I don’t think I am the only person to have thought once or twice that it would be nice to have a name like the ones you hear in Westerns: Soaring Eagle, say, or Jumping Raccoon. In one film, of which I remember nothing else, one of the characters said that Native American children were given names on the basis of the first noticeable thing spotted after their birth. I don’t know if that is true, but if it is, it means that in Central Rome, where I live, there would be no chance of being called Soaring Eagle, because there are no eagles, not even drooping ones.
But if I were a member of a native tribe here and the criterion used was the one described, the roll-call of our braves would go something like this:
I was listening to an interesting podcast called 99 percent invisible. I got distracted at some point and lost the thread, but a few minutes later my mind was reeled in again when I heard the words “the distance a shout carries in the city“. The voice continued to read what seemed to be a list of unconnected things. And as I started listening again I found that several of the items (the distance of a whisper; how to design a corner; the difference between a ghetto and a neighbourhood; the meaninglessness of borders; the angle of the sun at the equinox; the smell of concrete after rain …) sparked the thought: “I’d really like to know about that”. When the list finished, my mind had been massaged out of a state of numbness into one wanting to go out and look at everything, read new books or listen to interesting people.
In the credits to the podcast I found that the items read out were from a list entitled “Two Hundred and Fifty Things an Architect Should Know” by Michael Sorkin and included in his book “What Goes Up”. In case you find it interesting as well I have reproduced the list below.
Listening to the list being read out was like standing in a strange rain, one drop falling at a time, each one from a totally unpredictable angle and each drop waking my mind a little more. If you want to reproduce my experience, I have recorded the whole list here. Sit down, try to remember the smell of rain on concrete and start:
TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY THINGS AN ARCHITECT SHOULD KNOW
1. The feel of cool marble under bare feet.
2. How to live in a small room with five strangers for six months.
3. With the same strangers in a lifeboat for one week.
4. The modulus of rupture.
5. The distance a shout carries in the city.
6. The distance of a whisper.
7. Everything possible about Hatshepsut’s temple (try not to see it as ‘modernist’ avant la lettre).
8. The number of people with rent subsidies in New York City.
9. In your town (include the rich).
10. The flowering season for azaleas.
11. The insulating properties of glass.
12. The history of its production and use.
13. And of its meaning.
14. How to lay bricks.
15. What Victor Hugo really meant by ‘this will kill that.’
16. The rate at which the seas are rising.
17. Building information modeling (BIM).
18. How to unclog a rapidograph.
19. The Gini coefficient.
20. A comfortable tread-to-riser ratio for a six-year-old. Read more…
My city with its uphill loves,
my Genoa all full of sea and steps and, rising from the harbour, whirlpools of living life all the way up to reach the ridges
of the sheet-metal roofs, now with what
forcefulness inside me, here where each word has turned to lead, does it quiver once again with iodine and salt upon my fingertips which ache on my type-writer’s keys? Oh, the coal at sky-blue Di Negro! Oh the foghorns, at night just when one’s eyes have closed, and in one’s heart the pain of the future is opened by a roller shutter crashingly shaken by a closing door.
Listen to the poem here:
La mia città dagli amori in salita,
Genova mia di mare tutta scale
e, su dal porto, risucchi di vita
viva fino a raggiungere il crinale
di lamiera dei tetti, ora con quale
spinta nel petto, qui dove è finita
in piombo ogni parola, iodio e sale
rivibra sulla punta delle dita
che sui tasti mi dolgono? …Oh il carbone
a Di Negro celeste! oh la sirena
marittima, la notte quando appena
l’occhio s’è chiuso, e nel cuore la pena
del futuro s’è aperta col bandone
scosso di soprassalto da un portone.
Commentary: Giorgio Caproni grew up in Genoa. He spent the second part of his life in Rome and many of his poems are about his love for Genoa.
The title is “Sirena”. Caproni uses the word in line 10 to mean the foghorns he heard in the harbour. But “sirena” also means one of the sirens of antiquity who called out to sailors. I believe the title refers to the ceaseless call of Genoa which he always felt. I have therefore decided to use “Siren song”.
Caproni begins: “my city with its uphill loves”. He explained that when he was young the only place you could be alone with a girl was one of the narrow alleys which climb steeply from the seafront. Thus loves were always uphill (for the girls, presumably, they were downhill).
The second line is “Genova mia di mare tutta scale”. You could read this simply as “My Genoa, on the sea, all steps”. But Caproni uses no punctuation and you could read “di mare tutta” as meaning “all sea”. So all sea and also all steps if one reads the words as compressed together. This, actually, is a feeling one has in Genoa, where the steep climbs mean that you even at a distance you feel and see the sea as right behind you.
Di Negro is a wharf in the harbour where coal was unloaded.
I interpret the last lines as the poet thinking of the cradle-like sound of foghorns (at least in my experience, having lived near a harbour myself) and being brought back to reality by the noise of a metal shutter. The Italian “scosso di soprassalto” (suddenly shaken) mimics the sound, and I felt that “crashingly shaken” could reproduce this effect at little cost since “suddenly” is understood anyway.
