I met Alessandro Portelli late in the afternoon in his small office at the University of Rome, up a winding stone staircase from the courtyard and down the narrow hallways through knots of students awaiting classes, lounging on wooden benches and sharing hugs, notes, news of the day. He was finishing an interview with a reporter, and I sat nearby. Sandro Portelli has a round, animated face, twinkling dark eyes and bushy eye-brows, half-glasses perched on his nose. He laughs easily, with a quick boyish smile that makes him look suddenly half his age.
Portelli is professor of American Literature in the Department of Language and Literature in the School of the Humanities, a center of important innovative scholarship and intellectual courage for many years, but clearly occupying no exalted space—if real estate is any indicator— in the larger scheme of things here. He’s best known in the states for The Death of Luigi Trastulli which marked a critical turn in oral history, a turn toward memory, not as an inferior and broken lens on reality, but as significant in its own right.
His shared office is crowded with four desks and eight chairs, and it wants a good cleaning and a fresh coat of paint. But the walls and bulletin boards are bright and busy, bustling with life—political fliers, posters and cartoons, book and album covers, iconic photos of Elvis and Malcolm X. He and his colleagues appear to share a political perspective and a distracted professorial aesthetic. And in the short time we were all together, they expressed a shared belief that the Italian university is quickly becoming a parody of the American: less and less commitment to any serious intellectual project in favor of performing rituals of accreditation and certification, with the bean-counters increasingly in control.
Class was a few steps down the hall, but we managed to be late. Portelli had joked earlier that a professor is someone who thinks a year is nine months and an hour 50 minutes. When we arrived a dozen students—all undergraduates attending an open-admission, tuition-free program—were scattered about the small lecture room, and Portelli took to the lectern.
The class was “Cultural Translation” and the focus this evening was misconceptions in translation, and reading for meaning. He began by reciting the opening line of Huckleberry Finn: “You don’t know about me.” Translate that into Italian. What seemed straight and simple at the start became within five minutes layered with paradoxes, bristling with problems of rhythm and perspective, the meter of common speech, and the contested matters of meaning. The conversation turned to the theme of indefinite or indistinct boundaries, a theme that dominates the whole book, and is introduced right here: there is no thick bright line between knowing and not knowing; you don’t know me, but here goes.
Professor Portelli handed everyone the opening paragraph of Rebecca Harding’s Life in the Iron Mills, originally published in 1861 in the Atlantic Monthly: “A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works? The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable. The air is thick, clammy with the breath of crowded human beings. It stifles me. I open the window, and, looking out, can scarcely see through the rain the grocer’s shop opposite, where a crowd of drunken Irishmen are puffing Lynchburg tobacco in their pipes. I can detect the scent through all the foul smells ranging loose in the air.” Translate that into Italian!
And we did. For more than an hour we unpacked those sentences, wrestled with sound and significance, marveled at the choices Harding made as she artfully rendered a scene of ordinary life and then planted it in our imaginations. Portelli illustrated again and again how inadequate the dictionary is in the complex art and work of translation: scent and smells, clammy, immovable, and muddy—without context and culture the choices, word by word, are baffling. Every word is a signifier that evokes a signified; these are inseparable but distinct qualities, like a sheet of paper with a front and a back. But signifiers are based on convention alone; the signified, on the contrary, is an open space of imagination and meaning-making, huge and varied, filled with possibilities for new creations. To move from signifier (English, say) to signifier (Italian) without entering the critical space of the mind is to distort and mangle, and possibly murder the entire affair.
“When you read, don’t translate,” Professor Portelli told his students. “Just drift along, try to understand, pick up perspectives as you go, but always use your own experiences and your own life to imagine what the author means.” He noted that formal schooling had told these young working-class kids that they don’t know much, and that they should curb their experience and learn the important things here. “This is wrong,” he said. “Your experience and your knowledge are critical starting points for this work.”
“We spent an hour on translation of a single paragraph,” he declared as class ended. “And that seems to you painfully slow and perhaps a bit tedious.” But, he continued, this is an exercise in reading, an approach that is applicable to watching TV or looking at the newspaper or having a conversation with friends. Unleash your imaginations; explore the mental images evoked by words; rely on meaning-making before technique.
Later we were joined by Mariella, an economics professor and his partner of close to 40 years, and they took me for a late dinner at a new restaurant in central Roma recommended by her niece, “an excellent cook.” The food was light and wonderful, the conversation a rushing river tumbling from politics to work to family, spilling its banks and hurrying on.