A scene in Ali Smith’s wonderful novel How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton, 2014) depicts a curious but common experience: people with no shared language having a conversation. Given enough time and repeated encounters, such parties may, of necessity, create a pidgin. But for one-off exchanges it’s a different story.
Like the comic Saga, whose use of untranslated Esperanto I wrote about recently, How to Be Both switches to Italian and lets the reader fend for themself. But even if, like the story’s main characters, you don’t know the language, some words and names will be familiar or guessable.
The protagonist, George, a teenage girl, is visiting a gallery in northern Italy with her young brother, Henry, and their mother:
The place is completely silent behind them except for the lady attendant who has been charmed by Henry into leading him from picture to picture and telling him the words for whatever he points at.
Cavallo, the woman says.
Horse, Henry says.
Si! the woman says. Bene. Unicorni. Cielo. Stelle. Terra. Dei e dee e lo zodiaco. Minerva. Venere. Apollo. Minerva Marvo Ariete. Venere Aprile Toro. Apollo Maggio Gemelli. Duca Borso di Ferrara. Dondo la giustizia. Dondo un regalo. Il palio. Un cagnolino.
She sees George and her mother are both listening to her too. She points at the blank and faded walls.
Secco, she says.
She points at the still-picture-covered walls.
Fresco, she says.
She points at the really good bright end wall.
Mando o andato a Venezia per ottenere il meglio azzurro.
I think she’s saying that the blue colour is Venetian, her mother says.
George’s mother goes over to speak to the attendant. She speaks in English. The attendant speaks back in Italian which her mother doesn’t speak. They smile at each other and have a conversation.
What did she say? George asks her mother as they leave the room through the curtained door and go down the stairs.
I’ve no idea, her mother says. But it was nice to talk to her.
There are many things I like about the quoted passage: the lightly matter-of-fact way the scene unfolds; that George’s mother and the attendant decide to have a conversation despite knowing that the other will not understand them; the fact their conversation remains a mystery to us; the mundane yet remarkable report of their having communicated something worthwhile beyond the trade of words.
I’ve had experiences like this in Ireland, with people who don’t speak English (or another language I could get by on), and on my own travels in places where I didn’t speak a local language. Facial expression and gesture become invaluable, and a shared context, goal, or object of attention – like the art in Smith’s scene – creates a ground for communication even in the absence of shared vocabulary.
Yesterday a friend reminded me that Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog has a perfect example of this. The title character, an assassin, knows Raymond, a French speaker who sells ice cream in the park. Raymond doesn’t understand English, and Ghost Dog doesn’t understand French, but they chat often and each believes the other is his best friend. It’s sweet and funny:
Patrick O’Brian’s sea adventure novel Desolation Island has a passage touching on the same theme:
Stephen left the chaplain and the priest in the cool of the porch: Fisher’s pronunciation of Latin made some part of what he said incomprehensible to a Portuguese, and Father Gomes’s piety so far exceeded his learning that he was often at a loss for a word, but they certainly communicated, talking away at a great rate. It appeared to Stephen that they did so less by language than by sympathy and intuition.