Translator's Note

Yammering about Bologna, exchange, and the Italian language

Incasinata / in the chaos of it all

Probs not a heaps accurate depiction of a brothel, hey.

Last week I was taught a new word: incasinato/a.

The word, I am told, stems from the word brothel. It means to be disordered and chaotic. In the brothel.*

The word is quite apt for the month before embarking on exchange. My instinct is to blog about this in a very specific sense, but I think out of all the exchange blogs I’ve read over the years this is perhaps one of the most common experiences.

It is so easy to rage at bureaucracy and get caught up in the incremental hurdles that continually appear.

It is again, very easy, to fall back into old patterns of anxiety – losing sleep and shutting down those thought patterns which render breathing exercises and lone games of scattergories necessary.

If one is to get by, they must adopt a broad perspective – or an entirely irrelevant one.

A European city beginning with J is Jena.

These last few hurdles are probably not the end of the world.

Maybe exchange will be like leaving one brothel for a rowdier one – I don’t know. But the moments before such an adventure ought to be treasured, not endured.

I am simultaneously excited and scared. This is nothing new.


*There is some discussion to be had, I imagine, on the social implications of this word. I wouldn’t want to start any such discussion for the fear of being very ignorant. But please, feel free. And then link me.


The most unoriginal choice?

I’m leaving to live in Italy for six months later this year, and the place I’ve chosen is Bologna.

Most people I’ve spoken to don’t know of Bologna when I tell them that’s where I’ll be studying. In one of my history classes last year, the lecturer did a case study on Bologna, and as an experiment, asked those who had traveled to Italy to raise their hands. A large portion of the class did, this being a group of about a hundred students. Out of that number, only two people (including me) had been to Bologna–it is simply not seen as a worthy stopover by the majority of tourists. And yet, as the lecturer went on to point out, Bologna is one of the most important cities in Italy. Such remarks made me reflect on how utterly original I was for getting off the beaten track.

What makes Bologna historically significant is it boasts the world’s oldest “university” institution. Of course, it is outdated by ancient schools across the world which can be fairly regarded as prototype institutions, but the bolognesi had the foresight to claim the universitas word, forever springing them into that number one place (of which I’m sure Oxford is very covetous). Establishing such a place secured them some highly influential people in their midst, for instance the scientist Galvani, who you may recognise better from the English word we have from his name: galvanisation. I remember seeing his statue for the first time when I visited Bologna some years ago. My greatest association with galvanisation at that time was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I had a rather anxiety-ridden relationship to, as it was one of the texts I was tested on in my final exams. I didn’t enjoy the text very much, but thankfully being reminded of it was interesting rather than traumatic.

So effectively, Bologna being the oldest uni means that people have been ‘studying abroad’ in Bologna literally for centuries. A while ago I was approached by a Frenchman in the park who asked me about my life (no, this doesn’t happen often) and he asked me specifically if I was going to study in Bologna, calling it “that famous university city.” So, evidently, not everyone is quite so clueless about this place I’m going to. A good friend of mine is studying there at the moment on the exact same program, and she’s not the only one I know of. The more imminent my exchange becomes, I am meeting more and more people who know someone who at one stage studied in Bologna.

I suppose the real question is whether the unoriginal choice is necessarily a bad one. I’m inclined to say that it’s not, especially as in this instance Bologna toes the line between being an urban city and an un-touristed one, a factor which appeals to me a lot. The question which then follows, is whether it is possible to have an authentic Italian experience in such a popular exchange destination. And does such a thing exist?

On with it already

This week I went to a radio station to be interviewed in the language I’ve been learning for what must be about five years now.

It didn’t go very well. Yes, I was able to answer the questions. I had a solid grasp of what we were talking about the entire time. But there was a significant lack of fluency, and that haranguing feeling that always accompanies not-yet-fluent conversations, when one’s understanding surpasses one’s ability to articulate. I know what you are asking me. And I promise you that I am an interesting person, with hundreds of insightful responses to your questions. But alas, watch me take your interesting questions and obnoxiously present them back to you with an insipid sì or no.

