Learning Italian, one word at a time

There’s an Italian film festival currently running in Seattle called Cinema Italian Style. Sponsored by Seattle’s sister city of Perugia and organized by the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), it has been bringing Italian films to our grey, drizzly city for several years now. There’s an interesting looking lineup for this year, and the festival runs through the 21st.

Yesterday I got on the bus and went down to Seattle to meet my friend Irene and see Slow Food Story with her at the Uptown Cinema in Queen Anne. We grabbed some Thai at Racha before the movie and talked about moving and travel and immigrant cultures. My friend Mimi was selling tickets at the cinema so we spoke briefly before moving along. I was glad of this chance to see her again, even if it was only for a few moments in passing.

I have been interested in the Slow Food movement for several years now and had read a little about it. I have appreciated and supported the ideals as I understood them. There’s a Slow Food Seattle that I’d heard about but never become involved with, as I learned about it after I’d moved north to Everett. I was eager to learn more about the people behind the movement.

The film itself, I found funny and charming. The leftist politics of the founders didn’t surprise me at all, though the evolution of the movement from those roots was fascinating to watch unfold. There are criticisms of the movement, of course, though they were not addressed in the movie. My enthusiasm for my move to Italy was massaged a bit by the movie; I’m eager, but it’s easy to forget that eagerness sometimes, in the midst of everything going on around me and my disappearing life here. I’m delighted to still be engaged with my friends and doing things with them as I am preparing to leave, so sharing this movie with Irene, then some hot chocolate at the Cintli Latin Folklore cafe with her and another friend, R, afterwards, was a delight.

One of the things I realized in watching the movie — Italian with English subtitles — is that I’m starting to get a little bit of Italian language in my head. People were speaking at normal conversational speeds and I was getting words and phrases and, sometimes, entire sentences without the help of the subtitles. I hadn’t expected that, but it pleased me greatly. I am not going to claim any skill with Italian at all, but it was good to see how much progress I’ve made from my “doesn’t know a single word” status back in June. I’m encouraged by that progress, even if it’s not much yet.

Learning a language without anyone local to converse with in that language is always a challenge. I learn well from books, but language requires context more than many other subjects and, for living languages at least, it requires conversation to actually understand the flow and cadence of the words. As a poet and writer, facility with language is important to me. The ability to reach into the heart of something with words, to express it so that others can touch that space with me, is a core part of my identity.

English is my native language and, though I have occasionally been able to translate from other languages with the help of dictionaries and grammar books, it is the only language in which I have any fluency. My grasp of English is a thing I’ve always had pride in and enjoyed. Yet here I am, moving to a country where I will struggle to understand and be understood. I’m going to sound like the village idiot for a long time. I will lose that everyday, taken for granted ability to know and be known, to express myself clearly and concisely, and to sound like an intelligent adult.

My intention is to learn Italian, and to learn it well. I want to be able to have conversations about things that matter to me, beyond asking where the bathroom is, doing the shopping, and figuring out how to get to the closest museum. I want to be able to read and write about complex concepts, and to write with fluency.

I have always been a fan of poetry in its native language, even if I can’t understand it that way. I love poetry books with facing page translations so that I can try to get some idea of what the original must sound like, what the flow of the language is like. One of my brother’s friends recommended the poetry of Alda Merini to me (there is very little about her in English), and I have an edition of some of her poems translated by Susan Stewart that I have been dipping into, Italian on one page, English on the next. It’s not going into a box, but on the plane with me next month. Poetry in any language can be difficult to follow. It tends to extend language to its limits, relying on allusion and reference, deeply enmeshed in the culture in which it is created. The Italians go as far as saying traddutore, tradditore — translator, traitor — a phrase that has its roots in Latin, omnis traductor traditor, every translator is a traitor.

