Linguistic Hospitality: Reflections on Voice, (Early) Modernities, and the Future of Italian Studies

Jane Tylus New York University
Abstract: Native openness toward new languages has traditionally been seen as an act of hospitality and tolerance toward new arrivals. Yet the untranslatable in native languages can truly be understood only through the lens of the émigré, or outsider. As émigrés currently adopt Italian to relate their personal experiences, a new edginess and perceptivity is developing in the arts, particularly in the cinema and in literature. As Mary Louise Pratt has noted, since foreign language learning at the national level is no longer overseen by the Department of Education but by the State Department, this change is a sign that "language learning" has been reduced to concerns about national security. Thus, in the future, the academy should do everything it can to ensure that students learn foreign languages in university and college settings where they are guided toward linguistic complexities, histories, and untranslatables. In developing an historical perspective regarding the process of linguistic ‘migration,’ this essay argues that Italian studies (and arguably other language and literature departments) should practice "interdepartmental hospitality": team-taught courses that bridge linguistic differences and show students how open and creative interfaces can be modeled between and among languages.

A few years ago, I spoke at a conference celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of the journal Romanic Review, a mainstay for work in romance languages and literatures. I was asked to address the place of Italian within romance and foreign language departments—a presence that, one hardly need mention, has often been dwarfed by that of French and now, increasingly, Spanish. My own department at NYU, Italian Studies, has been self-standing ever since a generous patron, the Baronessa Mariuccia Zerilli-Marimò, offered to renovate an entire brownstone in Greenwich Village and give it to NYU if the university would permit its then two Italian faculty to leave French and start their own department. Thirty years later, we are eight tenured and tenure-track faculty, with as many full-time lecturers. Still, this move has not come without costs. It’s tempting to isolate ourselves in our lovely outpost on West 12th Street, and the question I put to myself and to my colleagues was this: how hospitable have the romance languages been to one another—not just in the wake of the invention of romance language departments, but more generally in the aftermath of Latin’s decline—if not its death—in the 16th century? And how should we be thinking about the relationship of the romance languages to other languages in Europe today?

How hospitable have the romance languages been to one another—not just in the wake of the invention of romance language departments, but more generally in the aftermath of Latin’s decline—if not its death—in the 16th century? And how should we be thinking about the relationship of the romance languages to other languages in Europe today?

Some of these dynamics might be parsed by returning to the 16th century and to a seminal text, Joachim du Bellay’s Deffence et illustration de la langue francoyse.[1] Du Bellay opens by lamenting the effects of Babel, claiming that it’s a shame that there’s not just one language: it takes so many years "pour apprendre des motz!" (349). But he then stumbles onto the key: translate everything into French. Envisioning a return to the day when Latin was the "universal language," Du Bellay predicts that King François I will be like Augustus, and French will become like Latin—which in any case, Du Bellay observes, "is already dead" (352).

Perhaps the paradox of Du Bellay’s treatise is that it is almost a wholesale translation of a dialogue that defended the Italian vernacular by the Padovan Sperone Speroni of just a few years earlier. Or perhaps it is not so paradoxical. Even as Du Bellay is aware that the translator can’t always render work with the same grace the author puts into it, since each language has something "proper to itself," French is revealed as a still-impoverished language dependent on translation in order to attain copiousness, the property that defines excellence more than any other. After alluding to the process of "emprunter," or borrowing "sentences et motz" to then "appropriate them as one’s own" (341), Du Bellay notes that one should only borrow from foreign authors, not from those who write in French. "To imitate within the same language, is to give it what it already has," he says in a remarkably candid moment.

Today’s languages are taught as relentlessly separate entities even when they are not separated by departmental barriers. Rarely is there a sense of a shared past—or present—unless it is done within the discipline of comparative literature, in which case texts are generally taught in English. The following remarks will nonetheless turn not so much to departmental structures, for better or worse, as to the kinds of work being done today within Italian and Romance Studies that seeks to understand the complexities of voice and linguistic belonging in an era of unprecedented displacement and migration. It is banal to say that the enormous upheavals that have affected the three contiguous continents of the Eastern Hemisphere in the past fifteen years have led to a considerable amount of soul-searching with respect to the notion of national, religious, and legal boundaries, as well, of course, as linguistic ones. There are currently over 400,000 Albanians in Italy, while its African community is now estimated at over one million, the majority Senegalese. As of January 2014, nearly eight percent of the country’s population was of foreign origin.[2] As Michaeline Crichlow noted in her response to this paper when presented at Duke, Italy has historically been a "sending nation as well as a colonizing one," a history that "interfaces with its current role as a receiving nation." Emigrations from Italy in the late 19th and 20th centuries "decentered the sense of national belonging, and disseminated linguistic and cultural features inherent to the concept of Italianità," as Crichlow puts it, while the arrival of émigrés since the 1980s has provoked some Italians to compose—or perhaps to revive—"a reactive mythology of Italian national identity" (Bouchard and Ferme 2013, 132).