Perhaps I ought to name this blog “The Insecure Language Learner”, because so much of the process of language acquisition so far has been plagued by a plethora of self doubt. For a language enthusiast such as myself, the beginner’s stage (or honeymoon, I suppose) is always the most attractive. It has been my inexplicable gift that so far in life I’ve always been able to pick up language things rather quickly in the initial phase.* Italian is a particularly easy language to have a honeymoon with, especially as an Anglophone who can simply use the same alphabet and even adopt simpler, and let’s face it, more logical spellings. Four years later, I can stumble through a very basic radio interview, but still make the same mistakes as I did in that first year. It’s pretty frustrating, not to mention when non-language learners (the heathen!) accuse you, “Surely, you must be fluent by now?” No. No, I am not.

Meanwhile, I can have in depth exchanges in written form at my computer, with the allies of instantaneous translators for those escaped or missing words. The pitfalls of Google Translate! It has aided me greatly in the short term and addled me, I am sure, disastrously in the long term. For instance, never being quite sure what words like sviluppo mean, for each time I’ve come across it I’ve marveled at the beauty of the s-v combination (what a wonderful way to begin a word!), acquired the definition, and moved on, not properly internalising the meaning. Perhaps blogging about it here will cement it finally: sviluppo means development, progression, advancement (goodness, how ironic. I promise you that wasn’t on purpose. I even used Word Reference, not Google!). 

I’ve heard it said around (don’t expect much academic sourcing from me, by the way, I save that for my essays), that my generation’s intense exposure to search engines and the like has impacted what we retain; instead of the information itself, we remember how we attained that information. I don’t think this translates well (haha! First and last time, I swear) for our endeavours in foreign languages, and I do wonder about the generations after us. That said, the internet is a double sided coin which also dispenses valuable language learning resources from which I have benefitted greatly. To be specific, I’ve found the key to my own sviluppo (who knows if I’m using this correctly), has been exposure to music and cinema, much of which I would never have come across without the help of Google Dearest or YouTube.

I suppose it’s all about exposure in the end, which is why the dedication required for study outside the country of a language can sometimes appear so futile. “This conjugation makes no sense! I shall pick it up when I get there,” is a sentiment I often come across in my own brand of lingual procrastination. Not to mention the horror of meeting a native speaker (I say horror, but there is often joy and excitement, too) and immediately clutching for excuses such as “my Italian’s awful now, I wouldn’t want to butcher this person’s native tongue, I may offend them,” and so on. And so, onwardly, onwardly on. Upon closer scrutiny, all these excuses are deeply flawed.

Perhaps the essence of language learning cannot be boiled down to one thing, especially since it occurs for many different reasons (but often, I imagine, by necessity). But I might suggest something about the nature of elected language learning, for those of us who choose it (especially from monolingual backgrounds), there is a mandatory infantilisation involved as we are obliged to start from the very beginning; from the utterly undignified and often humiliating start. This kind of reflection gives me wonder at the sheer ordeal of coming into the world, as a child, and having nothing to go on in terms of verbal expression. And however often adults, the seasoned speakers, are tempted to belittle these learners, really, the fact of their trying so very hard is quite admirable. I become much more sympathetic to children at this point, and then quite humbled. Considering their effort, I really ought to press on.


*Note: before my study of Italian began, I had very studied Japanese very informally for two years, followed by a two month stint in Japan when I was fifteen. The result being a good vocabulary, terrible grammar, and many, many colloquialisms which invariably restrain me from ever attempting Japanese conversation with perfect strangers. I would come off as ridiculously rude.

**Futher clarification: this was not a major interview, and was set up between my department at university and the Italian radio station so that students could talk about their experience of learning Italian, and what drew them to it. Something which should inspire monologues from a language major such as myself, but alas, not yet. Thankfully, I shall benefit from flattering edits, the photoshop of radio.