All entries for Thursday 06 August 2015

August 06, 2015

Translating Pain


In my childhood home, Italy was locked up in glass cabinets, a universe of petrified leaf pendants and miniatures in gold: a shaving basin complete with brush and shearers, an ornate hand mirror the size of my pinkie nail, a parade of plumed horses pulling a Sicilian carriage, a Murano glass zoo of animal figurines, an abundant cornucopia given as a favour at a cousin's wedding from which burst a bouquet of grapes, apples, and mandarins. I knew where the key was kept and every bout of childhood boredom led me sneaking into this portal, which was not the past to the rural suburbia that curved and sloped out from our home, but one that I sensed was ever-present behind the veil of my waking world. The back of that imposing cabinet was mirrored, and as I played inspector my doubling mimicked me.


This temporal and cultural rupture resided within these objects, within the monochromatic prints of long-gone ancestors propped before stucco palazzi on the walls, within solid silver tea sets, one each for my brother and I once we came of age. Each relic was both beacon and tombstone, portal and artefact, inheritance and heritage of an origin that I seemed closest to when flung far from it. How to locate this absent presence, to grasp this shadow-land? Even as a child couching herself sensorially within the undefinable nostalgia of these relics, the anthropological evidence of this fleeting life only enhanced the suspicion that rather than carrying the ache of a phantom limb, my unmapped body was haunted, that a palintropic identity is only reachable at a remove.


These days that cabinet is unlocked yearly, when my mother polishes the silver to keep it from bluing. And I wonder whether our language isn't like that, cordoned off in museum-display stasis. Apart from picture books and an animated film adaptation of The Ugly Duckling, all our Italian-language literature and tapes were translations of English originals. Bookshelves boasted Hemingway, Joyce, Kerouac. My mother hated Neorealism, but we had in our collection the Julia Roberts catalogue. With the discovery of Fellini came the realisation that I was missing something, like context perhaps, or cultural currency. I realised that the life of language lay in nuances, idioms, references, which meant nil translated literally. Suddenly my Italian seemed skeletal, mere sketch. There are times when I feel dual fluency to be a grandiose claim, when a request to translate a phrase I have used my whole life leaves me stumped, when I want to say that translation is impossible, that the only way to understand is to flip one's brain to its underside, when I suspect my lingual legacy to be a 1970s-era souvenir incubated within my childhood home, and that there are turns of phrase I will never understand, not even with a dictionary. What is fluency? How does one translate the hidden fissures of both selves? We need a vocabulary for the intermediary slope between two points, for permanent residence in the halfway home, for the frictive path of lifelong transit where home becomes both plural and verb.

-Amaryllis Maria Pia Gacioppo
MITN PhD Researcher (Monash)

August 2015

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