.x is also modified, while tale V.x loses its homosexual innuendo. “Magnificent specimen of Jacobean prose, [but] its high-handed treatment of the original text produces a number of shortcomings” says G.H. McWilliam, translator of the 1971 Penguin edition (see below). Based not on Boccaccio’s Italian original, but on Antoine Le Maçon’s 1545 French translation and Leonardo Salviati's 1582 Italian edition which replaced ‘offensive’ words, sentences or sections with asterisks or altered text (in a different font).
1702 Anonymous, attributed to John Savage Omits Proemio and Conclusione dell’autore. Replaces tale III.x with the tale contained within the Introduction to the Fourth Day. Tale IX.x is bowdlerised, but possibly because the translator was working from faulty sources, rather than dleiberately. ---
1741 Anonymous, posthumously identified as Charles Balguy Omits Proemio and Conclusione dell’autore. Explicitly omits tales III.x and IX.x, and removed the homosexual innuendo in tale V.x: “Boccace is so licentious in many places, that it requires some management to preserve his wit and humour, and render him tolerably decent. This I have attempted with the loss of two novels, which I judged incapable of such treatment; and am apprehensive, it may still be thought by some people, that I have rather omitted to little, than too much.” Reissued several times with small or large modifications, sometimes without acknowledgement of the original translator. The 1804 reissue makes further expurgations. The 1822 reissue adds half-hearted renditions of III.x and IX.x, retaining the more objectionable passages in the original Italian, with a footnote to III.x that it is “impossible to render... into tolerable English”, and giving Mirabeau’s French translation instead. The 1872 reissue is similar, but makes translation errors in parts of IX.x. The 1895 reissue (introduced by Alfred Wallis), in 4 volumes, cites Mr. S. W. Orson as making up for the omissions of the 1741 original, although part of III.x is given in Antoine Le Maçon’s French translation, belying the claim that it is a complete English translation, and IX.x is modified, replacing Boccaccio’s direct statements with innuendo.
1855 W. K. Kelly Omits Proemio and Conclusione dell’autore. Includes tales III.x and IX.x, claiming to be “COMPLETE, although a few passages are in French or Italian”, but as in 1822, leaves parts of III.x in the original Italian with a French translation in a footnote, and omits several key sentences entirely from IX.x. ---
1886 John Payne First truly complete translation in English, with copious footnotes to explain Boccaccio’s double-entendres and other references. Published by the Villon Society by private subscription for private circulation. Stands and falls on its “splendidly scrupulous but curiously archaic... sonorous and self-conscious Pre-Raphaelite vocabulary” according to McWilliam, who gives as an example from tale III.x: “Certes, father mine, this same devil must be an ill thing and an enemy in very deed of God, for that it irketh hell itself, let be otherwhat, when he is put back therein.” Reissued in the Modern Library, 1931.
1896 Anonymous Part of tale III.x again given in French, without footnote or explanation. Tale IX.x translated anew, but Boccaccio’s phrase “l’umido radicale” is rendered “the humid radical” rather than “the moist root”. Falsely claims to be a “New Translation from the Italian” and the “First complete English Edition”, when it is only a reworking of earlier versions with the addition of what McWilliam calls “vulgarly erotic overtones” in some stories.
1903 J. M. Rigg Once more, part of tale III.x is left in the original Italian with a footnote “No apology is needed for leaving, in accordance with precedent, the subsequent detail untranslated”. McWiliam praises its elegant style in sections of formal language, but that it is spoiled by an obsolete vocabulary in more vernacular sections. Reissued frequently, including in Everyman's Library (1930) with introduction by Edward Hutton.
1930a Frances Winwar Omits the Proemio. Introduction by Burton Rascoe. First American translation, and first English-language translation by a female. “Fairly accurate and eminently readable, [but] fails to do justice to those more ornate and rhetorical passages” says McWilliam. Originally issued in expensive 2-volume set by the Limited Editions Club of New York, and in cheaper general circulation edition only in 1938.
1930b Richard Aldington Complete. Like Winwar, first issued in expensive and lavishly illustrated edition. “Littered with schoolboy errors... plain and threadbare, so that anyone reading it might be forgiven for thinking that Boccaccio was a kind of sub-standard fourteenth-century Somerset Maugham” say McWilliam.
1972 George Henry McWilliam First complete translation into contemporary English, intended for general circulation. Penguin Classics edition. The second edition (1995) includes a 150-page detailed explanation of the historical, linguistic, and nuanced reasoning behind the new translation. Its in-depth study exemplifies the care and consideration given to the original text and meaning. There is a near biographical history of both the author and the book itself, as well as a detailed description of the history on both the street (poor/merchants) and in the upper echelons (aristocracy/church). Boccaccio lived with a foot on both sides of the fence: as a lawyer for the merchants, a writer for the church, and as one who lived among the public and felt their misfortune and celebrated their joys. He secretly believed in equal rights (more than 600 years ago) -- which was a capital offence back then and carried the death penalty, yet he outwitted those people and so... -- this book is his legacy.
1977 Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa Complete W. W. Norton & Company
2013 Wayne A. Rebhorn Complete W. W. Norton & Company. Publishers Weekly called Rebhorn's translation "strikingly modern" and praised its "accessibility".[9] In an interview with The Wall Street Journal Rebhorn stated that he started translating the work in 2006 after deciding that the translations he was using in his classroom needed improvement. Rebhorn cited errors in the 1977 translation as one of the reasons for the new translation. Peter Bondanella, one of the translators of the 1977 edition, stated that new translations build on previous ones and that the error cited would be corrected in future editions of his translation.[10]

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