An Italian year

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nell’angolo della terra

Among few positive things the lockdown has brought me, is the revival, albeit online, of the International Poetry Club. The club met regularly in the early 2000s, sporadically afterwards, and then came to halt. It was sorely missed, as its founder wrote:

If there is one thing I really miss in my life ever since it is this kind of meeting: I have never managed to establish something similar anywhere else.

All previous attempts to resume the readings had failed, because of our increasingly busy lives and scattered geography. But universal confinement means that we are stuck at home most of the time, thus we arranged to meet online last week-end.

Everyone recited a poem inspired by these unprecedented times. The one that struck me and my friends most was a short verse by Salvatore Quasimodo, a great Italian poet (1901-1968).

Ognuno sta sul cuor della terra,
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed è subito sera.

This powerful verse, part of a larger poem called Solitudini, is extremely famous and was translated into English and other languages many times. Yet, I knew nothing about it and next to nothing about Quasimodo!

Va bene, I said to myself. It looks like 2020 is going to be an Italian year.

Last December, taking stock of my language progress, I realised my Italian was getting rusty, and was planning to remedy this.

This year I began by reading Il Gattopardo of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, an old favourite, and then succumbing to Ferrantomania, when I casually opened the first volume of L’amica geniale.

Then, in March, as the epidemics arrived in Europe, I started reading Italian media, as they were the most reliable source of information on the virus.

Now, at the poetry event, I realised that my knowledge of Italian poetry was non-existent. Sure, I know the names of Leopardi, Montale e Pavesi, but know nothing about them, have no idea which poets I like, and, apart from ‘nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’, I cannot quote a single line!

Dunque, what is the game plan to improve my Italian in the next 6 months?

First, learn some Italian poems by heart. Learning by heart is not for everybody, but I like it and find it an effective way to memorise words, expressions, and grammatical constructions.

Second, decide which language skills I want to improve and which knowledge gaps I need to fill, and work methodically and regularly to achieve this.

And third, read in Italian for pleasure, especially as I finally got my hands on the three remaining volumes of Elena Ferrante’ Neapolitan novels.

The enth of Marchember

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Набережная Неисцелимых, Pavement of the Incurables

Today is World Poetry Day, celebrated every year on 21 March.

My relationship with poetry is contradictory. On the one hand, I know hundreds of poems in Russian from school, when learning by heart was required, and dozens of poems in Latvian, French, Spanish, and German, from my language studies.

My big poetic gap is English. I keep telling myself that it would be immensely beneficial to get acquainted with English poetry. yet I cannot recite a single verse in English!

For many years, I have owned several bilingual English-Russian poetry books: T.S. Eliot with Russian translations, an anthology of American poetry, and a couple of others.

Until last year, I had not opened any of them. I did not want to read these poems in Russian, assuming that translations would pale compared to the originals, and I did not want to read them in English, as my English was not good enough to appreciate poetic sophistication.

Last year, however, I began reading one book on a whim, and enjoyed it immensely: both the English originals and the translations. What’s more, the book proved to be a treasure for a language student, as some poems had several translations by different authors, which I could compare and analyse. Still a long way to go before reaching any degree of familiarity with English verse, but a welcome first step.

Today, however, to mark the day, I found one of my favourite Russian poems, by Joseph Brodsky, in the original and in English translation, coauthored by the poet himself. I knew the Russian original for years, and was astonished how the English version matches the spirit, the rhythm, and even vocabulary .

Ниоткуда с любовью, надцатого мартобря,
дорогой, уважаемый, милая, но не важно
даже кто, ибо черт лица, говоря
откровенно, не вспомнить уже, не ваш, но
и ничей верный друг вас приветствует с одного
из пяти континентов, держащегося на ковбоях.
Я любил тебя больше, чем ангелов и самого,
и поэтому дальше теперь
от тебя, чем от них обоих.
Далеко, поздно ночью, в долине, на самом дне,
в городке, занесенном снегом по ручку двери,
извиваясь ночью на простыне,
как не сказано ниже, по крайней мере,
я взбиваю подушку мычащим «ты»,
за горами, которым конца и края,
в темноте всем телом твои черты
как безумное зеркало повторяя.

 

From nowhere with love the enth of Marchember
sir sweetie respected darling but in the end
it’s irrelevant who for memory won’t restore
features not yours and no one’s devoted friend
greets you from this fifth last part of earth
resting on whalelike backs of cowherding boys
I loved you better than angels and Him Himself
and am farther off due to that from you than I am from both
of them now late at night in the sleeping vale
in the little township up to its doorknobs in
snow writhing upon the stale
sheets for the whole matter’s skin –
deep I’m howling ”youuu” through my pillow dike
many seas aways that are milling nearer
with my limbs in the dark playing your double like
an insanity-stricken mirror.

