ARTICOLO n. 61 / 2021

FATHER TONGUE

father tongue (noun).

  1. separate language for expressing ideas, as opposed to the vernacular (mother tongue) which is employed for everyday speech
  2. The form of language acquired through education and reading, as opposed to the dialect one grows up speakingeducated or formal language. 
  3. second language that one speaks fluently
  4. The language spoken by one’s father, when it differs from that spoken by one’s mother

Italian is my father tongue.

According to the pioneering applied linguist Wolfgang Butzkamm, we only learn language once. In his article with John A.W. Caldwell The Bilingual Reform. A Paradigm Shift in Foreign Language Teaching he argues that the mother tongue is the greatest asset people can bring to learning a foreign language: “As we grow into our mother tongues (1) we have learnt to conceptualize our world, we have become world-wise; (2) we have become skilled intention-readers and communicators, we have learnt to combine language with body language; (3) we have learnt to articulate fluently and use our voice effectively; (4) we have acquired an intuitive understanding of grammar; (5) we have acquired the secondary skills of reading and writing. In acquiring a first language, we have in fact constructed our selves.” Having learned Italian as an adult I find this last statement fascinating. I can’t help but wonder who I’d be and how my life would be different had Italian been in fact my mother tongue.

Italian was never my father’s tongue.

When he was a boy, he came home one day find his own father arguing in some strange language with various workers who’d been hired to build an addition on the house.

Eavesdropping on the angry dispute, my father was astonished: he didn’t know his own father could speak any language other than English, let alone Italian. Who was his father? And by extension, who was he himself? “I’m Canadian,” his father told him when he asked, “you’re Canadian.”

My father’s mother tongue had been silenced.

Growing up, I knew that my great-grandfather Osvaldo had emigrated with his brothers Giacomo, Giovanni and Luigi to Fort William, Ontario, Canada (now Thunder Bay) from Azzano Decimo, Friuli around 1910, but three generations later not a word of Italian was spoken in our house. I vaguely remember helping my father’s cousin make wine once but my grandfather Bruno (who went by Bernie) frowned upon maintaining these Italian traditions. Instead, he’d adopted other, more North American pleasures: he loved to make pecan pie and didn’t complain when his wife Mary, of mostly British ancestry, used ketchup to season the spaghetti sauce. They named their children David, Marilyn, Donald (my father) and Susan. The vicious bigotry Italian immigrants faced in North America is well documented, and the assimilation of their descendants was thus inevitable. Somewhere along the way, perhaps out of shame or simply a wish to make life easier, our family name of “Del Bel Belluz” was shortened to just “Belluz.” It was a kind of self-mutilation, a scar that lasted generations. If a tongue can’t pronounce its own name, how can it cry out? How did we completely lose our identity as Italians? These are two questions I cannot adequately address here. In his elegiac book Danubio, Claudio Magris aptly describes Paul Celan’s poetry this way: “it is a word torn from wordlessness…it is the gesture of one who puts an end to a tradition and at the same time erases himself.”

I left Thunder Bay at age 18 to study violin at the University of Toronto, soon switching my major to vocal performance in my second year. I was drawn to the linguistic aspect of singing, interpreting text in different languages and portraying operatic characters on stage. I rounded out my course schedule with English literature classes and an introductory course in Italian studies where I read translations of Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch and Machiavelli. Their voices sparked an interest but I was too busy trying to master the art of Bel Canto to let it be kindled. A large part of my rigorous vocal training included a lyric diction class where we learned the International Phonetic Alphabet and language-specific repertoire courses in French, German, Italian and English where we honed our pronunciation of the predominant languages in the classical art song and operatic tradition. I loved trying to get my tongue and lips to shape the vowels and articulate the nasal, fricative, and plosive consonants to capture the nuances of each language. And while I’d go on to perform entire operatic roles in Italian, pouring over Nico Castel’s word-for-word translations of libretti (or producing my own rough translations) to prepare these roles, the Italian language remained elusive to me for many years – a contrived phonetic performance.