The arrival of refugees from Africa and Asia in Europe has prompted conversations in a number of disciplines as to the value and meaning of academic work today.

In a less urgent way, the arrival of refugees from Africa and Asia in Europe has prompted conversations in a number of disciplines as to the value and meaning of academic work today. Understandably, much of this work has focused on the present moment, taking its cue from contemporary cinema, narrative, and linguistics, as scholars study the impact that the newest Italians are having on language and culture in their adapted home.[3] But it is also important to reflect on the historical dimensions of current affairs—hence the development of significant work that considers earlier moments of migrations and their impact. And finally, emerging from both contemporary and more historicizing studies is what I will call a deepening recognition of the dynamics of linguistic hospitality. That translation is key to these dynamics, as well as attentiveness to the limits of translation, is a crucial piece of this puzzle.[4] Italians—and those of us in Italian Studies—must wrest themselves/ourselves from a tendency to think in isolation, to learn to see ourselves, our language, our work, from the outside, as though we were strangers.[5]

One of the most exciting projects in the humanities in recent years is the brainchild of Barbara Cassin, a French classicist and philosopher. Her Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles , recently translated into English by a team of scholars working with Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood, has the ambitions of Diderot’s encyclopedia, as it introduces a range of philosophical terms that are generally left untranslated as they are transferred from language to language (Cassin 2014). Opening this enormous book at random, one finds reflections on grammar–word order and "I/me"; concepts like consciousness, truth, beauty, and jouissance; essays on individual languages and the haunting presence of national difference; entries on metis, mimesis, dasein, sprezzatura, tableau, baroque, and "to translate." In grappling with the resistance to translation within the philosophical and intellectual traditions of Western Europe, Cassin and her colleagues expose the radical dependency of one language on another, demanding that one leave one’s comfort zone and interact with "vocabularies" outside it. Unlike much otherwise excellent recent work in cultural translation, the Vocabulaire brings language back to the center as, in Emily Apter’s words from the introduction to the English translation, it produces "a cartography . . . of linguistic diaspora, migration, and contested global checkpoints from early empires to the technologically patrolled and surveilled post-9/11 era." "National languages are profiled not as static reified monuments of culture, nor as technologies of signification stripped of political consequence": the "places where languages touch reveal the limits of discrete national languages and traditions" (Cassin 2014, xiii). There are indeed words with no "ready equivalent in another language." Thus, in the failure of translation one can most convincingly find the traces and the limits of national identities as well as of an academic discourse such as philosophy.[6]

Untranslatability thus becomes the place where language’s "edges"—and edginess—are revealed, constituting a "systemic edge that maps desires for closed world."

As Michaeline Crichlow usefully suggests, untranslatability thus becomes the place where language’s "edges"—and edginess—are revealed, constituting a "systemic edge that maps desires for closed world." They mark the tenuousness of national identity and identifiable habitus, marking where one is forced to leave a world where language always makes "sense." Or in Jacques Lezra’s phrase from the Duke seminar, when incomprehensibles/untranslatables interfere with "easy legibility," we are forced to reflect on the opaqueness of our own tongue. "How do we loosen language from its oneness?" Crichlow poignantly asks, a oneness available only to those who have not been displaced from their localities and who thus continue to believe in a national identity that can be threatened by linguistic plurality and diversity, especially when the other languages are not English. This is precisely why, as Loredana Polezzi (2012) notes, it is crucial to understand the role that new migrant groups play in a nation accustomed to "oneness." In her eloquent piece for a recent forum in Translation Studies, she invokes the writings of Hannah Arendt on refugees and Giorgio Agamben on the impersonality and objectification of biometric technologies, suggesting that "translation as a consciously political act can foreground the complexity, the mutability, and perhaps even the intimacy inscribed within social communication by the presence not just of language as such, but of human languages in all their plurality." The work of Mikhail Bakhtin, who argued for the constant interpenetration of cultures—a world based "on difference and linguistic heterogeneity"—can suggest "an empowering and enriching role for the migrant as translator and cultural interpreter. . . . Perhaps, then, we can ask . . . whether in a world imagined as predominantly plurilingual, it might become the turn of the monolingual to be ‘marginalized and relegated to restricted and impoverished domains of cultural participation and competence’" (Polezzi 2012, 352). Doris Sommer’s Bilingual Aesthetics also draws on Bakhtin with respect to what Sommer calls "the advantage of foreignness," in the interest of identifying the linguistic sophistication of even the most disadvantaged immigrants. "Living in two or more languages" has its compensations; namely, being able to recognize "how ironically disadvantaged the monolingual condition can be."[7]

There is an edginess to much recent Italian fiction and cinema that demonstrates this disadvantage in both thematic and linguistic registers, as émigrés adopt Italian as a means for describing their personal experiences of migration and their attitudes toward the culture of the "host" country.

