Sunday, June 7, 2009

A French Translation of an Italian Classic... Published in England

As I’ve noted previously, many of the books given to me by my grandfather when he moved are written in foreign languages. Several, in particular, are late eighteenth-century French translations of significant works of literature. This week’s book is part of that subset.

The full title is Contes de J. Bocace, Traduction Nouvelle, enriche de belles Gravures {Tales of G[iovanni] Boccaccio, Newly Translated, enriched with beautiful Prints}. My copy is volume three of what is a ten-volume set (each volume corresponds to one night of story-telling within the frame narrative of the Decameron), published in 1779. As with most multi-book sets from this period, it has been orphaned from its brethren and now stands alone. The Short Title Catalog lists only nine libraries in the world that hold the complete set of this series and I have been able to find only one dealer online (Simon Finch Rare Books) selling the whole set (for $1,234; individual volumes, like mine, are usually valued separately at $70-$90 each).

The place of publication is given as “Londres” {London}, though Finch suspects that this is incorrect and that it was actually published surreptitiously in Paris; the firm gives no reason for this. No publisher's name is provided in the book and I have been unable to find one in the various catalog listings.

In its original binding of full calf under marbled paper, with gilded ornamentation on the spine and board edges, the book is in fairly good condition; some slight cracking of the spine suggests the hinge has been well worked and the top and bottom edges -- as usual -- are a bit frayed. The text block, however, is in very good shape with only some slight water-staining throughout. The pages measure 9cm x 14cm and have 4 horizontal chain-lines at 3cm spaces; no watermark is immediately evident. The collation formula for the book may be expressed as 8o: [#3] A8 (A6+1) B8-C8 (C1+1) D8 (D4+1) E8-F8 (F2+1) G8 (G3+1) H8 (H6+1) I8-K8 (K6+1) L8-O8 (O4+1) P8-Q8 (Q5+1) R8-S8 (S5+1) T8-[V4]; $4 signed except V ($2 signed). The added leaves in gatherings A, C, D, F, G, H, K, O, Q, and S are the engraving plates, which are slightly smaller pieces of paper that have been pasted onto a bound-in stub in each case; conjugate to these stubs are cancellan stubs from the other half of the sheet (I’ve chosen, for simplicity’s sake, not to reflect these stubs in the formula or in the leaf-count below; they occur for every plate, usually about three or four leaves before or after the plate’s leaf).

In total, there are twenty full gatherings (it was always customary to omit the letters J and U from signatures in hand-press books) of 8 leaves apiece, plus one half-gathering at the end, a three-leaf gathering at the head, and ten illustration leaves, for a total of 177 leaves (in very businesslike fashion, no paper is wasted on blank flyleaves). Leaves M3-M6 have been trimmed peculiarly short on the bottom, but no loss of text results. From A[1] the pages have consistent running-titles throughout and are from that point to [V4v] paginated 1-312 (the inserted leaves for the plates are not paginated and not within the run of the pagination). Interestingly, the signature of the first leaf in each gathering includes the footer “Tome III.” {Book III}, which suggests that more than one volume in the series was being printed at once and the pressmen needed to a system to keep track of which quires belonged to which book. The lack of variance in the catchwords across each sheet suggests the high degree of skill the printer’s workers demonstrated in putting together what must have been a tremendous job (if each volume was of similar size, that puts the entire output for each set at 1,770 leaves per set, or just over 221 full sheets per set).

As the title promises, the book contains ten plates reproducing prints by Gravelot. The plates occur on both the recto and verso of their inserted pages (the illustration facing the first page of the text [that is, facing A1r] was the only one not “inserted”; it is, rather, part of the # partial gathering) and illustrate many of the key scenes of the tales, including some rather racy ones. Indeed, naked body parts are in copious supply in some of these illustrations, particularly women’s breasts and both men and women’s thighs; an enthusiastic owner of this copy has taken the time to carefully color in the exposed flesh (and the flowing bed curtains) in the aftermath of the sex scene scene between Ricciardo and the wife of Filippello, shown in print number 6, accompanying “Nouvelle VI”.

