Despite living in New York City for more than five decades, my ninety-three-year-old grandfather still doesn’t speak English. No, that’s not quite right. During my childhood, his language did have some English in it. He used a relatively common, if idiosyncratic, commixture of words from his native and adopted tongues. Linguists have studied this pidgin: the way it grafts Italian endings onto English building blocks, the inflection and pronunciation that come from the speaker’s more intimate regional dialect. For him it was Roccolano, the near-extinct language from his small town in Italy’s Molise region. “R’abbassamend’,” my grandfather calls the basement he never had before New York; that opening “r” is Roccolano’s masculine article replacing both “il” and “the,” the following “a” maybe a logical connection to Italian’s “abbassare” (“to lower”). This kind of language is a historical phenomenon—the product of migration patterns and economics, schooling and lack thereof. It is born from necessity: urgent speech with a social services provider, with a bus driver, with a recalcitrant young grandchild seemingly deaf to the Italian reprimand she very well understands.
Of course, it spreads beyond these contours. I vividly remember my confusion and embarrassment when he used this pidgin in Italy, with Italian strangers, family, and friends. Each of his marked words represented both communication and the limits of communication; they spoke volumes about him, what he had achieved, what he had given up.
My siblings and I also spoke a hybrid language, but it had none of the urgency of my grandfather’s. Ours was playfully combinatory and private. We would squeeze Italian roots through the more blunt frames of English structure and sound. It was especially pleasing if the word contained an “r,” the consonant in which Italian and English most diverge. We’d dull our rolls and trills with glee: “Put on your scarps!,” we’d command, instead of shoes. We’d use the “s” prefix that makes a negative of Italian words and introduce it willy-nilly to English ones: the plausible “sfortune” for “sfortuna/misfortune,” the further afield “swalk!” for “stop walking.” But ours wasn’t the Italian-American “gabagool,” because it was important to us that we knew better than that.We could speak real Italian if we wanted to. We always said “capicola.”
But our Italian was marked, too. It was imperfect. One of the things our made-up language performed was our intimacy with family and the place they came from. It also performed our distance. These words in which languages collide were a proxy for the deep and messy relationships between people, places. They were a longing. A particular kind of between-ness.
Early in his memoirs, the metaphysical painter Giorgio de Chirico relates an incident from his childhood in Greece in which he revels in interlingual play. Some rascally kids from another neighborhood have developed a strategy for downing the artist’s kites, flying theirs higher to entangle the strings. “In local slang,” he tells us in Margaret Crosland’s translation, “this operation was described as fanestra.” The text then goes on to indulge in a strange linguistic aside: “If I wanted to make a verb out of fanestra, I could say that when I was fanestrated I reacted violently and threw stones at the fanestrators.” What is the purpose of this lexical riff? What does the grammatical exercise add to our understanding of this child throwing stones, this child who feels maybe, linguistically at least, on the outside?
The original Italian text adds a further wrinkle to these questions. “Se da fanestra vogliamo fare un verbo italiano: fanestrare, potrei dire che quando ero fanestrato reagivo violentemente, tirando sassi ai fanestratori.” De Chirico specifies that he is not just making any verb from this foreign word, but an Italian verb. That specificity likely felt both superfluous and potentially obscuring for Crosland, whose task as translator was not to make an Italian verb at all, but an English one. For the sake of sense, then, the English must lose this kernel of de Chirico’s logic: if we wanted to make an Italian verb from fanestra, I could say… Buried in the fragment is the idea that the Italianization of the local Greek word makes it possible for de Chirico to tell his story; with an Italian verb, he might—he does—speak.
For the past five years, I have been translating de Chirico’s Italian-language poems. They make up a relatively slim body of work beside both his heftier corpus of French-language writings—including his 1929 Hebdomeros, which John Ashbery declared the finest surrealist novel—and his prolific output of visual art, for which he is famous. His iconic paintings raucously combine scenes from memory (porticoes and Italian piazzas, smokestacks and trains in the distance), myth (gods, temples, ruins), and imagination (torsos crammed full of buildings or books, topped by the featureless faces of dressmakers’ dummies). These works operate on the principle of juxtaposition: surprise and longing spring from de Chirico’s placement of unlikely objects side-by-side. These images clearly have deep meaning for the artist (“We have said nothing about Chirico [sic]” muses Andre Breton at the start of Nadja, “until we take into account his most personal views about the artichoke, the glove, the cookie, or the spool”) and they pop up across his poems as well. Noticing them brings a detective’s rush of satisfaction. But, as Saussure taught us, the signifier is not the signified. How is a painted artichoke related to the word “artichoke,” to the word “carciofo”? What do the textures of language bring to the interrogation of tangible things?
