- The Tale of Tales; or, Entertainment for Little Ones
Viewed in retrospect, Nancy Canepa’s long engagement with Giambattista Basile has evolved by logical stages toward the courageous project at hand: that of translating his best-known and by far most problematic work, Lo cunto de li cunti, overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (1634–36). Containing a frame tale plus forty-nine others, ten per day across a five-day span, it was given a secondary title, Il Pentamerone (1674), echoing that of Boccaccio’s Decameron (ten days with ten tales each). But the similarity stops there: translating Boccaccio is indeed trattenemiento de peccerille, “child’s play,” compared to translating the “bizarrely facetious Baroque ironist” (“l’ironico barocchista . . . che si compiaceva nella celia bizzarra,” as Basile was characterized by Benedetto Croce , his authoritative Italian translator). The original text was and remains a significant obstacle to Italians themselves, who, given regional dialect cleavage, find seventeenth-century Neapolitan a hard code to crack, hence the multiple Italian translations over the centuries leading up to Croce’s standard (1925). In this review we will be referring to the edition of Basile’s Neapolitan text produced by Mario Petrini in 1976 (Laterza). There have been numerous other European translations—for example, into English ( John Edward Taylor [1848ff], then Sir Richard Burton , while Norman Penzer  merely translated from Croce’s Italian), and most conspicuously into German, following that nation’s long commitment to Märchen scholarship. Given the precocious French adaptive response to Basile (Charles Perrault, Mme. d’Aulnoy), it is odd that a proper translation was instead so long in coming (Françoise Decroisette ; also Myriam Tanant ). Significantly, dialect-to-dialect translations were prepared—for example, several into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Bolognese—suggesting that Italian writers in other regions sensed a better socio-stylistic match for Basile’s endeavor in their own patois, a reminder that the only just translation could be from one cultural matrix into another its near-equal (also compare with Canepa 28ff). [End Page 319]
For those increasingly called to teach important historical texts in English translation, Canepa’s effort finally makes inclusion of Basile on literature and folklore course syllabi feasible. As far as Italian materials are concerned, Canepa’s translation forms an ideal complement to another in Wayne State University’s list of publications in fairy-tale studies, Elizabeth Mathias and Richard Raspa’s Italian Folktales in America: The Verbal Art of an Immigrant Woman (1988). While Mathias and Raspa present traditional oral tales from a mountain hamlet in the Dolomites (Faller, in the province of Belluno), as recorded viva voce in Detroit by the teller’s daughter, a Wayne State folklore student, Basile’s Cunti instead represent rhetorically elaborated fairy tales, embellished with tongue-in-cheek literary, mythologic allusions by an urbane seventeenth-century poet-courtier. Canepa’s synopsis of its “Publishing History” (8f) reminds us how successfully the work addressed sophisticated readers with the taste and means to buy books. The goals and parameters of seventeenth-century literary taste shaped the Cunti as much as, if not more than, their putative origins in an oral substratum. Nor can any oral substratum adequately account for their language. And therein lurks one challenge to transfusing them into contemporary English.
Basile delighted in discord, that is, incongruity between form and content (to shock and amuse, à la Bergson), especially interweaving high-style mythologic topoi with low-down language. He even, one suspects, lowered the low-down by inventing insults and rustic idioms while revelling in strongly physical verbs, such as magnare (“eating”) and cacare (“excreting”), even used figuratively—for example, sweet Marziella (4.7) puzzava de regina (“had the stink of a queen about her”) (Canepa 345, like Petrini 333), versus Croce, che odorava di regina (“who had the air, the sweet scent, of a queen about her”). Did the shrews who unleash streams of invective draw solely...