Hubert François Bourguignon (1699-1773) was known as “Gravelot” (a reference to his work as an illustrator and engraver) and moved from his native Paris to London in 1732, where he lived until retiring in 1745. His work and style was tremendously influential for an entire generation of English illustrators, including most notably his pupil, Thomas Gainsborough. Perhaps Gravelot’s most well-known illustrations where the drawings commissioned from him for the second edition of Lewis Theobald’s Works of Shakespeare (1740). In addition to these prints, each chapter concludes with a printer’s device imprint (cherubim, houses, doves, etc., and, in two places, what looks like a playhouse) and each begins with a different printer’s device banner at the head of the first page of the chapter.

With the exception of the colored illustration, there is little else in the way of reader’s markings in the book. A modern penciled hand has scribbled “Vol 3” inside the front cover, along with “1779” and a circled “p. 52” on the half-title of [#1r]. The last of these marks refers to the oddly placed “Note de la Deuxième Nouvelle” {“Note on the Second Short Story”}; the note appears on p. 52 (that is, D2v), at the very end of the second story. None of the other stories have such a note, for after that story the translator/editor (on whom, more below) switched to using footnotes rather than endnotes to provide annotation and commentary on his text. Besides, the modern pencilled hand, an earlier copper ink has written in several places: on A1r, in the printer’s ornament in the top margin, appear the elegant initials “A M P R”; these appear again, in smaller size and underlined, written vertically in the outer margin of p. 307 (V2r). These initials also appear within a monogram stamp the owner inked onto the title page (#2r), just to the right of the printer’s ornament. The same reader may have been responsible for the only annotation I have found in the book: on the blank verso of S6+1 (that is, illustration plate number 10) a similar brown ink -- now somewhat runny from water damage -- offers the enigmatic “Le Fam[ ] e[ ]t [ ]e mort[ ]”.

The book begins with three preliminary leaves (half-title; title page; verso plate). The remainder of the book’s contents are as follows (accompanied by the chapter summaries for each tale as given in Brown University’s Decameron Web translation -- which is also a good starting place for those readers unfamiliar with Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio’s serial novel of plague-escapees passing their time in refuge in the countryside by telling amusing, often dirty stories, written between 1350 and 1353):

  • Troisième Journée” {“Third Day”} introduction. (pp. 1-11)

  • Nouvelle Premiere. / Mazet de Lamporechio, ou le Paysan parvenu.” {“First Story. / Masetto of Lamporecchio, or the Rustic upstart.”} Masetto da Lamporecchio feigns to be dumb, and obtains a gardener's place at a convent of women, who with one accord make haste to lie with him. (pp. 12-34)

  • Nouvelle II. / Le Tondu, ou le Muletier hardi & rusé.” {“Story II. / The Short-Haired Man, or The Bold and Crafty Muleteer.”} A groom lies with the wife of King Agilulf, who learns the fact, keeps his own counsel, finds out the groom and shears him. The shorn shears all his fellows, and so comes safe out of the scrape. (pp. 35-51)
  • “Note de la Deuxième Nouvelle” [see above]. (p. 52)

  • Nouvelle III. / Le Confesseur complaisant sans le savoir.” {“Story III. / The kind Confessor without knowledge”} Under cloak of confession and a most spotless conscience, a lady, enamoured of a young man, induces a booby friar unwittingly to provide a means to the entire gratification of her passion. (pp. 53-84)

  • Nouvelle IV. / Le Mari en pénitence, ou le chemin du Paradis.” {“Story IV. / The Husband in repentance, or the way to Paradise.”} Dom Felice instructs Fra Puccio how to attain blessedness by doing a penance. Fra Puccio does the penance, and meanwhile Dom Felice has a good time with Fra Puccio's wife. (pp. 85-102)

  • Nouvelle V. / Le Magnifique.” {“Story V. / The Magnificent.”} Zima gives a palfrey to Messer Francesco Vergellesi, who in return suffers him to speak with his wife. She keeping silence, he answers in her stead, and the sequel is in accordance with his answer. (pp. 103-123)

