We are delighted to bring you this post by guest Luca Dini, about his love of language and how the academic steps he took to indulge it, actually led him onto a different path. Translated from the Italian by our visiting team member Giulia, who was inspired by his words. If you’re inspired too, you can follow his Italian blog here.
The initial impact had been that of the Language Lab and, thinking about it now, it was significant. It was the summer of 1983 when I set foot for the first time in that cubbyhole with scraped chairs, room dividers made of plywood and huge tapes that the meticulous technician entrusted you with against his better judgement; it was as if they were his own sons. It was on the first floor of the grey, shallow building that had once been a jute sacks factory, among the suburban traffic of via D’Alviano and the motionless cranes of the already declining boatyards of Trieste.
I had gone there to apply for the admission test, and to collect at the administrative office what little preparatory materials there were available – at the time you couldn’t apply online; you couldn’t do anything online: you had to be there in person, everything travelled by word of mouth and on the stencil and via train – so I had taken advantage of that occasion to do a bit of training at the Language Lab. I was dreaming of entering the School that at the time guaranteed (and maybe it still does) the best linguistic education of the entire Italian university system – the legendary (at least it was for us “language nuts”) School for Interpreters and Translators of Trieste. It was believed to be the only possible springboard to the famous simultaneous translation booths of that Parliament that seemed so out-of-sight and noble – and I was finding out with surprise that it wasn’t much more well-equipped (and was even less attractive) than my High School, where Professor Sisti made us repeat French nasal vowels at the record player, “Le vent était violant”, while, outside the window panes plastered with play dough, the snow covered Urbino’s red roofs.
That was the first of many times that I verified that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that it doesn’t matter how many electronic boards you own or how much money you have or how many clothes there are in your closet; the things that matter are your will, your work and your “hunger”.
The hunger had begun more or less ten years earlier. It all began at the time when I used to pass my summer afternoons at the Roman architect’s holiday home, and his children had an Irish au pair, Sally. I envied them so much not because they had three houses; not because at lunchtime they could have mustard, which in my house was forbidden; but because they could understand Sally when she called them from the window for tea break saying “cumwoshyrrandz”. I had that sentence so impressed into my mind that, when I began studying English at Middle School, it didn’t take long for me to figure it out: “come wash your hands”.
Only people who love languages like I did and I do can understand this. It’s the sleepless night before your first trip abroad as a child (Yugoslavia, Postojna Cave). It’s the “cummontappeltoo” dictated by your mum and written with a pencil on a piece of paper just to ask the neighbours’ French relative, “What’s your name?” It’s the happiness of finding out that there’s a new special option to study two foreign languages at your Middle School. It’s the natural choice of continuing your studies at the Language College. It’s loving the dictionary. It’s the enthusiasm of the first experiences as an exchange student (although they were certainly all happy experiences): 14 years old: at Pierre’s, a little jerk from the French Savoy that switched off the television when Italy won the football championship; 15 years old: at Andreas’ – a bearded alcoholic from the German Saarland who talked incessantly about the “cruel Italians” who used to eat birds during the Second World War, but gave me an absent look when I, exasperated, replied “extermination camps, does that ring a bell?” (because we language nuts are xenophiles, but also patriots); 16 years old: at Andrew’s, in the Hampshire countryside, where I found an extraordinary family that has become and will always be like a second family to me. It’s the utter happiness felt during your first fluent conversation in a foreign language. It’s discovering, and beginning to use, words such as “vachement” and “weltschmerz”. It’s the translated words you find written in tiny handwriting in between the lines of the Agatha Christie books in the original edition. It’s the worst travel and overnight stay ever, in Bologna, in an ugly boarding house (worse than the one for the military visit in Forlì), to do the Cambridge First Certificate exam. It’s the disappointment of not being able to pass my fourth year of High School in the USA.
And then you hear from the daughter of the other class’ English teacher about that legendary School. They tell you that it’s almost impossible to get in, that the admission test is lethal, but – partly because the hunger consumes and you know you won’t be happy if you don’t study languages, partly because you are at that age when you see only the glamorous side of a job, so you think that being a hostess means travelling, and being an interpreter means putting on headphones and helping people bring peace to the world – you decide that you have to try anyway.
