September 22nd, 2002

The Folly Of Translation


The woman was so wrapped up in melancholy that she did not notice me stand and aim the camera at her. Instead of the motor-driven Nikon, I used my little Minolta, which made no noise. I thought of shouting out, “Hey, lady! Yes, you! How can you be so down in the dumps in the face of that gorgeous skyline? What can be so bad that you ignore the beauty that surrounds you? Why can’t you be more like me, totally content in my solitude, knowing that in the end all will be precisely as God—He, She, or It—wants it to be? Come on, babe, snap out of it.”

But of course I said nothing and slipped the little camera back into my bag.

I stopped at a deli and got some aqua minerale, a chunk of cheese, and some Neapolitan salami. Then I took a seat at my usual table at the café in Piazza Luca Balsofiore. After I placed my order for espresso dopio con latte caldo, a street musician set up shop. I was pleased to see this fellow was dressed in ancient Ischian folk costume: A New York Yankees baseball cap, a Lacoste polo shirt, and blue synthetic rubber sandals from Singapore.

He began strumming “Marechiare,” a song about a young man searching for his beloved. Ah. Perfect. If that melancholy woman on the boat had any sense, she’d be sitting at a table right over there and enjoying the performance. But she doesn’t, obviously, and is likely sitting in her empty hotel room right now, weeping over something or another.

But not me. No, sir. Here I am in the beautiful light of late afternoon, with not a care in the world. Life is good.

Antonio brought me my coffee. I gave him a five Euro note, and he gave me back two Euro coins. I put one in his hand, and he said “Grazie” with warmth. It’s hard for cynical foreign tourists to trust this apparent sincerity. People can’t be that nice, eh? Of course they can’t. It just has to be an act.

Then the old strummer launched into “Segreto,” a song based on the poem by Lorenzo Stecchetti. The poem’s theme is the ridiculous balance between love and pain. Not exactly a duality because one is exactly as bad as the other, isn’t it? Yes, it is.

The mandolin’s sound echoed off the surrounding façades of the tiny piazza. He played in the style of Segovia, a rapid fluttering of notes, and sang the words in a clear tenor voice:

Ho una ferrita in cuor
Il segreto amor
Un impeto di gioa e di dolor
Mi trema il cuor

I have a wound in my heart
the secret love
a rush of joy and of pain
it is trembling, my heart

The folly of translation! In Italian all four lines of the stanza end in words that rhyme. And that rhyming reinforces the longing, the aching.

As he sang, tourists dropped coins into the little basket at the top of his duffel. Then came the last line:

…e poco a poco mi fara morir!

…and little by little, it will make me die!

He sang the last line softly, gently. And the final word


merely a whisper.

I ignored the little tear that welled in the corner of my right eye.

The next song? “Strangers in the Night.”

He sang “Dooo-be-dooooobe-doo!” in an Italian accent. Or it might have been Neapolitan.


Hold it, James, I said to myself. Don’t you dare yield to all this sentimental stuff. It’ll just make things worse.

But then I thought of a movie I saw the other night. I don’t remember its title because I wasn’t paying much attention. Until I heard one of the characters pose a question.

“When you are in love and the situation has been impossible for a long time,” a man asked his companion, “when do you pack it in?”

Now, I thought, that’s exactly what I need to know right now. I sat up straight, punched the volume button on the remote. This was surely a portent, a sign. Something I must heed.

Here’s the gist of the scene as it unfolded.

You pack it in as soon as you know for sure that she will never be the way you want her to be. Or when she does something over the top, something truly uncaring and hurtful, something that nobody in his right mind would ever take. Or when she appears to have been completely lost to someone or something else, and there is not a goddamned thing you can do about it.

The man said: “All are good reasons to dump her. But wrong.”

“Wrong?” His companion said.

“That’s right, pilgrim. When you are in love, the answer is NEVER.”

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