Many years pass. I begin to feel an acute yearning whenever I hear someone speaking Italian. Strange voices are whispering in my veins: traditore. I can no longer ignore the (inherited?) shame I feel. I obsessively embed myself in the Italian language: podcasts, language apps, and YouTube videos. A kind of conversion happens. I start following Italian writers and musicians on social media, picking up slang and idiomatic expressions no textbook would print. I sign up for private conversation lessons and watch the classics of Italian cinema. To learn grammar, I translate the lyrics of songs by Battiato, Battisti, Dalla, Mina and contemporary artists from Francesco Bianconi and Giorgio Poi to M¥SS KETA and Mahmood.

On a trip to New York City, I make a pilgrimage to Rizzoli Bookstore, summoning the courage to approach a seller to ask in Italian for her beginner novel recommendations. Back in Los Angeles, I begin to read, frequently pausing to look up unknown words and record them in my notebook. The process is painstaking but I slowly develop a recollection of the meaning of words. The first novels to come alive for me in Italian are Natalia Ginzburg’s epistolary novel Caro Michele and Cesare Pavese’s La luna e i falò – their common exploration of identity and the longing to belong triggers a tsunami of recognition inside me.

I start to follow the contemporary literary scene in Italy and am strangely compelled to buy Luciano Funetta’s 2016 novel Dalle rovine (“From the ruins”). The voice of the narrator, a disquieting “we,” is so riveting that I quietly begin working to render it into English. I stumble through the ruins of my own Italian, each sentence a brick in this new home I’m building for myself. Or is it a prison? Either way, I find profound pleasure in the painstaking discipline of translation. 

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s essay Translation as Challenge and Source of Happiness articulates his concept of translation as “linguistic hospitality where the pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home, in one’s own welcoming house.” In his article Linguistic Hospitality: Paul Ricoeur and Translation, Francisco Díez Fischer adds: “translating also means to exile oneself, to inhabit the place of the other in order to understand him. Ricoeur analyzed this paradoxical hospitality by extending it beyond the work of the translator and by turning the question of foreign languages into a question about identity.”

As an emerging translator, I spend my days tirelessly reading and translating Italian literature and navigating the impostor syndrome that threatens my professional identity (You’re not really Italian, you’ll never completely master the language, you’ve failed to capture the nuance of this word etc. etc. etc.). I accept that my recovery of Italian will forever be unfinished; I’ve barely made a dent in the Italian canon and there are always new authors to read. And yet my desire to translate is urgent and inexplicable, my exile self-imposed. I translate samples of novels that I love on spec and I pitch them to publishers with a view to being hired to translate a whole book. I submit translations of short fiction to an array of literary journals and am delighted when one gets published. It is incredibly gratifying to provide English readers with an opportunity to encounter vital, contemporary Italian voices beyond Elena Ferrante. I attend virtual translation workshops and courses, gleaning valuable feedback and honing my largely self-taught craft.  

There is a performative aspect to my translation process which I realize may simply be a way to drown out my voice of the inner impostor. Once I’ve read a full text, I go back and read each sentence of the original Italian aloud, often repeatedly, parsing meaning and weighing structure and stress just as I would when I’m learning an opera aria. I’m trying to get inside the language, to receive the author’s singular voice and imprint the vocal timbre of each character. Once I’ve written down a translation of a sentence, I read the English out loud, listening for a kind of fraternal musicality in the voicing. When I’ve finished a completed draft, I review it aloud to make sure it sings and the register matches throughout. As a singer, I have always struggled with the ephemeral nature of live performance. I can prepare my interpretation but once the performance is underway, I only have one chance to shape the phrase – there’s no going back and unless it has been recorded, no tangible evidence. There are always musical passages I wish had gone better during a performance. As a translator, I can fuss over the sentence, re-shaping it until it finally clicks into place and sings itself. The responsibility therein doesn’t come without trepidation: have I gotten it right? Again, I turn to Ricoeur: “give up the ideal of the perfect translation.” Translation is ultimately about making choices. Certain language resists translation. There is, however, great satisfaction in the act of mediation between languages, of standing between writer and reader.   

Per capire un paese
devi stenderti nelle cantine,
fare il nido nei silenzi,
lasciar affiorare i canti che hai dentro.