Darkness has its swings of mood.
It also has long arms and countless
fingers. Those nights your worries
start to make the floorboards creak;
first one, then several, then all
(and if you have no floorboards
they bring their own) then
darkness slowly tries to strangle
you all the long, steep and
staggering and ever-louder
climb till light.
But on those nights when darkness
shimmers like a honey-watered
river, after the crossing of a desert
day, it fits itself around you
snugly, better than a glove,
it gently sifts a cradle
from your breathing,
out and in and out,
sets you inside
to float downstream,
then paints a parting lullaby upon your brow.
Every time I board an Alitalia plane to fly to Rome, where I live, I wonder who thought it would be a good idea to name the in-flight magazine after Ulysses, a person who took all of ten years to make it home.
At the conferences I work at as a simultaneous interpreter, the audience can listen to a translation in one of the available languages through headphones connected to a receiver. The receiver has a volume control and a channel selection system. Sometimes, people who are not used to these things find them hard to use. They may not know how to turn them on, for example. Or they may not know that there is a dial to choose the language you want to hear.
At one conference, the chairperson was a French lady speaking English with a very strong accent. She started the meeting very quickly and was already down to item 2 on the agenda when someone in the front row shouted that they couldn’t hear the translation.
She peered over her stylish glasses and said, ” I sink you ‘ave ze rong number Chanel. The last word was pronounced as if she were talking about the famous perfume.
This in itself was delightful enough. If I had written the script, even better would have been for the member of the audience to indignantly protest, “But I have number 5!”.
One of the best things of the French Revolution, in my opinion, are the beautiful new names which were assigned to the months of the year. I especially like misty Brumaire, frosty Frimaire and fruity Fructidor. Rainy Pluviôse is quite nice too.
Compare our tired names, particularly September, October, November and December. These just mean seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth month, respectively, although they are now the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth, because Julius Caesar and Augustus elbowed their way into the calendar by force, dedicating July and August to themselves. Augustus even pinched a day from February to ensure that his month was just as long as his uncle’s.
Julius Caesar was definitely genocidal, Augustus in comparison merely enthusiastically homicidal. So why have we kept the names of these monsters in our year? I think the time has come to deal with this. There are a few ways of doing this:
Go back to the lovely French Revolutionary names. This would involve a couple of problems, though. Namely that you would need to reverse the order of the names in Antipodean countries so as to keep track with the actual seasons. Frimaire would not be very good to use in an Australian summer. Also, in order to keep some coherence, tropical countries would have to have one year-long month called “Solaire”, with 365 days. At most they could have a month of Pluviôse for the monsoon season.
To maintain consistency, keep July and August and name all the other months after equally nasty dictators and tyrants. We could have a global poll to decide which figures of history we dislike most. Done on live TV, it would be quite exciting and would earn a lot in sponsorship.
Ditch Julius and Augustus and replace them with something nicer. My suggestion: instead of July and August have Laurel and Hardy.
The chapter is mostly about an artificial language called Dervish and the attempts of a woman called Confucia Wang to bring it under control. Dervish is invented in order to overcome the unavoidable misunderstandings and ambiguities in drafting treaties and conventions using natural languages and thus improve the quality of the output of international organisations.
It starts out as a very promising instrument but its effectiveness begins to be dulled when the introduction of new mood-tense forms make it over-complicated and the language later attains dizzy heights of baffling complexity when mood-mood combinations are invented, so as to create forms of speech such as the Valedictory Terminal, the Nugatory Inconsequential, the Absolute Abject, the Pandering Proximate, the Counterfactual Extortionary, the Vacillatory Optative, the Expletive Introspective, the Minatory Merciless, the Presumptive Hereditary, the Spectral Apparitional, the Bovine Ruminative, the Alcoholic Indeterminate and the Hemorrhoidal Inflammatory.
(My translation of Cesare Pavese’s poem “The Cats will know”)
The Cats will know (Cesare Pavese)
Again the rain will fall
on your sweet paving stones,
a gentle rain
just like a breath or like a footfall.
Again the breeze, the dawn,
will lightly bloom,
as underneath your step
when you return.
Among the flowers and the windowsills
the cats will know.
There will be other days,
there will be other voices.
You shall smile on your own.
The cats will know.
You shall hear ancient words,
worn-out and fruitless words
like the discarded costumes
of the parties left from yesterday.
You too shall gesture.
You shall answer words –
face like springtime,
you too shall gesture.
The cats will know,
face like springtime;
and the light rain,
the hyacinth-coloured dawn,
which shred the heart
of him who has no longer
any hope of you,
are the sad smile
you smile alone.
There will be other days,
and other voices and awakenings.
We’ll suffer in the dawn,
face like springtime.
Translation: Phillip Hill 2018
Listen to the translation here
The cats will know
Ancora cadrà la pioggia
sui tuoi dolci selciati,
una pioggia leggera
come un alito o un passo.
Ancora la brezza e l’alba
come sotto il tuo passo,
quando tu rientrerai.
