One of the things I am reading is Boccaccio’s Decameron. It’s a fascinating collection of medieval stories, comparable to the Canterbury Tales but more Italian and with more sex. The frame story is that seven young ladies and three young men go off together to a country house to escape the Plague — the Black Death, which is ravaging Florence. There they elect one of their number Queen (or King) for the day, and amuse themselves by telling stories. The book is divided into days, and there are ten stories told each day. Sometimes there’s a theme, like “tricks wives play on husbands” or “tricks husbands play on wives” or and sometimes there’s no theme. The storytellers are lightly characterised in the frame and through the stories they choose. It’s very funny, and there’s lots of sex, and the book has been scandalous for centuries.
I’m reading a free translation, and I am well on into volume two — I’ve been reading it for ages, one story at a time. (I’ve been doing a thing recently where I’m reading about a dozen things that fall well into sections, and in between reading longer things I’ll read a section each of those things. It’s great when I’m travelling. It’s one of the fun things about the Kindle.)
This is a Victorian translation of Boccaccio, but that has been fine, until I came to a fun story about an idiot being tricked into looking for a magic stone. The people gulling the idiot tell him about a wonderful country where macaroni and ravioli spill out freely for the taking. And there’s a footnote by ravioli, which the Victorian translator assumes the Victorian reader will not recognise — and probably rightly. I remember the first time I had ravioli, and my grandmother’s Cookery Year definitely thinks of it as something exotic, though not quite in italics. What surprised me wasn’t the existence of the footnote but the content. “Ravioli: A kind of rissole”.
A rissole is… I expect that to my readers it’s far less common than ravioli. It’s “a small croquette” according to Wikipedia, usually rolled in breadcrumbs. It’s like a fishcake except that it can be made of meat. It’s much bigger than ravioli — about the size of a meatball or a small burger, and indeed it can be thought of like an old fashioned down market burger, using unidentified meat and spices and maybe onion, sometimes tasty but best not inquired into, frequently seen in school dinners, generally fried. I don’t dislike rissoles, though I don’t make them or seek them out.
But they’re not ravioli or anything like ravioli — except that ravioli too has meat in the middle, and if the outside of ravioli is delicious pasta instead of measly breadcrumbs, well…
So I looked up the translator. He was James Macmullen Rigg, 1855-1926. There’s not much about his life, just a note that he was an English historian, biographer and barrister, the son of a Methodist divine and his sister was a headmistress. James Macmullen Rigg wrote a book about St Anselm, he did masses of work for the Dictionary of National Biography, he translated the Decameron and also Pico’s nephew’s life of Pico, which I am thrilled to discover is available online in multiple useful e-formats, yay. (Research is its own reward, I’m really glad to have that.)
But imagine him, a man in his thirties in the eighteen eighties, son of a prominent Methodist. I see him with a full beard and a perplexed expression. How absolutely desperate he must have been, trying to come up with some kind of equivalent to ravioli or an explanation for it. There he was, he spoke Italian, he’d probably been to Italy and eaten ravioli. In Italy they’d been eating ravioli since Boccaccio’s day, but in the intervening five centuries it hadn’t made it to Britain, and he must have doubted it ever would. There he was, a long way through this major project of translating this really scandalous book, getting across the humour and the innuendo and the descriptions, but honestly, how could anyone convey ravioli to his likely audience? I see him trying over and over, crossing things out, writing long descriptions, and at last, sleepless and hungry, giving up and resorting to “a kind of rissole”.