Learning Italian

Is there a word for philological wanderlusting? Whatever it is, every so often I suffer it painfully and have to have a crack at a new tongue.

In this case, the stimulant was the knowledge I will never get the full hit of Dante without at least attempting to stumble through it in the original. This is self-evident from a mere glance at the untranslated text, which hides rhymes within rhymes and stacks rhymes on top of rhymes, vs the comparatively rhymeless English of the courageous interpreter who can never give more than a flavour of Dante’s endless cascade of onos and oros and itas and ritas and ortes and elles and ivas and inas.

I’d also realised it’s generally true of the language while rolling around a few memorised lines of Petrarch in my head:

Aura che quelle chiome bionde et crespe
cercondi et movi, et se’ mossa da loro,
soavemente, et spargi quel dolce oro,
et poi ’l raccogli, e ’n bei nodi il rincrespe…

In the first line, every non-conjuctive word but one ends in the same letter. The majority of words in the text end in vowel sounds, which adds immeasurably to il dolce suono. There’s also a beautiful da-da-DUM da-DUM-da rhythm that runs through, but that’s less a linguistic feature than something unique to Petrarch’s art.

(Does anyone else short-change “Petrarch” one of his Rs when typing his name? No matter how many times I type it knowing it’s “Petrarch,” I always seem to type “Petrach” and have to backspace past the C.)

Learning Italian to read Dante and Petrarch is also one of the prescriptions for poetic mastery given by Ezra Pound. (Along with learning Chinese – I’ll leave that one alone for now.)

I’ve always said I don’t have a head for languages, but I’m not sure if it’s more true that I don’t have a head for French, which is a language I’ve been studying on and off, formally and informally, for seventeen years and I still can’t do much more than follow the gist of a conversation. A few years ago I started learning spoken Russian via Pimsleur tapes, and within a few weeks I could comfortably pass the time of day. I read a course in Gaelic at university in order to get a better grip of Irish texts, and picked up a lot in a short space of time.

Likewise, studying Italian with the Duolingo app has been a great deal of fun where French was always a chore. I’m not sure if it’s the subject matter – I’ve accidentally developed an almost A.E. Houseman*-esque contempt for French poetry beside Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Verlaine, whereas I genuinely love Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Foscolo, Leopardi, and Michelangelo’s sonnets. I’ve also suffered through Sartre and Camus in French, but I find them to be bores even in translation – maybe I need to turn my attention to a true prose aesthete like Flaubert.

In any case, this may or may not all come to nothing, but hopefully it keeps the brain nice and limber if nothing else.

*An anecdote tells us Houseman once asked the great Andre Gide at dinner why it was the French have never produced any poetry of note. Gide’s response was the quite get-out-of-jail-free-card retort, “What is poetry?” But to fight this bias, I have purchased the splendid Jacques Barzun’s “Essay on French Verse: For Readers of English Poetry.”


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Laurence Thompson

Laurence Thompson is an English writer. He is almost certainly drunk.

One thought on “Learning Italian”

  1. I have a friend who years ago translated the first 11 Cantos of Dante masterfully into a vigorous English whilst preserving the original terza rima. And I mean vigorous, no fillers, nothing stilted. Superb. A tour de force. If you wish I can convey to you some of the Cantos I have on my computer. I assure you that you will be gratified. My friend named his child Dante not for nothing.

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