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Exploring Italian Language, Rap, and Migration through Translation

By Donatella Melucci

In my Italian translation course at Georgetown University, advanced students of Italian learn about translation theory and practice (English-Italian, and vice versa) of different genres, including newspaper articles, short stories, cartoons, novels, biographies, songs, movie scripts, and subtitles. It is a popular course in which students master their skills in reading, comprehension, and writing. Of course, class discussion is always in Italian, so their speaking ability is never neglected.

In spring 2019, due to a series of fortunate circumstances, my class took on a challenge: the actual translation of a book from Italian to English. The idea was inspired by an event hosted by the Department of Italian at Georgetown University at which Amir Issaa, an Italian rap-music artist, presented his 2017 autobiography, Vivo per questo (This Is What I Live For). Amir Issaa was born in Italy to an Italian mother and Egyptian father and grew up in the suburbs of Rome. In his book, he not only shares his experience becoming a rap-music artist but also talks about the difficulties that young people face growing up in today’s society and how they strive to make good choices and achieve success. He focuses in particular on the adversity they face related to poverty, immigration, and assimilation in a country like Italy. The presentation of the book was a success and his message of multiethnic diversity was inspiring. As he writes in his book:

Non ho bisogno di scuse per essere me stesso. Nessuno di noi ne ha. Mi chiamo Amir Issaa, l’oro che porto al collo me l’ha dato mio padre. E non è una catena, è un’eredità: sono italiano, sono egiziano, non sono straniero, in alcun posto del mondo.

I don’t need excuses to be myself. None of us do. My name is Amir Issaa, and the gold that I wear on my neck was given to me by my father. And no, it’s not a chain. It’s an inheritance: I am Italian, I am Egyptian, and I am not a stranger in any place in the world.

After the presentation, my colleagues and I gathered with Amir Issaa and his team for a very informal conversation, during which Amir expressed his interest in having his book translated into English. Those words fecero scattare la scintilla (triggered a spark), and I immediately saw an opportunity for my students. When I proposed to Amir—“a cuor leggero” (Italian idiom for “light heartedly”)—that my students could translate his book into English as a class project, I did not expect him to take me seriously, but he agreed.

It was a very ambitious project and a big responsibility, but I knew it was a great opportunity for my students to learn in a meaningful way and to experience the connection between academic and professional work. And while they were acquiring the skills to translate texts from Italian to English, they would have the unique opportunity of translating a contemporary author’s book and potentially seeing it published. (Amir and I agreed that, if he liked the translation, it would be his to publish so long as the names of my students appeared in the book as the translators.)

In spring 2019, on the first day of class, I introduced the project to my class. Most of my students were enthusiastic, others were scared, but they all accepted the challenge. The project consisted of several steps, the first of which was to read the entire book (divided in weekly assignments) and complete comprehension activities. The reading was enjoyable—Amir writes with a very conversational voice. During this first phase, we observed and analyzed the text from a linguistic viewpoint: vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and idiomatic expressions. With vocabulary, we faced the challenge of learning specific language related to graffiti, hip-hop, and rap music.  We consulted different resources and then created a glossary with those specific terms. We learned the Italian words for terms like yard (a surface for graffiti such as an overpass, a wall facing train tracks, or even the outside wall of a train), tag (a graffiti artist’s signature), throw-up (a graffiti piece made for quick execution), and bombing (making graffiti on many surfaces in an area), as well as crew (a collection of hip-hop artists) and jam (a fun hip-hop gathering). In order to gain a better understanding of the cultural and social issues discussed in the book, students also did research on Rome and some of its neglected suburbs, as well as on immigration and Italian citizenship legislation (i.e. jus sanguinis).  

In the second phase, each student translated a portion of the book, which was equally divided by the number of students. During and after this process, they consulted me whenever they had questions and I read their work to make sure no misunderstandings or loss of content occurred. I identified linguistic and cultural issues—which was normal, considering the task—and we then worked together to solve them. During class, students discussed the challenging parts of the process related to language and content, and we all tried to offer solutions for an acceptable translation—a text that would sound natural and pleasant to an English-speaking reader. For instance, in the following example, Quattro salti in padella is the name of an Italian store-bought frozen meal, but an English reader would not be familiar with it. Also, it was necessary to add the word sauce after amatriciana, to translate the name of the movie High Noon back to English, and to include footnotes to provide more context.