The picture above, of a memorial plaque to Joseph Brodsky, was taken in Venice, on an embankment called historically Fondamenta degli Incurabili (‘Pavement of the Incurables’, named after the nearby hospital Ospedale degli Incurabili). In Russian, “Набережная неисцелимых” is a title of Brodsky’s autobiographical essay dedicated to Venice, that was among his favourite cities.

Books in the time of pandemic

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Venezia, Venedig, Venice

The world is fighting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and Europe has become its epicentre.

Intellectually, to make sense of how the disease has been spreading, one needs to understand the mathematical principle of exponential growth.

Psychologically, to cope with this uncertainty, one can read about previous disease epidemics.

Diseases, such as plague and cholera, have been striking humanity since time immemorial, and  are used as background and inspiration of many great books.

Here are my favourites:

El amor en los tiempos del cólera (“Love in the Time of Cholera”) by Gabriel García Márquez, 1985

La Peste (“The Plague”) by Albert Camus, 1947

Пир во время чумы (“A Feast in Time of Plague”) by Alexander Pushkin, 1830

You can read it in Russian here.

The play was written during the first Russian cholera epidemic of 1830. The plot is based on a play “The City of Plague” by a Scottish poet John Wilson, which was inspired by the Great Plague of London (1665 – 1666).

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, 5th century BCE

Chapters 2.47–2.54 describe the Plague of Athens, a severe epidemic that devastated the city in 430 BCE, reemerging twice. This text is one of the earliest accounts of a disease epidemic.

Der Tod in Venedig (“Death in Venice”) by Thomas Mann, 1912

Here is an excerpt from chapter 5, describing the arrival of cholera in the city. The rumours, the denial by the authorities, then first visible signs, and suddenly it is everywhere.

Seit mehreren Jahren schon hatte die indische Cholera eine verstärkte Neigung zur Ausbreitung und Wanderung an den Tag gelegt. Erzeugt aus den warmen Morästen des Ganges-Deltas, aufgestiegen mit dem mephitischen Odem jener üppig-untauglichen, von Menschen gemiedenen Urwelt-und Inselwildnis, in deren Bambusdickichten der Tiger kauert, hatte die Seuche in ganz Hindustan andauernd und ungewöhnlich heftig gewütet, hatte östlich nach China, westlich nach Afghanistan und Persien übergegriffen und, den Hauptstraßen des Karawanenverkehrs folgend, ihre Schrecken bis Astrachan, ja selbst bis Moskau getragen.

Aber während Europa zitterte, das Gespenst möchte von dort aus und zu Lande seinen Einzug halten, war es, von syrischen Kauffahrern übers Meer verschleppt, fast gleichzeitig in mehreren Mittelmeerhäfen aufgetaucht, hatte in Toulon und Malaga sein Haupt erhoben, in Palermo und Neapel mehrfach seine Maske gezeigt und schien aus ganz Calabrien und Apulien nicht mehr weichen zu wollen.

Der Norden der Halbinsel war verschont geblieben. Jedoch Mitte Mai dieses Jahres fand man zu Venedig an ein und demselben Tage die furchtbaren Vibrionen in den ausgemergelten, schwärzlichen Leichnamen eines Schifferknechtes und einer Grünwarenhändlerin. Die Fälle wurden verheimlicht. Aber nach einer Woche waren es deren zehn, waren es zwanzig, dreißig und zwar in verschiedenen Quartieren.

Ein Mann aus der österreichischen Provinz, der sich zu seinem Vergnügen einige Tage in Venedig aufgehalten, starb, in sein Heimatstädtchen zurückgekehrt, unter unzweideutigen Anzeichen, und so kam es, daß die ersten Gerüchte von der Heimsuchung der Lagunenstadt in deutsche Tagesblätter gelangten.

Venedigs Obrigkeit ließ antworten, daß die Gesundheitsverhältnisse der Stadt nie besser gewesen seien und traf die notwendigsten Maßregeln zur Bekämpfung.

You can read the book in German on the Project Gutenberg website.

There is also a great film  Morte a Venezia by Luchino Visconti, made in 1971, which captures admirably well the atmosphere when everything still seems normal yet is no longer.

Ferrantomania and language

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Latin, Italian

Ferrantomania, or Ferrante fever. After several years wondering what was this fuss about, I have at last caught the Ferrantomania bug.

I picked the first volume on a business trip to Brussels last November. Going back to the train station, I entered a bookshop to get something to read on my way back, and was delighted to discover a foreign language section.

L’amica geniale was there, and I bought it thinking that at least I should give it a try. But I did not read it until this January, when I decided to brush up my Italian in anticipation of two trips to Italy.

My Ferrante fever symptoms were the same as described by millions of readers worldwide: you buy this Ferrante book because you have heard that you should definitely read it. You read a couple of pages, and when you finally put the book down, it is after midnight, the book is over, and you desperately want to read the other three titles of the “Neapolitan Novels”.

