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In his films as well as his poems, novels, and short stories, Pier Paolo Pasolini evinced a love of vernacular speech, often choosing to write in the slangy argots of the working class and the dispossessed. He made his adaptation of The Decameron in a Neopolitan dialect instead of the Tuscan one of Boccaccio’s fourteenth-century text, which the author had helped make the common written language of Italy (this in itself was a populist departure from the Latin that had previously been standard).
But Pasolini was no martyr to accuracy in his art, preferring to pay tribute to the spirit of the people rather than attempt to document slavishly their customs and lives, and that preference often extended to his use of language. For his adaptation of The Canterbury Tales, for instance, Chaucer’s Middle English was apparently turned into modern colloquial English before it was translated into Italian, which was then itself transmuted into common, slangy Italian speech. When it came time to create the English-dubbed version of the film, which Pasolini oversaw, the language became, according to scholar Sam Rohdie, another version of “colloquial English ‘modern’ speech and slang, which are ‘like’ Chaucerian English but not Chaucerian English.” Meanwhile, there are a couple of instances of on-screen text in the film, letters being written by various characters—among them Chaucer himself, played by Pasolini—in a somewhat whimsically rendered vernacular Italian. In his essay on the film for Criterion, Colin MacCabe writes that this text is one of the clearest examples of how Pasolini, in the trilogy, was “not aiming for an accurate representation of the time but a modern re-creation of its spirit.” For the English version, the filmmaker created inserts to replace the Italian letters, in a language that again evokes Chaucer’s Middle English but bears Pasolini’s own idiosyncratic inflections. Check out the English-language inserts, included as a supplement on our release, below.