November 2007

Tensions In Translation

By Jez Strickley


From its vaunted position in the first verse of John’s Gospel to its integral role in our daily affairs, language is undoubtedly at the heart of human interaction.  As a tool it gives expression to reason and, according to some, it is the medium by which humankind is marked off from the rest of the natural world.  More, its compass reaches far beyond the bare bones of communication, lending it a quality which can contour the shape of our lives for the good, and furnish our private mental world with public traffic.  Occasionally, however, these contours are shaped into rigid, unyielding prejudices which can raise up walls more resilient than any physical construction.  To appreciate this point, it is worth observing the exchange of language in the border lands between nations; a place where grammar and meaning blur, and dialect becomes the strongest currency.


Europe abounds in linguistic border lands: the French province of Alsace-Lorraine, Germany’s Land Schleswig-Holstein and the multilingual Swiss cantons demonstrate the fluidity of language across much of the continent.  Val d’Aosta, a region in Italy and the Italian province of Alto Adige also reflect this merging of tongues: the former mixing Italian and French, the latter mainly populated by German speakers.  Examples like these reveal the way in which language can resist the shifting sands of political borders, answering only to the currents of human migration.  Trieste, an Italian city in the far east of the country, is a prime example of this collision between the cartographer’s pencil and the local reality.


A quiet leftover of Habsburg glory, Trieste lies between the Adriatic Sea and a wall of limestone rock reaching up to an equally limestone plateau which, in its turn, signals the end of Italy and the beginning of Slovenia.  Limestone is a porous rock and given, exposure to water, it will easily erode, hence the enormous number of caves and sinkholes found in the area.  National boundaries are equally porous, and just as vulnerable to corrosion; between 1918 and 1954 Trieste found itself shunted from one empire to the next, finally coming to rest in the newly arisen Republic of Italy.  This political yo-yoing has given Trieste and its hinterland a diverse demography, largely dominated by Italians and to a lesser degree Slovenes and Croatians.  Migrant workers arriving in the city come from all over the Balkans and beyond, whilst the local cuisine is as much a product of Mitteleuropa as it is of the Mediterranean.  In spite of its cosmopolitan pedigree, however, Trieste remains a frontier city far from the hearts and minds of Rome.  Still further, its rich diversity of culture sadly makes for the odd moment of racial tension.  Of course, for the tourist whose eyes remain fixed on the fading splendours of an empire this ethnic friction is unlikely to be apparent.  However, for those observers with a keener gaze the signature of stress is not so easy to miss.


La Bavisela, the Trieste marathon, is a popular annual event attracting a wide range of participants.  In May 2006 it had an intriguing linguistic twist; t-shirts were given to the entrants commanding in Italian ‘Seguimi’, in English ‘Follow Me’ and in Triestino, the local dialect, ‘Corime drio’.  Originally the t-shirt also contained one last example of the imperative, this time in Slovene, ‘Sledi mi’, but by the time the race was run the Slovene phrase had been covered over by the word ‘Bavisela’.  Given its international nature La Bavisela represents a yearly opportunity to highlight cooperation and fellow feeling between the peoples of Italy and Slovenia.  In 2006, however, the shoddy decision to perform a volte-face and conceal the Slovene words sabotaged any thoughts of cultural collaboration.  It was an act which did not go unnoticed, especially by those runners from across the border.


A bungling public U-turn is one example of a tension in translation; out-and-out vandalism is another.  In Trieste bilingual road signs are a not uncommon sight.  One such sign, at a junction on a road which eventually crosses the Italian-Slovene border, spent the first half of 2007 partially vandalised: the word ‘Rijeka’ had been daubed over, leaving its Italian equivalent, ‘Fiume’, unchallenged.  The efforts of some malcontents to deface the bilingual landscape of Trieste and the surrounding Carso demonstrate the friction which lies between some Italians and their Slavic neighbours, a friction largely founded in the dark days of Fascist Italy.


It was during two long decades of increasingly oppressive rule across the Istrian Peninsula, that the Latinising ambitions of Fascist Italy cut a deep wound into the South Slavs’ collective consciousness.  The once linguistically mixed towns and cities of Poreč and Pula, Rovinj and Rijeka were cleared of their Slavic influence.  Transforming surnames and place names from Slovene or Croatian to Italian, and generally trying to smother any traces of non-Latin culture led to increasingly bitter inter-ethnic tensions.  A breaking point was reached towards the end of the Second World War when Yugoslav partisan forces carried out a series of brutal revenge attacks against the Italian civilian population, killing thousands and burying their bodies in deep subterranean chasms known locally as the foibe.


For some people this tragic episode has long since gathered dust, becoming just another footnote in a long line of terrible human mistakes.  However, not all view this period with such cold, academic detachment.  Public gaffes over a marathon t-shirt, local vandals with a linguistic bent and a recent political row between Rome and Zagreb over the commemoration of the foibe atrocities, all clearly demonstrate that there are those for whom the traumas of the past are slow to heal.  Language may indeed mark off humankind from the remainder of the natural world, but only in so far as it demonstrates difference and division – words which jar with the ideals of supranational bodies such as the European Union.  When words collide the results can range from the trivial to the tragic.  And, human nature being what it is, it is unlikely that such collisions will end any time soon.  Interestingly, the words ‘Rijeka’ and ‘Fiume’ both have the same meaning in English: river.  It’s only a shame that people tend to fail to see beyond the word and cannot simply appreciate the object being named.  When that finally happens, tensions in translation may become a thing of the past.