CHIAVARI, Italy - A few years back when the singer Madonna was in Budapest filming Evita, she sat for an interview with a reporter for the Hungarian newspaper Blikk. The questions were asked in Hungarian and then translated into English. Madonna answered in English and her answers were then translated into Hungarian.
The questions and answers were then translated into English and a copy of the interview appeared in Time magazine, which is where I saw it. Not knowing the structure of the Hungarian language, I can only imagine what the real questions and answers were, let me give you a few examples:
|Have Passport, Will Travel|
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.
B: Madonna, let’s cut toward the hunt. Are you a bold hussy-woman who feasts on men who are tops?
M: 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 make my day.
B: Is this how you met Carlos, your former 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?
You can laugh, but those of us who struggle with a foreign language on a daily basis can well appreciate the obvious difficulties the translator had with the structure of the English language, not to mention the idioms.
|Nice to Know Umbrian Oil is Strong of Olives|
One of the persistent problems I have with Italian is trying to decipher the sex of things – is it masculine or feminine – something I seem to have trouble doing with some of the people I see on the streets these days too. But unfortunately for me Italian is not androgynous, like some of my fellow citizens.
Italians don’t seem to be very sympathetic to my problem, for them it is a natural process to assign a sex to a chair (feminine) or a book (masculine), just as we instinctively know if the “you” we are talking about is one person or a bunch of people. Any why, they ask me, do Americans use the same words over and over again? Good question. Maybe for the opposite reason Italians say perchè, poichè, che, giachhè or sicome when all they really want to say is because.
|And I Think the Cookies are Closed Too|
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 – ‘are you hungry?’ while you are talking on the phone and you decide to tell the person on the other end of the line 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 oh why do you Americans insist on talking about the present in the past? No wonder we get confused. And if that were not bad enough, you also have the nasty habit of talking about the future in the present. You say - the train leaves tomorrow morning at 7 AM. But don’t you really mean to say the train is going to leave tomorrow morning at 7 AM?
|Three Coins in a Fountain|
Wait just a second, hold your horses I say. Italian’s 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 also a cat, but a small one. Why do you have to have a special word? Can’t you say piccolo gatto? A giovane is a young man, but a giovanotto is a younger young man than a giovane, except if you are calling an old man a giovanotto – which I don’t understand at all. And even more confusing is when you put two endings together, like otto and ino as in giovanottino, do you end up with a really young man who is younger than a young man?
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, and this is the part that mystifies me, when you add one to some words they go through a sex change. Take the feminine noun, la donna, the woman. But to say a big woman, the pronound “the” is no longer la, which is feminine, but il, which is masculine and you have 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 Americans are obsessed with terrorists, but surely this is a terrorist plot to keep me from understanding what is going on. And 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.