Poetry, taken from its original language, can never entirely express itself as the original author intended. It may come close but, as Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” A translator can attempt to achieve the meaning and lose the original poem, or to work on a literal translation, in which case it frequently loses the beauty of what makes it poetry at all. It is a complex issue, and one that can’t actually be entirely drawn in absolutes. The skill and facility of the translator as a poet in her own right does make a difference. The translator’s understanding of the culture from which the original poem arose also affects the translation.

When I step off the plane, I will be living a life in translation.  I hope someday to be able to live my life in Italian.

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12 thoughts on “Learning Italian, one word at a time

    • Indeed I did! I quite enjoyed it, in fact, and your story about reading your poetry for the first time in front of others as well.

      I hope I find someone like that, as well. It sounded like you had such a wonderful teacher in him. For me, right now, all I want is to get through the next three-ish weeks and on the ground in Italy. I’ve spent today boxing clothing and some other things to take to my storage unit later this week, and arranging to sell both my computer desk and my dresser. Soon there will be no furniture in here at all beyond what I’ve borrowed to get by with until I leave.

      My poor dog watched me emptying the dresser a little while ago. Someone is coming by tomorrow afternoon to get it. He knows that something is very wrong in his world and there’s nothing I can do to reassure him. I feel awful about having to leave him here for a while until I get my own place, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I wish I could just explain things to the poor little guy. He’s going to be so devastated when I leave him with Patrick.

      I’ve done long trips before, and he gets terribly emo, but he’s always been pup-sat at home. This time he’s going to be going to an entirely new place with someone he knows but hasn’t spent a lot of time with. I’ll be really happy when I can finally come back and fetch him.

      • Oh, that must break your heart. I know he’ll do fine, and the time will pass quickly until you can get it, but I know it’s hard for now, and makes the bustle of getting ready all the harder.

  1. Living in the culture accelerates language learning more than any stateside language program can. You will initially feel like you’ve just jumped into the deep end, but with your poetic gifts, you’ll have your “aha” moment, when it feels like natural, sooner than you think, and probably not when you expect it. With German, mine was when two shopkeepers were arguing with each other whether or not I was native Swiss.

    • Thanks, Jeff! I appreciate your confidence in me. I’m sure you’re right. I remember doing pretty well with German in high school so many years ago, and that was only a couple of days a week for one school year. I wasn’t living in the midst of it as I will be in Italy.

  2. You probably know this already, but if you have a decent microphone you can talk to natives all day every day with the help of language buddy websites like PolyglotClub or italki. But there’s no judgement, from me at least, if you choose not to. I can’t stand anything remotely telephone-like, myself, and the idea of having to fake friendship with a stranger I probably wouldn’t speak to if it weren’t because we both want to learn each others’ languages really puts me off.

    Having to sound like a bumbling idiot is really my biggest frustration with French. Sometimes it makes me feel like I’ve gone and lost my identity, and I fear that no one will ever see me for me again. Once I get deep into a conversation that usually goes away, though. Even if you stumble over conjugations, or fail to find the words, people can’t possibly see you as an empty shell of a simpleton once it becomes known that you have a rich past, a lot of experiences, education, hobbies, and whatnot. You won’t be eloquent, but you’ll still be you (a weak comfort for those of us works with words all day long, but a comfort nonetheless).

    • Yeah, I have a terrible time with anything resembling phones myself. You’ve always been a great encouragement to me, though, and knowing that you feel this way about your progress with language learning is helping me feel better about my situation. Thanks so much!

  3. Catching up with this blog, feeling all your emotions along with my own – sort of like reading poetry in foreign languages and then the translations. I remember when your thoughts were my discovery in uni in the early 60s. During a class with French poetry, I thought, “but that’s not what the French version says” and realized every language has idiomatic phrases that don’t translate to English. Or the English idiom didn’t give quite the same feeling as the French one. Just so with Italian, I imagine. Thanks for your sharing and efforts in this blog!

    • And thank you for coming by to read and comment! I’m looking forward to #writechat today, and then it will be out to the garage yet again for more sorting and packing activities. This time, bags and boxes for the charity driver to pick up.

      So much work to do.

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