Italian Text

E anche lui aveva sottobraccio uno skateboard.

Il mio era uno di quelli sfigati che compri nei negozi di giocattoli già bell’e pronti, invece di assemblarli tu scegliendo la tavola, le ruote, gli attacchi più adatti alle tue esigenze, come si dovrebbe fare. Stava a uno di quelli veri come i Quattro salti in padella stanno all’amatriciana di Betto e Mary. Lo skateboard dell’altro ragazzo era più bello, era di quelli seri, lo vedevo anche da lì.

Ma l’importante era che ne avesse uno.

Ci riconoscemmo mentre ci venivamo incontro, come in Mezzogiorno di fuoco, e ci fermammo uno di fronte all’altro, squadrandoci


English Translation

And he also had a skateboard under his arms.

Mine was one of those dorky ones that you buy in the toy shop already put together, instead of the ones you have to assemble. You choose the board, the wheels, and the attachments that best fit your own taste, which is exactly how it should be done. It’s a given, just like a store-bought frozen meal compares to the amatriciana sauce at Betto e Mary.1 His skateboard was nicer than mine. It was a real one. I could tell even from where I was.

But it only mattered that he had one.

We recognized each other as we got closer, like in High Noon.2 We stopped in front of each other, both looking the other up and down.

1 Betto e Mary: a neighborhood restaurant serving traditional Roman dishes, outstanding by consensus.
2 The movie High Noon, a Western film from the 1950s.

In some cases, we had to translate parts written in dialect or explain with footnotes references to Italian places, like Regina Coeli (Rome’s most notorious prison), as well as the names of Italian politicians and terms related to Italian politics.

In the third phase, each student read and proofread a chapter translated by another student. This collaborative work was intense but priceless. The students thoroughly analyzed the English version, compared it to the original text, and made corrections. They sometimes had to deal with the fact that a classmate’s translation was too literal or not well expressed. Students had to make difficult decisions about how to transfer language, content, and cultural context into the target language, when to use footnotes, when to cut untranslatable words/expressions, and how to reflect the same narrative voice. As one student, Emily Greffenius, shared:

I learned that the translator has the power—and more importantly the responsibility—of communicating an author’s original message and expanding that work to another corner of the world. It was never as simple as looking up a word in an Italian-English dictionary, and I would not have wanted it to be. Not only could I practice my own creative impulses but I could help bring someone else’s to life in an entirely new language. My work had purpose.

At this point in the project, we also interviewed Amir Issaa via Skype so that my students had a chance to meet the author and ask what prompted him to write this book, and also to request clarification on certain content.

The fourth and final phase consisted of editing and proofreading the entire book. Two students volunteered and worked over the summer to make a manuscript that was linguistically and stylistically coherent and consistent. I also supervised this proofreading phase to make sure that the text in English reflected the original manuscript in all aspects.

Throughout the project, it was incredible to see the growth in my students’ language competence. They learned how to deconstruct the Italian text and reconstruct it in English. They learned that translation is not just about words—nouns, adjectives, verbs—but rather about transferring cultural content from one language to another so that the reader of the target language can read it and appreciate it. As another student, Natalie Bazata, wrote:

The Italian translation course brought the Italian language to life in a way that I had not experienced before. The challenge of translating an entire book required a completely new application of my knowledge of the English and Italian languages. Being a translator means being an intermediary who holds the tools to remove linguistic and cultural barriers and make literature and art accessible to a greater audience. I finished the course with an enriched understanding of and appreciation for both languages and a commitment to continue this work in the future.

It was a very enriching experience for me as well. I learned a great deal by observing my students’ work and their learning process as we shared and overcame challenges together in ways that I did not expect. Whether or not my students become professional translators, I believe they had a meaningful experience of completing a task that helped them master their language skills and deepen their understanding of Italian culture and society.

Published Nov 29, 2019   Copyright 2019 Donatella Melucci

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