Transcending mutual unintelligibility

March 25, 2018

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:

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Two profane, two obscene

August 3, 2013

Here’s a fun passage in Dashiell Hammett’s ‘The Gutting of Couffignal’, a great story that opens The Big Knockover and Other Stories (whose colourful crooks’ names I listed recently). Skip the first paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers.

‘There’s your choice, Flippo,’ I summed up for him. ‘All I can give you is freedom from San Quentin. The princess can give you a fat cut of the profits in a busted caper, with a good chance to get yourself hanged.’

The girl, remembering her advantage over me, went at him hot and heavy in Italian, a language in which I know only four words. Two are them are profane and the other two obscene. I said all four.

Profanity is when something is considered insulting to a religion, its god(s), or people’s beliefs in them. Obscenity involves offense to taste or common decency, something vulgar enough to be taboo in a given context (often relating to sex or bodily functions). There are legal nuances to both terms, but I won’t get into that here.

Two profane and two obscene words, all presumably common swears, or common in the early 20th century. I can guess what they might be, but maybe Hammett didn’t have four particular words in mind. There are Italian speakers in my family; I’ll run it by them. For research.