So, after finishing school, you go on a pilgrimage to Trieste to apply for the test, you set foot in that Language Lab, you meet your first acquaintance – Luciano, who was to become one of my 5 best friends in the world – you go back home, you dedicate a couple of hours a day to the subtleties of French (which I knew better than English, so I thought I had more chance with it) and English (which I preferred), and in September you go back to Trieste for the admission test. Your sigh of relief when you recognize all the traps in the old French text: “tiré à quatre épingles”, which means “all gussied up”, but was translated by some as “pulled by four boars”, and “gare au cocher qui ose…”, which means “attention to the coachman that dares…” but the usual brave one opted for “the pig station”; and I swear it’s all true. You wonder who the hell the “vecchia procaccia” is in the Ignazio Silone’s passage for translation from English into Italian, and from the context you understand it might be the postman, but you are deceived by the feminine gender, so you translate “the old postwoman”; but it must have been a small mistake because two weeks later you call the University of Trieste to find out the results and you find out that there are clean and rigorous selections in Italy too. You will never again see those two or three losers that had told you “I’m recommended by a politician, it’s better for you just to give up – you can only get into the School if you know someone already”. When the administrative office tells you that you passed your exam in both languauges, well, that’s an unforgettable moment of pure joy, a bright future awaits you.
The Trieste experience – besides an initial misunderstanding with what would become my most beloved city, and a little incident along the way with a very strict and slightly crazy landlady who let pigeons into the kitchen but woe betide me if I tried to bring a friend across the threshold (later, I found out why: she was the old prostitute of the neighbourhood and didn’t like to chat) – was absolutely amazing. It’s a bit like developing a disease one day and finding out that you’re not the only one who has it, the next. Suddenly you find yourself among a group of people that compete in WhoHasTheBiggestDictionary and love holding discourse on phrasal verbs. You, an 18-year-old boy, find yourself away from home, among many other young students (foreign students included) as far from home as you are. You understand that Sundays without your mum’s roast are sad. The two weeks left before going back home seem infinite when you’ve run out of money, but you know the friends who still live with their parents – the ones that have lunch every day with their families, and sleep every night in a comfortable bed with clean sheets – miss out on far more things than you do.
But everybody who has experienced distance learning knows that. Besides wonderful friends, nights passed studying, nights passed talking, and meeting the love of my life, what else did Trieste give me?
Trieste, after four very stressful years (compulsory attendance, fifty exams plus the final exam, the viva and the specialist qualification; and when I say stressful, trust me on this, it’s not nice to be afraid of losing an entire year in five minutes during the simultaneous translation exam because you know something about milk quotas, but you don’t know the translation of “rennet”), gave me everything it had promised: a translator diploma and a degree in interpreting. I’ve done translation, I’ve loved translation, and I would love it again. I have studied and obtained a degree in Interpreting. I’ve trained in Consecutive Interpreting: it’s the kind of interpreting you use during negotiations, bilateral meetings and small delegations, and it consists of listening to part of a speech, taking notes, and then translating the entire part using your own personal and crazy symbols system (I still use some of the symbols), that can be read in every language, because symbols convey meaning, not words. I did Consecutive Interpreting professionally sometimes, and liked it a lot. A brief anecdote: at the end of a meeting in Friuli with a delegation of Spanish doctors I took a trip to the toilet, then, when I needed to get out, I realised I was locked in, so I took the emergency exit (the kind of exit that closes automatically behind you and you cannot open it again) and I found myself on a construction site, between stray dogs. I was behind a grating with my briefcase and the synthetic jacket I had bought for my first job, and I had to scream for the attention of a traffic warden who had me freed. But there wasn’t enough demand for Consecutive Interpreting. Everybody wanted – and still wants, I suppose – Simultaneous Interpreting with headphones. I liked that far less, because I am a perfectionist, and to translate into decent Italian I left an exaggerated décalage (the temporal shift between the original and the translation), so I was then forced to do exhausting run-ups, until I decided that it wasn’t the job for me. Laura Gran, my super-zen teacher, used to tell me: you’ll get used to it, it will become second nature to you, in Strasbourg we translate while knitting; it might be because I can’t knit, but I have never achieved that elusive “second nature”.
Even more than professional expertise, Trieste gave me an environment where, potentially, there were more unqualified teachers than qualified ones, but where motivation – the “hunger” mentioned above – was so strong that you could learn something useful even from the dullest lectures. It gave me the unforgettable English lectures of the terrible Professor Snelling, who told us that using one word fewer is better than using one word more. It gave me the pleasure of choosing the right words, playing with their musicality and their shades of meaning. It gave me the habit of communicating as if it were my second nature. It gave me the ability of knowing something about many different fields; of course it wasn’t a very deep knowledge, but I have almost never been completely in the dark. In other words, it laid – without my knowledge – the path towards my calling, even though I didn’t know it at the time: journalism. I know the same has happened to plenty of other people too, for other jobs.
So, with the sole exception of a tiring and useless English-Italian thesis-glossary on bridges made with prestressed reinforced concrete, that cost me a year and now lies untouched in the library of the beautiful new location of the SSLMIT, if I could go back, I wouldn’t change a thing.