There is an edginess to much recent Italian fiction and cinema that demonstrates this disadvantage in both thematic and linguistic registers, as émigrés adopt Italian as a means for describing their personal experiences of migration and their attitudes toward the culture of the "host" country.[8] Movies such as Le sette opere di misericordia examine the relationship between a Moldavian woman and an elderly widower from Torino, while Bianco e nero focuses on the difficult construction of an African middle class in Rome (using French actors who move between Wolof and Italian) (see Greene 2012). In the powerful film, Mar nero, an elderly Florentine woman, Gemma, gradually opens up to the Romanian caretaker or badante who has left her family to find work in Italy. As Millicent Marcus puts it, Gemma’s "strongly inflected accent and her occasional use of dialect" contrast with her caretaker’s "pidgin Italian, constantly underlining the cultural distance between the two women," even as that distance is gradually minimized through the two women’s emotional bonds (Marcus 2015). If these filmic examples are particularly effective in conveying the mix of cultures and linguistic tensions in contemporary Italy, several novels have also come out that explore only lightly fictionalized experiences of recent arrivals. I single out my current colleague at NYU, Amara Lakhous, who after having to leave Algeria in 1993, settled first in Rome, and then Torino; his award-winning Divorzio all’islamica, like his more recent Dispute over a Very Italian Piglet, focuses on a neighborhood in Torino where an ethnically and linguistically diverse community lives and works. Grazia Biorci notes the colloquial register that Lakhous adapts in his impressive prose, calling attention not so much to the new coinages, relatively rare, as to his stunning metaphors and his tendency to describe emotions as "syntagmatic forms which are not exactly conventional and read in Italian writings" (213). Tahar Lamri adapts similar strategies of hybridization when she introduces "elements such as orality, performativity and chorality, which appear in the work of various authors of African origin" into her novel suggestively entitled Il pellegrinaggio della voce (see Moll 2015).

Lakhous writes in Arabic and Italian simultaneously, moving back and forth between what are now his two most "polished" languages—he also speaks French, Berber, and English—suggesting how bi- or trilingualism, while so often the result of enforced exile and emigration, can become an extraordinary advantage, authorizing the project of "self-translation."[9] But for the monolingual to be thusly "marginalized," it must also be recognized as strange to its own users, enticed to confront the issue of their own untranslatables. This process from estrangement from what is one’s "own"—or in the case of academics, painstakingly, joyfully learned over years of study—is precisely what is enabled by another recent work by a Bengali-American novelist who chose to move with her family to Rome for several years. In her memoir In Altre parole, Pulitzer-prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri articulates these dynamics of intersections of race and language in Italy. A native speaker of Bengali who grew up in the United States, she chose, unlike many immigrants forced from their countries by political and economic turmoil, to place herself in the position of speaking and writing in a new language, and thus to relive the linguistic disorientation she had known as a child. "Without knowing the language of a foreign country, you can’t feel yourself a legitimate presence, a respected one. You’re left without a voice, without power, . . . without any point of entry. (Senza la lingua non ci si puo’ sentire una presenza legittima, rispettata. Si rimane senza voce, senza potere, . . . senza alcun punto di entrata)" (Lahiri 2015, 100). Italians reading Lahiri’s text are forced to confront an Italian that is not entirely their "own," to become sensitized to how their language looks and feels from the outside. This is not so much a work of untranslatables, interspersing other linguistic terms within a "native one," as a book that reveals the difficulties and opaqueness of coming to terms with a foreign language and culture, arguably an experience shared by anyone who has left "home." For Italian readers, however, this work is particularly revealing in light of a different, at times less fluid feel of their "familiar" prose. Yet it’s also the case that this process of feeling strange within one’s own language has a long history in Italian and other linguistic cultures, to which the next pages will turn.

“Human beings are moved no differently by strange, unfamiliar words than they are by strangers: for the stranger is to be respected, worthy of reverence, and so one’s speech should avail itself of the unfamiliar so as to inspire marvel.”

