Monday, May 26, 2008

what you say ... part II

In part I I talked about the Commissario Brunetti series book I was reading, The Girl of His Dreams, written by Donna Leon. Part I focused on how language is used in the books and in life to help place people in relation to each other and in relation to place. There is another use of language in the books which I also found myself contemplating between readings.

The books take place in Venice - at least most of the stories are there, though they may venture to other places in the course of investigations. Brunetti was born and raised in Venice and continues to live and work there. The books are written in English, and yet the characters are speaking Italian and Venezian (part I of this discussion focused on Venezian as an indicator of status).

As I read the books, I totally believe they are speaking Italian and I am somehow able to understand them. I don't speak Italian. I don't flinch when Brunetti and a character are having a conversation, visually on the page in English, and I read Brunetti saying that he responded in Venezian to test the credibility of the other person. It flows, no disconnect, even though I see English. This book, and previous ones in the series, are written so that I believe I'm witnessing and comprehending the story taking place in a language I don't know.

One thing I've been trying to notice is how Leon uses language to give that illusion. I wonder how the decision is made about which Italian words to leave "as is" and if there a conscious decision about how many of them should be included.

I don't think there is so much Italian that a reader would feel a need to skip over part of the story or put down the book to look it up, being stopped by language. It seems there is just enough to keep that connection to place.

And I wonder: how much language does it take to be rooted to place? How many ciaos, campos, grazies, commissarios, and other Italian words need to be sprinkled for the reader to feel like they are among the Venetians? How many more would it take to cross a line to feel forced and ktichy-cute? Did someone actually figure this out and count them or is it a developed ear for what constitutes "just right?"

What are some other authors who write "in the native language" from the characters' perspective, yet what appears on the page in the original is English? I'm also curious if others have a similar experience to these stories.
above photo by Ian Blair Hamilton