The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 12 Apr 2021

Soup-guzzling pie-munchers

The ten storytellers in The Decameron aren't all well-drawn or easy to tell apart. In the introduction of my favorite edition, the editor, Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, says:

Early in the book we are given hints that we are going to get to know these ten frame characters…. Among the Decameron storytellers, for instance, Pampinea emerges as being bossy, while Dioneo has a filthy mind. But little further character development takes place.

I agree, mostly. I can see Dioneo more clearly than Ó Cuilleanáin suggests. Dioneo reminds me of Roberto Benigni's Roman filthy-minded Roman taxi driver in Night on Earth. I also get a picture of Bocaccio's character Filostrato, who is a whiny emo poet boy who complains that he woman he was simping for got tired of him and dumped him for someone else:

To be humble and obedient to her and to follow all her whims as closely as I could, was all of no avail to me, and I was soon abandoned for another. Thus I go from bad to worse, and believe I shall until I die.… The person who gave me the nickname of Filostrato [ “victim of love” ] knew what she was doing.

When it's Filostrato's turn to choose the theme for the day's stories, he makes the others tell stories of ill-starred love with unhappy endings. They comply, but are relieved when it is over. (Dioneo, who is excused from the required themes, tells instead a farcical story of a woman who hides her secret lover in a chest after he unwittingly drinks powerful sedative.)

Ah, but Emilia. None of the characters in the Decameron is impressed with the manners or morals of priests. But Emilia positively despises them. Her story on the third day is a good example. The protagonist, Tedaldo, is meeting his long-lost mistress Ermellina; she broke off the affair with him seven years ago on the advice of a friar who advised that she ought to remain faithful to her husband. Tedaldo is disguised as a friar himself, and argues that she should resume the affair. He begins by observing that modern friars can not always be trusted:

Time was when the friars were most holy and worthy men, but those who today take the name and claim the reputation of friars have nothing of the friar but the costume. No, not even that,…

Modern friars, narrates Emilia, "strut about like peacocks" showing off their fine clothes. She goes on from there, complaining about friars' vanity, and greed, and lust, and hypocrisy, getting more and more worked up until you can imagine her frothing at the mouth. This goes on for about fifteen hundred words before she gets back to Tedaldo and Ermellina, just at the same time that I get around to what I actually meant to write about in this article: Emilia has Tedaldo belittle the specific friar who was the original cause of his troubles,

who must without a doubt have been some soup-guzzling pie-muncher…

This was so delightful that I had to write a whole blog post just to show it to you. I look forward to calling other people soup-guzzling pie-munchers in the coming months.

But, as with the earlier article about the two-bit huckster I had to look up the original Italian to see what it really said. And, as with the huckster, the answer was, this was pretty much what Bocaccio had originally written, which was:

il qual per certo doveva esser alcun brodaiuolo manicator di torte

  • Brodaiuolo is akin to “broth”, and it has that disparaging diminutive “-uolo” suffix that we saw before in mercantuolo.

  • A manicator is a gobbler; it's akin to “munch”, “manger”, and “mandible”, to modern Italian mangia and related French manger. A manicator di torte is literally a gobbler of pies.

Delightful! I love Bocaccio.

While I was researching this article I ran into some other English translations of the phrase. The translation at Brown University's Decameron Web is by J.M. Rigg:

some broth-guzzling, pastry-gorging knave without a doubt

which I award full marks. The translation of John Payne has

must for certain have been some broth-swilling, pastry-gorger

and two revised versions of Payne, by Singleton and Ó Cuilleanáin, translate it similarly.

But the translation of Richard Aldington only says:

who must certainly have been some fat-witted glutton.

which I find disappointing.

I often wonder why translators opt to water down their translations like this. Why discard the vivid and specific soup and pie in favor of the abstract "fat-witted glutton"? What could possibly be the justification?

Translators have a tough job. A mediocre translator will capture only the surface meaning and miss the subtle allusions, the wordplay, the connotations. But here, Aldington hasn't even captured the surface meaning! How hard is it to see torte and include pie in your translation somewhere? I can't believe that his omitting it was pure carelessness, only that Aldington thought that he was somehow improving on the original. But how, I can't imagine.

Well, I can imagine a little. Translations can also be too literal. Let's consider the offensive Spanish epithet pendejo. Literally, this is a pubic hair. But to translate it in English as "pubic hair" would be a mistake, since English doesn't use that term in the same way. A better English translation is "asshole". This is anatomically illogical, but linguistically correct, because the metaphor in both languages has worn thin. When an anglophone hears someone called an “asshole” they don't normally imagine a literal anus, and I think similarly Spanish-speakers don't picture a literal pubic hair for pendejo. Brodaiuolo could be similar. Would a 14th-century Florentine, hearing brodaiuolo, picture a generic glutton, or would they imagine someone literally holding a soup bowl up to their face? We probably don't know. But I'm inclined to think that “soup-guzzler” is not too rich, because by this point in Emilia's rant we can almost see the little flecks of spittle flying out of here mouth.

I'm offended by Aldington's omission of pie-munching.

[ Addendum 20210414: More translations of brodaiuolo. ]

[Other articles in category /book] permanent link