“Human beings are moved no differently by strange, unfamiliar words than they are by strangers: for the stranger is to be respected, worthy of reverence, and so one’s speech should avail itself of the unfamiliar so as to inspire marvel. (Laonde gli uomini non sono mossi altrimente da le parole che da’ peregrini: perché quel solo è venerando e degno di riverenza: e peregrino dev’esser il parlare, se dee mover maraviglia)" (Tasso 1977, 465).

As Du Bellay’s treatise attests, half a millennium ago there was an acute awareness of linguistic and cultural interdependencies in Europe, even if expressed by Du Bellay as an instance of competitiveness. In the wake of genuine imperialistic overtures in France and Spain, such welcoming of others’ words would gradually be transformed into a preoccupation with protecting and securing one’s own linguistic holdings, a phenomenon that would come to distinguish Italy as well, despite its lack of a political center.[10] On the one hand, it’s possible to argue that Italy has only recently had a fragile hold on its modern vernacular given the presence of dialects and foreign tongues that became embedded in both Italian language and culture. Even though Crichlow is correct to say that Italy is only now becoming a "receiving nation," it was for centuries an occupied country. As the Somali writer Igiaba Scego has recently suggested, Italy was Babel, which "received" many unwanted invaders: "everyone came through here—Arabs, Normans, French, Austrians. Hannibal, the African general, came through too, with his elephants (qui ci son passati tutti, arabi, normanni, francesi, austriaci. C’e’ passato Anniable, condottiero africano, con i suoi elefanti)” (Scego 2010, 157). Thus, to study Italy—or Italian—without studying Spain and Spanish between 1500 and 1860 is to ignore much of what was both vibrant and problematic about "Italian" culture between the Renaissance and the Risorgimento (see Dandelet 2000). Medieval Sicily is the most salient example of what Karla Mallette calls a hybrid literary culture, although as Alison Cornish points out, Tuscan 13th- and 14th-century literature is also incomprehensible without a knowledge of Occitan and Latin.[11] And the use of dialect continues to inform everyday life as well as cultural production, as a recent collection by Giovanni Tesio, La poesia ai margini: Novecento tra lingua e dialetti suggests. On the other hand, the legislation of the "correct" use of Tuscan, the regional dialect that would become adapted as the "national" language by the mid-16th century, would begin with the consolidation of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany under Cosimo I de’Medici.

This is the context in which the Renaissance poet, Torquato Tasso, wrote the words quoted above on the peregrino that inspires readers to marvel. A multifaceted word in early modern Europe, the peregrino was also a pilgrim, someone who traveled to religious sites for devotional purposes, and who was marked out as special, "worthy of reverence" because of his or her contact with the sacred and the identifying costume of a coarse overcoat, a satchel, a staff, and a floppy hat often marked with the "souvenirs" of various pilgimage sites. But the word had its origins in the Latin peregrinus, which meant simply someone who had emigrated from foreign lands to the Roman Empire and who had no rights as a citizen; per ager means "through the field," suggesting that the Romans could not conceive of a cosmopolis that was not Rome. By Tasso’s time the word had acquired the additional meaning of the exotic, the unusual, even the beautiful—beautiful because unusual or rare, as the poet Maria Matteo Boiardo would use the word in his epic romance when addressing the "dame peregrine," or lovely ladies at the court of Ferrara.

But Tasso, whose writings on poetry and aesthetics would dominate the second half of the 16th century, also had an acute sense of himself as a peregrino: a stranger to that very world of the court at which Boiardo felt at home, and to the world too of tightening norms as to what constituted the "right" kind of poetry. Conscious of what he called his stile peregrine, or unfamiliar style, Tasso had an itinerant youth, wandering with his father from southern Italy to the north as the elder Tasso sought posts as a courtier and poet in a competitive environment not unlike that of today’s universities. Torquato’s evident mental instabilities are a matter of record—he was shut up in what we would now call an asylum for seven years—and no doubt contributed to his acute sense of alienation. But the fact that he had lived in so many places in Italy by the time he arrived at Ferrara in the early 1570s meant that he had developed a way of writing, and no doubt speaking, that, far from being restricted to a single regional dialect, had inflections from a number of different regions. By virtue of his own status as constant peregrino, Tasso defended his eclectic style from those largely Tuscan writers who were beginning to consolidate and defend a national Italian language based on Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio, the three great poets of the 14th century. Unlike those pedants who argued that imitating Petrarch’s vocabulary and style was the key to writing proper, eloquent Italian, Tasso advocated a language that encompassed Italy’s, and Europe’s, differences: only by introducing the "unfamiliar" into a poem could one prompt the reader to the highest emotion that literature could inspire, marvel or admiration.

