Wednesday, February 16, 2011


No words for Berlusconi

One of the two latest charges facing Silvio Berlusconi arises from his having made a call to a police station to obtain the release of a Moroccan theft suspect (and "exotic dancer") whom he claimed to be "la nipote di Mubarak".

This word nipote is discussed by Umberto Eco in Mouse or Rat (see earlier post) as an instance of a single Italian word corresponding to several possibilities in English. Eco identifies three of these - nephew, niece, grandchild - although there are actually five if you include grandson and granddaughter. In the feminine, the possibilities are reduced to two: granddaughter or niece.

The English-language media coverage accordingly has a granddaughter camp (e.g. Daily Telegraph) and a niece camp (e.g. New York Times).

Now the obvious resort for a translator when faced with such a dilemma - where the source language is less specific than the target language needs to be - is to investigate the reality behind the words to elicit the additional information required. But this option is not available here, of course, since the relationship in question was a figment of Berlusconi's imagination and there is therefore no reality for the translator to investigate.

I suppose the fact that Mubarak is - as everyone now knows - in his eighties, and that the young woman was - as everyone now knows - just seventeen at the time could be taken to suggest a span of two generations rather than one.

But the best solution is surely to keep things vague, as Newsweek did for example, eschewing a precise kinship term in favour of the more general relative.

Eco is worth re-quoting here on the implications of a language having No Word for X:

But the fact that there is only one word does not mean that Italians do not see any difference between the child of one's son or daughter and the child of one's sister or brother. They see it to such an extent that even in the case of death duties the two kinds of relatives pay a different tax
The recent LanguageLog discussion of the subject (mentioned in my previous post) contains reference to the putative untranslatability into English of the Italian velina (a word that features prominently in the Berlusconian lexicon).

The standard rendition appears to be showgirl. But that word is also used in Italian, even moreso than in English, it would appear, and more frequently even than velina itself (showgirl site:it gets far more hits than either showgirl site:uk or velina site:it).

And as used in Italian it does not appear to be synonymous with velina: the phrase "showgirl, ex-velina" brings up many hits.

Since Italian clearly borrowed the word from English, it presumably follows that Italian has no word for "showgirl".

But Italian seems to have taken the word and run with it, just as French seems to have done with fair play. Going by the google hits and the sort of usage patterns they reveal, it could be argued - and for much the same reasons - that showgirl, in Italian, is as specific and unique to Italian culture as the "untranslatable" velina.

So on that basis English too, it would have to be concluded, has no word for "showgirl".

UPDATE 13/06/11:
The niece/granddaughter dilemma now appears to have been resolved. During a recent Italian TV appearance Berlusconi is reported as having quipped:

Telefonerò per far liberare Mubarak, assumendo che è lo zio di Ruby
i.e. that he would call the Egyptian authorities to have Mubarak (who is now under arrest) released on the basis that he is the young lady's uncle.

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