Twelve Million Flies Can’t Be Wrong

The gloriously useless, unreadable, bumptious, and unfailingly irritating Italian hack writer, Giorgio Faletti, who word-processes 500-page serial-killer novels of a distinctly purple hue (sidereally, they’re called “gialli” – “yellows” – in Italian because a large Italian publishing house once famously put yellow covers on all its mysteries/thrillers) is now lashing out at Italian translators and critics for their comments regarding his latest, um, fatica: Io Sono Dio (I Am God) which, despite appearances, is not an autobiography.

(For more on Faletti, see “There’s A Higher Purpose in All This” from 31 August 2007.)

The debate rages because Faletti (according to the accusations) either word-processed his book in English and then self-translated it into a species of Engliano, has forgotten how to write in Italian, or (and here things get murky) is not actually the author of his own books. (Though it’s hard to imagine you could pay someone else enough to write that badly.) A fourth possibility—that Faletti word-substituted his book with the help of Google Translate—seems not to have been raised.)

The examples from Io Sono Dio are numerous, but have chiefly to do with Faletti’s liberal use of what are called, in the trade, “calques” – that is, “loan translations” or, more accurately, word-for-word substitutions from one language to another that are not, in fact, translations. For example, a “night table” in English is not a “tavolino di notte,” as Faletti writes in Italian (a literal replacement of one word for another, without regard for context or culture) but a “comodino.”

Most famously—and this is the example that many journalists have cited, because it’s just so darn funny—Faletti has one character “girare attorno al cespuglio,” an expression that doesn’t exist in Italian but which is a word-substitution (here again, let’s avoid the term “translation”) for “beat around the bush.” Well, actually it isn’t, because “girare” doesn’t mean beat. What Faletti’s character is actually doing is circling the bush, which presumably means something to Faletti even if to no one else.

I’ll just pull a Giorgio and “trans-word” the appropriate Italian expression for you. What Faletti really meant was that his character “took his dog for a run around the chicken yard.” And I assume that clears things up.

If you read Italian, meanwhile, Matteo Sacchi did a decent job in yesterday’s Il Giornale of walking you through the problems: “Faletti, l’uomo che traduceva se stesso” (“Faletti: The Man Who Translated Himself”).

In any case, this is a game you can play from Italian to English as well. Let’s say I wanted to have a character express an opinion bluntly, without flattery or euphemism:

“I’ve always believed you had no talent whatsoever for the marmalade business,” he said, without hairs on his tongue.

And let’s suppose his interlocutor finds his comment insulting:

“How about you do your own dicks?” she fumed.

See? Doesn’t work, right? Because it’s not English. And Faletti’s critics are pointing out that what he’s writing isn’t Italian. (For them what are interested: the above expressions are “parlare senza peli sulla lingua” = “to speak one’s mind” or “to call a spade a spade” and “farsi i cazzi suoi” / “fatti i cazzi tuoi!” = “mind your own [fucking] business.”)

The criticisms reached the point where Faletti felt compelled to strike back, and he fired off a page-long open letter, published here and there and then circulated on the net, in which he basically (a) got a shit load of free publicity and (b) called everyone who criticized him an asshole. (The letter is here: “I miei libri li scrivo io” [“I Write My Own Books”].)

Specifically, since his chief critics have so far been a pair of women scholars (one of whom has translated three Nobel Prize winners from English into Italian), Faletti also took advantage of the opportunity to comment that they must both be premenstrual. And that is because, when you’re being a pig-bastard, it never hurts to throw a little sexism into the pot.

Oh, and since he’s Italian, Faletti also availed himself of the 100% Made In Italy DOC IGP DOP response to criticism of any kind, especially if it’s true: “They’re just jealous.”

In the end, Faletti’s main argument, though, was simply that he’s making a lot of money. “Aren’t twelve million copies sold in Italy alone a sufficient justification for what I do?” Faletti asked. Rhetorically, one presumes.

So far, the best response to Faletti’s letter—and I so wish I could take credit for having written it—has been this: “If you take a crap in your courtyard, after a while you’ll have twelve million flies, too, but it’s still shit.”

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Posted on 24 August 2009, in Crimes Against Translation, Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order) and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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