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The Decameron, almost lost in translation

Looking at how one of Europe’s most important literary works was translated into other European languages affords important insights into how one of the continent’s major literary forms evolved.
The Decameron, almost lost in translation
The Decameron, a collection of 100 novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, is considered one of Europe’s literary masterpieces. Written just after the Black Death of 1348, it was later translated from Italian into other European languages, resulting in many intriguing permutations and giving rise to the novella as a literary form.

The EU-funded DECAMERONTRANSLATED (The 1429 Catalan Translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron:” Tracing the Making of a European Classic) project investigated the literary influence of late medieval translations produced during that period. It aimed to analyse the Catalan translation of the tenth and final section of the Decameron by creating a pilot digital edition that compares it with French, Italian and Latin translations.

To achieve these aims the project team studied the Catalan Decameron’s physical features, such as layout and punctuation. It then conducted a literary and linguistic analysis of the Catalan translation, comparing it with texts and manuscripts of the Italian original, as well as several French versions.

The digital edition revealed complex relationships between the Catalan and the Italian, French, and Latin versions, supported by several academic articles on the topic. A monograph which tackles broader questions related to authorship, genre and translation was also initiated.

Interestingly, the digital edition reveals how the Decameron’s Catalan translator skilfully addressed the challenges posed by the original, from syntactic complexity to narrative architecture. The translator incorporated material from the Italian Decameron (which Boccaccio finished at the beginning of the 1350s but reworked until his death in 1375), successfully adopting the material, narrative, and linguistic features of the Italian original. The proximity of Italian and Catalan impacted on the style, with the Catalan version differing from the source much less than the French translations, which were adapted to a different audience.

The project’s published articles on the topic discussed the afterlife of the Decameron in translation and how it became a model for publishing collections of novellas. They also showed how the translation helped establish narrative as a canonical literary form in Catalonia, in addition to influencing Catalan fiction.

In general the research findings proved to be richer than expected, incorporating the evolution of lay cultural taste and expectations in the late Middle Ages. Academics and university students involved in literature and translation, as well as linguists, will find the outcomes of the project informative and enlightening.

Related information


Decameron, Catalan, DECAMERONTRANSLATED, translation, novella, linguistic
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