Books in Translation: My Relationship with Italian

I know it’s been a while since a review post, and I’m working on those, but in the meantime, since today’s prompt for The Write Reads April Challenge over on Instagram is ‘Translated’, I thought I’d talk a bit about my second language: Italian.

I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, to English speaking parents, and for the first five years of my life my world was all in English, though my paternal grandparents probably did speak some Italian to me. Then, at age five, my family and I moved to Italy for my dad’s work, and I was thrust into a new world and a new language. Being young, I took to it easily, and in fact only retained my English because my mother read to me and spoke to me in English and occasionally did spelling exercises with me. When you learn to read and write in Italian, where everything is spelt as it’s said, English is incredibly hard to get the hang of, let me tell you!

I did eight years of schooling in Italy, and even then literature was my favourite, and especially once I got to middle school I loved the taste of both Italian classics and translated works from English that I got. Alongside that, I was constantly checking books out of the library and my parents regularly bought me books in Italian. Now, years later, it’s strange to think I read so much in another language… it makes me a bit sad that I don’t so readily reach for it. At age 13, my family moved to the States, and then three years later to the UK, where I still live, and since then I don’t think I’ve picked up a book in Italian for pleasure. Most of the Italian books I owned had been childhood reads, so we gave lots of them away before we moved.

So not only did I miss out on higher levels of education in the language, I also stopped interacting with it as much in my personal life. Before moving, everyone in my family spoke Italian to one another, except my mother, but my younger siblings struggled in their American school to catch up with their English to that first my dad and then myself started speaking English to them so they could become more confident. Fast forward about a year and a half and they’d forgotten most of their Italian. Now, ten years on, it’s as if they never even spoke it, and it’s something I always feel guilty about. I at least still speak it with my dad, but there is so much lacking there, because whenever I forget a word I can substitute it with the English one and he will understand me.

This led me to study Italian as part of my degree, so alongside English literature I dusted off my grammar and prepared to relearn the classics of my country. I am really glad I decided to do it, but I’m not sure how much it helped me in the long run… the grammar side was too easy for me, because even in the higher level of classes, I was one of the few (almost) native speakers, and the culture classes were taught in English, so although I could interact with the material (whether film, poetry, history, or books) in the original language, I didn’t have to, and the essays and exams were still taken in English. It did mean I got to spend a year back in Italy, but even then I worked as an English teacher, and lived with other English speakers, so apart from the occasional evenings I spent with my adult students, I didn’t get to fully immerse myself back into the culture and the language.

Another thing my course did introduce me to – or rather, reintroduce me to – were the gialli. The word giallo literally means ‘yellow’, and it’s what Italians call crime fiction, because they used to be published with these very iconic yellow covers. I have fond memories of reading a cheap giallo on the beach during the summer holidays, even as a pre-teen, and so I jumped at the chance to study Italian crime fiction during my second year of university. Again, the texts were in English because people from other language and culture courses could take the class, but I tried to acquire the books in Italian as much as possible, and one of these was La Gita a Tindari, or Excursion to Tindari, by Andrea Camilleri. This is part of a longer series featuring inspector Salvo Montalbano, who works in the fictional Sicilian town of Vigata – the books I own in the series are pictured in the photo above. I absolutely fell in love with this book during that class, and have since picked them up whenever I can, since they don’t need to be read in order, and are all very enjoyable. I also watched the tv series Il Giovane Montalbano (The Young Montalbano) twice during my year abroad. Camilleri’s books, for me, have been a little lifeline to Italian literature since the end of my degree. It’s true that I’ve read a lot of them in English, because my library happens to have them, but every time I look at them on the shelf, and see the two copies I own in Italian, it’s a little reminder of the entire world of literature that exists out there.

I’m not really sure where this post is going, really, except maybe as a reminder to myself to not always focus on English as the only language worthy to read, and as a resolution to read more in Italian, to not lose that feel for the tongue I’ve spoken almost ever since I can remember. I’m sure a lot of bilinguals feel this conflict in their languages, especially if they live in an English speaking country; the native language becomes something used just to communicate with family, and maybe to occasionally watch a show in or listen to a song in, and English becomes the professional language, the one taken seriously. I think the internet and the way it’s so anglocentric doesn’t help bilinguals who don’t live in English speaking countries either. I know so many of my old friends back in Italy who are a lot more fluent that when I left, just because of being online.

I hope that this time next year some of my TBR will feature books in Italian, and I’m hoping that once restrictions ease I can try and visit an Italian bookshop I’ve heard of in London. Buying books directly from Italy is quite expensive -which is another reason I haven’t been reading much Italian literature- but I do want to start making an effort. I plan on having children, and I want them to be able to engage with that part of their culture, and to be able to speak to them and read to them in Italian without feeling like I’m floundering. And I would like to pick up a book in Italian without feeling anxious, or without comparing it constantly to English. It is sort of sad that there don’t seem to be many SFF books written in Italian (and not just translated) and since that is my main genre I think that also puts me off, but I really really want to persist, so again, this is my resolution!

Would love to know your thoughts on this, if you have any. Maybe you’re also bilingual and struggle with this, or maybe you don’t struggle, in which case I’d love tips! Thank you for putting up with my rambling, if you made it this far!

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