As I translated, I became more and more convinced by de Chirico as a poet, as well as by the significance for him of writing in Italian. Juxtaposition and elision are some of poetry’s most fundamental building blocks—a potent, maybe inevitable outlet for his metaphysical collisions. In this particular arena of linguistic play, de Chirico seemed to find, too, ground for working out some questions concerning his own feelings about all of those objects and landscapes from his memory. It’s not that Italian feels more true or closer to his origins than French, the language in which his creative work appeared more frequently. Instead, Italian is a site of simultaneous proximity and distance, assertion and questioning, belonging and not.
De Chirico was born in 1888 to Italian parents in Volos, Greece, where his father, the engineer Evaristo de Chirico, was directing the construction of the Thessaly railway. After his father’s death in 1905, the family moved a lot, and the artist had foundational experiences in Germany, France, and Italy, where he finally settled in the mid-’40s and lived until his own death at the age of ninety. Some of his moves feel heavy with significance. At the outbreak of World War I, he and his brother, Alberto Savinio, went to Italy to enlist—a kind of antidote, as he tells it in his memoirs, to their shared feeling of not belonging anywhere. As de Chirico moved from place to place, he wrote about them. Turin was “the metaphysical city”; Paris, truly modern, generative of “artistic and intellectual excellence;” New York, alarming, “another planet.” In sometimes uncomfortably essentialist assertions he worked to connect what he saw and what he felt—landscape to spirit, architecture to nature.
When I started translating de Chirico’s poems, I didn’t think we had much in common. Here was this iconic, curmudgeonly maestro of modern art. I understood and knew that the work was “Great” and great, too, but I also felt it—with its nightingales and sulfurous cascades and crumbling acropolises—to be distant from me and from my own urgent concerns. That is, I think, because I was distracted by his seemingly rigid categories (his continual recourse, for example, to the appellations of nations and types) and by his apparent certainty. Then, the multilingual negotiations of his language offered me a way in.
First, I noticed the obvious: the phrases in Latin, French, and English that crop up within de Chirico’s Italian poems. These controlled interruptions are so much like my mother’s use of one Italian word while speaking English or one English word while speaking Italian. The languages retain their clear boundaries, but their juxtaposition speaks both to specificity’s requirements—what each language allows her to say exactly—and insufficiency—how each in its own way fails. The phrase “ad limina custos” in de Chirico’s 1917 poem “Fragment” marks the liminal space occupied by the “blind doorman” through a quotation of Virgil; how this is particularly poignant because the poem imagines the speaker himself as a forsaken building, like one of those surreal person-monuments in his paintings. Who guards the landscapes and skylines we build inside of us, that define us? Whose language is our experience made of? I noticed how in “Journey” (also from 1917), the French in the lines “Étrange jouet of my already far-off / Childhood” underscores de Chirico’s distance from that longed-for time, even if French was not the primary language in which his childhood was conducted. Each of these eruptions highlights language as a performance of the distances that mark our lives.
I started to look more closely at the words themselves. In 1918’s “The Weary Archangel,” the word “immurabili” could so easily have been a typo. Especially handwritten, a quick “t” scrawled might be misperceived as an “r,” the line not reaching up so far as it might, the cross bringing the letter forward, attaching to the next. Immutabile in Italian is immutable in English. But an “r” brings the irony of metamorphosis into the very body of a word that purports fixity.
In de Chirico’s paintings, the medium provides texture to his iconic juxtapositions: subtleties in shading, gradations of color, exercises in point of view. I feel that the “r” in “immurabili” does precisely the same thing, offering a whole new point of view in one surprising stroke. Language, for de Chirico, is not a transparent medium. Words are thick with physicality. A child who grows up between and among languages—who from the get-go encounters the world as a negotiation of translations with intimate stakes—knows this viscerally. This is what I think is going on in de Chirico’s story about his fanestrators. This is my rush of pleasure when I speak to someone who understands “scarps” or “swalk.”
When I was around eleven years old I took a painting class at summer camp. It was my first time using a palette and a canvas and I was both thrilled and intimidated by their gravity. I thought of the most serious subject I knew and painted the piazza in front of my grandfather’s house in the small town of Roccasicura. When my first poem was published in the Paris Review a decade and a half later, it opened with an approach to that same piazza (“How explain / ambivalence: language. Inheritance: / thronging neighbors on the cobblestones”). When I started translating de Chirico I didn’t think we had much in common—and yet I had been staging my own metaphysical art of the Italian piazza the entire time. A landscape—not quite mine, but painfully integral to my experience and self-understanding—imprinted upon my mind. I felt the longing that has always been palpable become present in the composition of the words. Words between languages. As a translator, I meet the poet’s longing through my own.
Stefania Heim is the translator of Geometry of Shadows: Giorgio de Chirico’s Italian Poems and the author of two books of poetry, most recently Hour Book. She lives in Washington.