Tra fiori e davanzali
i gatti lo sapranno.
Ci saranno altri giorni,
ci saranno altre voci.
Sorriderai da sola.
I gatti lo sapranno.
Udrai parole antiche,
parole stanche e vane
come i costumi smessi
delle feste di ieri.
Farai gesti anche tu.
viso di primavera;
farai gesti anche tu.
I gatti lo sapranno,
viso di primavera;
e la pioggia leggera,
l’alba color giacinto,
che dilaniano il cuore
di chi più non ti spera,
sono il triste sorriso
che sorridi da sola.
Ci saranno altri giorni,
altre voci e risvegli.
viso di primavera.
(original read by Domenico Pelini)
I think that the main point in translating this poem is to maintain the feeling of spontaneity. It is desperate but also whimsical. The verses of the poem themselves fall like the light rain of line 3.
In Italian the lines all have a similar length whereas a translation into English makes them much more variable. One could address this by rearranging the English. However, I preferred not to do that since it seems to me that each line has its own identity. In fact I think that one good way of reading this poem would be to pause for a second or two at the end of each line. It is as if each verse is a playing card the poet is turning over ( a few of which have surprising connections) as he sits distraught over a lost love but still appreciating the beautiful little things around him and the humour always in the air (the cats will know).
The most difficult thing to translate in this poem is the expression “viso di primavera” which Pavese uses to address the woman he is in love with. Literally “spring face” or “springtime face”. But in Italian the sound is so much prettier and the words more expressive. “Primavera” (spring) elicits, I think, Botticelli’s painting and this, to my mind, evokes a pale-faced beauty with the purity of spring in her traits and complexion. The English terms are duds by comparison and, I feel, evoke nothing.
The best way I have found to represent the feelings the Italian generates is “face like springtime”.
Many years ago I spent several weeks in the Sahara desert. One part of the trip was a journey from Tamanrasset to the oasis of Djanet. About seven hundred kilometres as I recall. There was no road then, just pistes and only four or five places along the route where one could get water. One of them being an abandoned foreign legion fort where the water was salty.
I was travelling with two Italian friends. By the time we got to Tamanrasset, the vehicle we had started out with was no longer available, so we arranged to be carried by a Libyan truck which was travelling to and past Djanet.
The truck’s cargo was goats and after we had secured our passage, we spent a day watching the driver bargaining prices with a succession of goatherds. I remember various herds of goats scattered around the landscape waiting for their turn to be inspected. As the sun went down, a deal was struck and we all set off.
The goats were loaded on the upper deck of the truck. We (and twenty-odd Mauritanian immigrants) were sat in two rows on a platform on top of the driver’s cabin. I and my two friends were sat in the back row near the edge. This meant that for the whole journey you received an unceasing succession of friendly butts in the back from the goats. If you wanted to hold on to something, you could grip the bars separating you from the goats, but not for too long because being butted on the fingers really hurts. The people in the front row didn’t have anything to hold onto and I remember that every half an hour or so we tugged a gentleman in front of us back up to a safe position, since being rather heavy he used to slip down inch-by-inch towards the front and the road.
It was a very spectacular way of travelling, although we soon decided our driver was mad and began to call him Amin. At one point, he had a race with another truck.
It was not a surprise really when the truck broke down. The crew dug a hole in the ground, drove the truck over it and proceeded, as far as I could see, to disassemble the engine and then re-assemble it. This did not seem to help. Despite what we had read about people always helping each other in the desert, none of the vehicles which came by, stopped to inquire whether we were in trouble. Eventually it was decided that the goatherd would set off on his own on foot with the goats, while we proceeded, very slowly, on three cylinders. So slowly, in fact, that when we got to Fort Gardel, the next watering place, he was already there. Eventually, though, we reached Djanet. The last few miles were spectacular, with sand dunes on the right and basalt and sandstone cliffs on the left.
Reaching an oasis after crossing the desert is a big event. After you have spent days without seeing plants or water, you seem to have reached a haven of luxuries: water, dates, oranges, buildings, trees. We found a hotel which was completely empty. The manager gave us one key, to an entire wing. We had fifteen showers to choose from. Djanet would have been even more spectacular if we hadn’t arrived in the vicinity of a national holiday. They told us that all the aircraft in the country had been requisitioned for the fly-by. It seemed a bit unlikely, but when we went to the market it was obvious that there hadn’t been any deliveries for a long time. I remember an array of stalls displaying nothing at all. The emptiness was interrupted by one or two cans of sardines here and there.
One evening, though, I saw something which looked as if it had been charmed up out of a legend. A little path broke off from the road. It was marked out by a row of lit-up fruit-juice cans. I walked down the path and came to a café. The counter was built from fruit-juice cans too. I almost expected to meet a djinn. I hadn’t drunk fruit juice for weeks.
I walked up to the counter. “Yes?” the man said. “I’d like a fruit juice” I said. He looked at me for a while. He looked at me as if he had been tending a bar whose counter was made of brick and someone had just asked him for squeezed brick juice.
“Mint tea?” he asked. Because that the only thing he had.