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Day 2 Story 5 of the Decameron is set partly in a district of Naples with (at least in the English translation) a striking name that sounds comical and exaggerated. Here follows the translation I'm reading and the Italian original (emphasis mine):

So the little girl guided him to her mistress's house, which was situated in a quarter the character of which may be inferred from its name, Evil Hole.

Laonde la fanticella a casa di costei il condusse, la quale dimorava in una contrada chiamata Malpertugio, la quale quanto sia onesta contrada il nome medesimo il dimostra.

In Italian, does "Malpertugio" (as the name of a district) sound as exaggerated and unrealistic as the name "Evil Hole" does in English? Or is it a realistic name, something that wouldn't make Italian readers roll their eyes, maybe even a real district of Naples at some point? (If the latter, I'd argue it's a poor and overly literal translation.)

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    Maybe the translation is rather not literal enough, and instead somewhat exaggerating: Italian "mala/malo" AFAIK means just "bad", not "evil". Also, when written as a single word "Badhole" (instead of "Bad Hole") it seems much less menacing in English, at least. (Whether Italians would perceive the same difference for "Malpertugio" vs. "Malo Pertugio" I don't know.)
    – das-g
    Jan 5 at 0:47
  • There are lots of place names that, if translated literally into English, can sound funny. Baltimore is Irish for "Big House Town". Sometimes places are intentionally named to be extreme, as in the Spanish city that was, for several hundred years, literally named "Camp Kill Jews". Feb 2 at 12:55

2 Answers 2

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Malpertugio is not only a realistic name but a real name.

A footnote in Wayne A. Rebhorn's translation (W. W. Norton, 2016; page 58) explains that,

Malpertugio (…) refers to a gap in the city's walls. It was a commercial area of Naples near the port and the arsenal in which many merchants, including those from Sicily, located their business. (…) Needless to say, the district also attracted prostitutes, thieves, and all sorts of riffraff.

Simimlarly, a footnote in The Decameron: Selected Tales, translated and edited by Don Beecher and Massimo Ciovolella (Broadview Press, 2017; page 70) explains that

Malpertugio was a mixed area towards the port which included commercial establishments and the red-light district. The name signifies "a bad hole", referring to a breech in the wall that permitted a shortcut to the harbor. It as as good a pun as possible for the practices of the area.

Based on this, readers who knew the city of Naples would get the hint immediately. Readers who weren't would probably guess by Boccaccio's comment "a quarter the character of which may be inferred from its name".

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This is what it's explained in a note to the BUR version of the Decameron (Italian original), edited by Amedeo Quondam, Maurizio Fiorilla and Giancarlo Alfano:

Malpertugio: antico quartiere (contrada: qui per la prima volta con questo significato urbano) di Napoli, attiguo al porto, così chiamato per un varco aperto nelle mura della città verso la Rua Catalana (ancora oggi esistente; citata poi a § 56), luogo di traffici mercantili e di malaffare (come certifica la narratrice: la quale … dimostra);

My translation:

Malpertugio: ancient district (contrada: here for the first time with this urban meaning) of Naples, adjacent to the port, so called due to an opening in the city walls towards Rua Catalana (still existing today; then cited in § 56), a place of mercantile trade and ill repute (as the narrator certifies: la quale ... dimostra);

And Vittore Branca gives this information in the Einaudi version of the Decameron (Italian original):

Come ha documentato largamente il Croce (pp. 24 sgg.) Pertugio o Malpertugio era una contrada (o regio) attigua alla contrada del Porto o compresa in essa: è frequentemente ricordata in documenti del Duecento e Trecento. Prendeva nome da un piccolo adito aperto nella muraglia della città verso lo sbocco di Rua Catalana, come scorciatoia per recarsi al Porto (C. CAPASSO, in «Arch. stor. nap.», XVIII, 1893, p. 110); era situato pressappoco fra le odierne vie Flavio Gioia e San Nicola alla Dogana (cfr. forse anche Basile, Pentamerone, Bari 1925, I, p. 87). Era una zona destinata ai traffici. Carlo II, circa il 1307, aveva fatto edificare nei pressi il nuovo arsenale e tutto intorno sorgevano le logge dei mercanti forestieri, fra cui quelle dei siciliani (G. COLOMBO, in «Napoli nobilissima», III, 1894, p. 147): non lontano era anche il banco dei Bardi, in cui il B. passò vari anni della sua giovinezza (TORRACA, G. B. a Napoli, pp. 14 sgg.). Intorno si erano naturalmente stabiliti luoghi di piacere e covi di gente di malaffare.

My translation:

As Croce has extensively documented (pp. 24 ff.) Pertugio or Malpertugio was a district (contrada or regio) adjacent to the district of Porto or included in it: it is frequently mentioned in documents of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It took its name from a small opening in the city wall towards the mouth of Rua Catalana, as a shortcut to go to the Port (C. CAPASSO, in "Arch. stor. nap.", XVIII, 1893, p. 110); it was located roughly between today's via Flavio Gioia and San Nicola alla Dogana (see also Basile, Pentamerone, Bari 1925, I, p. 87). It was a trading area. Charles II of Naples, around 1307, had the new arsenal built nearby and all around stood the lodges of foreign merchants, including those of the Sicilians (G. COLOMBO, in "Napoli nobilissima", III, 1894, p. 147): not far away was also the Banco dei Bardi, where Boccaccio spent several years of his youth (TORRACA, Giovanni Boccaccio a Napoli, pp. 14 ff.). Places of pleasure and haunts of ill-famed people had naturally established around them.

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