To understand a village
you must lie down in the cellars,
make a nest in the silences
let the songs inside you arise.


[Carmine Valentino Mosesso, La terza geografia]

In 1999, my father managed to connect with our sole surviving relative in the village of Azzano Decimo. My brother, sister-in-law and I were all living in England at the time and so my parents flew over to London and the five of us travelled there together to meet Dilio Del Bel Belluz and his wife Mirella. At the time my Italian was rudimentary at best, but an affable neighbour spoke some English, and after a pleasantly awkward conversation in their home, we wandered the local cemetery, studying the faded oval-shaped photographs on the gravestones of our ancestors; those fallen leaves of our family tree. At one point, Dilio chastened us for dropping “Del Bel” from the family name. How would he find his Canadian relatives if he needed us? His mother Marcellina was pregnant with Dilio when she and her husband Giacomo (known as El Jack) returned to Italy around 1922. Dilio proudly showed us the church of St. Giacomo in nearby Praturlone where Jack was dedicated a marble plaque as benefactor of the church and village. How strange to find that the province of Pordenone in the region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia looked so much like Canada, that our family had always been hard-working farmers, and to hear the bells of the beautiful campanile (belltower) in Azzano Decimo which had been inaugurated over a decade after my great-grandfather emigrated. I can’t help but wonder if Osvaldo might have stayed had he heard them, overcome with ‘campanilisimo,’ a word for which there is no exact meaning in English, but which refers to the intense loyalty and love Italians feel for their town or region. I wonder if he ever questioned his decision to leave or if he ever went back to hear those clarion bells.  

Perhaps more than other European countries, the tendency of Italians to identify and define themselves by birthplace is, unsurprisingly, manifest in the country’s literature. There is as an importance of place in Italian fiction that I find alluring both as a reader and translator. I’ve visited Italy multiple times since that first family visit, north and south, and find the regional differences remarkable. I become porous in Italy, tuning in to the lyrical timbre of the language, my ear mapping dialects and imprinting the sound of these strange voices that populate the fiction I translate.

And then there are those ecstatic experiences that inform my understanding of Italy and colour my translation in ways I can’t adequately express: the sound the earth in Puglia makes as it releases the day’s heat; how time seems to stop in the Caravaggio room at the Villa Borghese. Back home at my desk, I draw from this well of first-hand experiences whenever possible, while still relying on research to accurately render these places.

Translation is transportive. I emerge from an internet rabbit hole having been enlightened on a subject or place I’d otherwise never have encountered. Recently, while on commission to translate a guide to the Royal Madhouse of Palermo originally published in 1835, a description of the kitchen’s Rumford stove led to a deep dive into methods of heat transfer and the now obsolete theory of caloric heat.

Even more than reading, translation is an act of prolonged empathy. I accompany the characters over days and sometimes months, privy to the inner workings of their hearts and minds. I’m right there at the Sagra della Seppia in Abruzzo cringing at a reverb-heavy performance of “Maladetta primavera” beside my heartbroken protagonist Paride, a failed musician who’s just limped back home from Milan and is staring down oblivion at the beginning of Alcide Pierantozzi’s novel L’inconveniente di essere amati.

The act of translation, of course, is inextricable from my quest for identity, for Italianness. But it’s also more than that. Paul Ricoeur addresses the difficulties of translation in the aforementioned essay, and suggests “comparing ‘the translator’s task,’ which Walter Benjamin speaks about, with ‘work’ in the double sense that Freud gives to that word when, in one essay, he speaks of the ‘work of remembering’ and, in another essay, he speaks of the ‘work of mourning’. In translation too, work is advanced with some salvaging and some acceptance of loss.” And so, in lieu of the recommended cellar in Mosesso’s poem above, I sit here at my computer in Toronto, trying to understand, to hear generations of ancestral voices among the torrent of words. I nest in the silence behind every word and between every sentence, letting these long-forgotten songs arise. I do not intend to have children but perhaps by translating from father to mother tongue, I can salvage some kind of linguistic legacy.

ARTICOLO n. 70 / 2021