10 January 2010

The Wonderful World of Language

 Saronno, Italy
SARONNO, Italy - Just the other day I was cleaning out my desk when I came across an interview Madonna gave to the Hungarian newspaper Blikk when she was in Budapest filming Evita. The questions were asked in Hungarian and then translated into English. Madonna answered in English and her answers were translated first into Hungarian and then retranslated from Hungarian back into English. Here’s a sample.

Blikk: Madonna, Budapest says hello with arms that are spread-eagled. Did you have a visit here that was agreeable? Are you in good odor? You are the biggest fan of our young people who hear your musical productions and like to move their bodies in response.

Madonna: Thank you for saying these compliments. Please stop with taking sensationalist photographs until I have removed my garments for all to see. This is a joke I have made.

Blikk: Madonna, let’s cut toward the hunt. Are you a bold hussy-woman that feasts on men who are tops?

Madonna: Yes, yes this is certainly something that brings to the surface my longings. In America it is not considered to be mentally ill when a woman advances on her prey in a discothèque setting with hardy cocktails present. And there is a more normal attitude toward leather play toys that also makes my day.

Blikk: Is this how you met Carlos, your love servant who is reputed? Did you know he was heaven-sent right off the stick? Or were you dating many other people in your bed at the same time?

Those of us who struggle with a foreign language on a daily basis can well appreciate the obvious difficulties the translator had with English, especially the idioms. But it works both ways. One of the persistent problems I have with Italian is trying to decipher the sex of things. For example, la tazza, the cup, is feminine, but il piatto, a plate is masculine, and why?

Italians are not very sympathetic to my problem as they have their own issues with English. While it is natural for them to assign a sex to a shoe (feminine) or a book (masculine), and to have a special word for everything (fuoco = fire, but incendio = on fire) they want to know why English uses the same words over and over again to mean different things? Maybe the answer is for the opposite reason Italians say perchè, poichè, che, giachhè or sicome when all they really want to say is because.

And the contradictions, they lament. Why do you Americans say ‘wish you were here’ when you are talking about the present? And if Sam asks you if you are hungry while you are talking to your mother and you tell her what Sam said, why do you have to say ‘Sam asked me if I was hungry,’ when Sam is asking you now and you are answering now and yes, you are hungry now?

And why do you insist on talking about the present in the past, they want to know. No wonder we Italians get confused. And if that were not bad enough, you also have the nasty habit of talking about the future in the present. The train leaves tomorrow morning at 7 AM. Don’t you really want to say the train is going to leave?

Wait just a second I say. Italian is not so clear either. The ino, etto, otto business is enough to drive anyone to drink. A gatto is a cat, but a gattino is a kitten. A giovane is a young man, but a giovanotto is a younger young man than a giovane. Sometimes you can put two endings together, like otto and ino as in giovanottino. Then you have a really young man who is younger than a young man, or do you?

Then there is one, which conveys a sense of largeness, as in the word bacione, a big kiss, as opposed to bacio, which is just a regular size kiss. However, when you add one to some words they go through a sex change. Take the feminine noun, la donna, the woman. To say a big woman it becomes il donnone. Does that mean that the big woman is no longer female? Beats me.

It’s the same with la palla, the ball. If you add one to la palla (feminine) it becomes il pallone (masculine) but if there is more than one ball, then it’s le palle, (feminine) which, as you probably know becomes the basis of that Italianisma saying, ma, che palle, that only has a little bit to do with playing ball and absolutely nothing to do with being feminine.

My Italian friends tell me I am obsessed with terrorists, but surely this is a terrorist plot to keep me from understanding what is going on. I don’t even want to get into what I like and what is pleasing to me and what you like and what is pleasing to you, although if you want to talk about it a little later it just might be pleasing to both of us.

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