  • “Nouvelle VI. / La Feinte par Amour.” {“Story VI. / The Feint for Love.”} Ricciardo Minutolo loves the wife of Filippello Fighinolfi, and knowing her to be jealous, makes her believe that his own wife is to meet Filippello at a bagnio on the ensuing day; whereby she is induced to go thither, where, thinking to have been with her husband, she discovers that she has tarried with Ricciardo. (pp. 124-154)

  • “Nouvelle VII. / Le Qui-pro-quo, ou le Pélerin.” {“Story VII. / The Quid-pro-quo, or the Pilgrim.”} Tedaldo, being in disfavour with his lady, departs from Florence. He returns thither after a while in the guise of a pilgrim, has speech of his lady, and makes her sensible of her fault. Her husband, convicted of slaying him, he delivers from peril of death, reconciles him with his brothers, and thereafter discreetly enjoys his lady. (pp. 155-216)

  • “Nouvelle VIII. / Le Ressuscité.” {“Story VIII. / The Resurrection.”} Ferondo, having taken a certain powder, is interred for dead; is disinterred by the abbot, who enjoys his wife; is put in prison and taught to believe that he is in purgatory; is then resuscitated, and rears as his own a boy begotten by the abbot upon his wife. (pp. 217-250)

  • “Nouvelle IX. / La Femme courageuse.” {“Story IX. / The courageous Woman.”} Gillette of Narbonne cures the King of France of a fistula, craves for spouse Bertrand de Roussillon, who marries her against his will, and hies him in despite to Florence, where, as he courts a young woman, Gillette lies with him in her stead, and has two sons by him; for which cause he afterwards takes her into favour and entreats her as his wife. (pp. 251-280) [Sidenote: it was from this story, probably in an even earlier French translation of Boccaccio, that Shakespeare derived the plot for his comedy All's Well that Ends Well.]

  • “Nouvelle X. / La Caspienne, ou la Nouvelle Convertie.” {“Story X. / The Caspian, or the New Convert.”} Alibech turns hermit, and is taught by Rustico, a monk, how the Devil is put in hell. She is afterwards conveyed thence, and becomes the wife of Neerbale. (pp. 281-310)

At the foot of p. 310 is the following note:

Fin de la troisième Journée & du troisième Volume. {End of the third Day & of the third Book.}

Pages 311-312 provide the table of contents. There is an error at the end of the table, where Nouvelle IX is listed as beginning on p. 151 (it begins on 251) and Nouvelle X as beginning on p. 201 (it begins on 281). I suspect that this error was made by compositor confusion and not because of any problem in the printing process, though it may suggest that the table was printed without reference to the book itself (either before the rest of the book was printed or, more likely, after it had been printed but the compositor was moving on too quickly to proof his work at this point).

The translator/editor of the book was l’abbé Antoine Sabatier de Castres (1742-1817), who gave up a provincial career in the church in his hometown (the town of Castres, a relatively large population center in the rural Midi-Pyrénées region) and moved to Paris in 1766 to become a writer. In addition to translations, Sabatier wrote one novel (Betsi, ou le bisarreries du destin) published in 1769 and numerous controversial journalistic essays and commentaries. His translation of Decameron, along with his commentary annotation, was very popular and continued to be published long after his death and well into the twentieth century.


  1. Great post.Translating book shows the rich blend of knowledge and culture in a society.It is important that books written in a foreign language since it helps one to get acquainted with the thoughts, traditions, principles and actions of the people from the region whether in Arabic translation or any translation.It gave us some learnings which helps us seek a more meaningful literacy.

  2. Great post.Just a quick note it is important that French translation being accurate and efficient can indeed not be overstated. Especially in the ever faster moving world of globalized business, successful information and technology transfer within multinational businesses can make the difference between win or lose.I could say that translators really play a big role in our society.I can't see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions.

  3. Nice post.I would certainly prefer to read more foreign non fiction which were translated from French translation to english, or in any languages.Because in that way I could have an idea what do people think,feel or their culture is.When we read books from a foreign country it seems like travelling in that country through the stories plot.We could recognize how they have been living afar from our own culture.