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.