When I started the first volume, I was not aware that language plays such a crucial role in the story. Much has been written about the use of Neapolitan dialect in the book, about sociolinguistic mechanisms, and about some enigmatic language-related metaphors, such as ‘il suo italiano che assomigliava un poco a quello dell’Iliade’ (‘Italian that slightly resembled that of the Iliad’).

Not only languages, but Classical languages specifically, play such a crucial role in the story. Thanks to private Latin lessons, Lena is able to continue her education; then, Latin and Greek (and their teachers) become her favourites, and eventually she goes on to study them at university.

A passage in the first volume struck me.

Elena is struggling with her Latin, and when she tells Lila (who has stopped the school because her parents could not afford it), Lila recommends the change of approach:

“Leggiti prima la frase in latino, poi va’ a vedere dov’è  il verbo. A seconda della persona del verbo capisci qual è il soggetto. Una volta che hai il soggetto ti cerchi i complementi: il complemento oggetto se il verbo è transitivo, o se no altri complementi. Prova così.”

Provai. Tradurre all’improvviso mi sembrò facile.

In language learning, we have moments when suddenly something clicks and we finally get it. I have experienced it myself multiple times, and now I am really looking forward to reading about Lena’s linguistic (and other) discoveries.

Last week, I went to the local library knowing that it held the entire trilogy, and indeed, volumes 1,3, and 4 were there. The volume 2, exactly the one I was eager to read, was on loan. I made a recall and am impatiently waiting for the book to become available.

When in Rome

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the Colosseum was not built in a day

Last week, I spent several days in Rome, hence this post. It recalls three common English expressions about Rome and their equivalents in French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Russian.

The first expression is All roads lead to Rome.

Its Italian version is Tutte le strade portano a Roma.
French, Tous les chemins mènent à Rome.
Spanish, Todos los caminos llevan a Roma.
German, Alle Wege führen nach Rom.
Russian, Все дороги ведут в Рим.

100% correspondence.

The second expression is When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In French, the expression is equivalent, À Rome, fais comme les Romains.

Other languages express the same idea differently. The Italians say, Paese che vai, usanza che trovi. The Spanish, Donde fueres, haz lo que vieres. The Germans, Andere Länder, andere Sitten.

And the Russians in similar context use a a picturesque expression В чужой монастырь со своим уставом не ходят (‘one doesn’t go to the foreign monastery with own statute’).

The third expression is Rome wasn’t built in a day. In Italian, it is Roma non è stata costruita in un giorno. In German, Rom wurde nicht an einem Tag erbaut.

In Spanish, two versions coexist: Roma no se hizo en un día, and No se ganó Zamora en una hora, which refers to a long siege of a town of Zamora in the 11th century.

In French the usage is similar, two versions coexist: Rome ne s’est pas faite en un jour and Paris ne s’est pas fait en un jour, the second version referring, bien évidemment, to the French capital.

Finally, in Russian, the similar expression Москва не сразу строилась features only Moscow, which also was not built in a day.

Like a fish in water

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happy as a fish in venice

Today’s post is inspired by a recent trip to Venice. A famous book Venezia è un pesce (‘Venice is a fish’) by Tiziano Scarpra compares the city to a fish, and recommends getting lost to fully enjoy it.

I did not manage to read the book before my trip, but I did manage to get lost immediately on arrival. Then, my phone kept shutting down, and a colleague mentioned he almost fell off to the water thanks to his phone recommendations. So, I ignored the phone and the map and walked, feeling, like in a French expression, comme un poisson dans l’eau, and thinking about its equivalents in different languages.

In English, an expression to be like a fish in water can be used, but its opposite, to be like a fish out of water, is more common.

In Italian, you can use both:  sentirsi come un pesce nell’acqua and its opposite come un pesce fuor d’acqua.

The same goes for Spanish: sentirse como pez en el agua and como pez fuera del agua.

In German, you say sich fühlen / sein wie ein Fisch im Wasser. You can also be jolly, fit, healthy, etc munter / fit / gesund sein wie ein Fisch im Wasser.  To express the opposite, you say sich fühlen / sein wie ein Fisch auf dem Trockenen.

Back to French. One also uses an expression heureux comme un poisson dans l’eau, which is similar to the English happy as a clam (at high tide).

Although an expression comme un poisson hors de l’eau exists, it is not that common. One would rather say ne pas être dans son élément or ne pas être dans son assiette.

In Russian, one says быть /  чувствовать себя как рыба в воде, but to express the opposite, one uses an expression быть не в своей тарелке,  ‘not to be in one’s plate’, borrowed from the French ne pas être dans son assiette.

The history of the borrowing is funny. The French assiette, from the verb asseoir, ‘to sit’, used to have several meanings, including ‘position’, for example on a horse, and ‘place’, for example at the table. Somewhere and somehow, the two meanings got confused by translating into Russian.