As Doris Sommer has recently noted, admiration is a quality that moves beyond that of mere tolerance, a tolerance much touted in the current climate of multi- and post-multiculturalism, one that for Sommer smacks of what she calls "self-celebrating munificence that confirms an imbalance of power between giver and receiver": "Tolerant citizens can feel themselves to be the real source of good judgement and imagine that the rights enjoyed by others apparently issue from one’s own generosity" (Sommer 2014, 31). Admiration, on the other hand, "shifts the balance of feeling: it favors others without sacrificing self-love. To admire one’s fellow (artist) is to anticipate original contributions and to listen attentively." The shock of the unfamiliar for Tasso was precisely what led to the act of marvel or wonder, a shock that came about for this literary artist through the introduction of strange voices and words, products of metaphors, of neologisms, of incursions from dialects or "foreign" languages. It fostered attentiveness and admiratio, another word for wonder. That Tasso was systematically derided as someone unable to write in what one Florentine critic, Lionardo Salviati, called the "natural modo di favellare" (the "natural way of speaking") suggests an increasingly hostile environment with respect to poetic experimentation and the linguistic hospitality which Tasso’s own poetry attempts to exemplify.[12] The publication of the Vocabolario della Crusca—Italy’s, and Italians’, first major dictionary that legislates the borders of a national language—in the decade after Tasso’s death attests to the sensibility that saw in Tasso’s welcoming in of parole peregrine a threat to the necessary creation of a unified linguistic identity in the absence of a political one. More accurately, given that the Duchy of Tuscany saw itself as the political and cultural center of the Italian peninsula, the Vocabolario becomes the expression of an entity that sought for itself the same status of the nation–state enjoyed in Spain, France, and England, countries that would also soon embark on linguistic and literary projects of self-definition. That some of Tasso’s words were undoubtedly perceived as untranslatable because of their difficulty and obscurity, terms regularly used by Tasso’s critics, suggests the importance of his project.

Tasso’s curiosity about the peregrino who comes from far away was hardly unique; he was preceded by several centuries of writers—Marco Polo, merchants who left behind their detailed ricordanze, pilgrims and Franciscans who traveled in Asia—who explored "marvelous" indecipherables in cultures not their own.

Tasso attempted to convey his ethos of linguistic hospitality in practice as well as theory, as apparent in his epic poem, Gerusalemme liberata, which "welcomes" into its expansive Christian community unconverted Muslim women such as the princess of Antioch, Erminia (even as its principal Muslim warriors are either killed or imprisoned).[13] Tasso’s curiosity about the peregrino who comes from far away was hardly unique; he was preceded by several centuries of writers—Marco Polo, merchants who left behind their detailed ricordanze, pilgrims and Franciscans who traveled in Asia—who explored "marvelous" indecipherables in cultures not their own. His work was in turn inflected by the number of enforced as well as voluntary displacements that occurred within early modern Europe: the Spanish expulsion of Jews in 1492, followed by the Portuguese expulsion of 1497, and the subsequent expulsion of Muslims from Iberia in 1501 (and again in 1609), not to mention numerous examples of slavery and piracy (see O’Connell 2010). Ferrara, where Tasso spent almost two decades, was one of the few places in Europe that had explicitly petitioned the Sephardic community to settle there. The same duke who had written to rabbis in Spain and Portugal commissioned the first map of the recently discovered "New World," sending a spy masked as a horse trader to Lisbon in 1502 in order to learn of the peoples and lands across the ocean. The so-called Cantino map, after the "horse trader" Alberto Cantino, introduces a wavy green line along the margins of the paper, thus decentering Jerusalem and Europe.[14] But it is another aspect of early modern culture for which Ferrara was particularly well-known, its musical avant-gardism, that takes me to my final early modern observation.

In a recent essay on musicological studies, Andrew dell’Antonio suggests that much new research focuses on "musicking" or "sonic performances of identity": studies of the relational structures within which music has been produced (see Small 1998). One of Dell’Antonio’s key examples of this work is Suzanne Cusick’s Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court, which considers an early 17th-century singer in Florence (Cusick 2010). Cusick considers the sonic performances of gender in which women’s vocal sounds and sung words form part of an "aural regime" that at once protects their onestà and furthers their autonomy and rhetorical agency (dell’Antonio 2015). Perhaps one of the most innovative aspects of Cusick’s project was her collaboration with a singer of early modern repertories, which grounds her argument "in physical realities of vocal production—which, as Cusick observes, have not changed significantly in the four centuries since Francesca’s career." (We do not have to take Cusick’s word for this; a CD with these performances accompanies the volume.) Cusick’s current project is at the intersection of social history, gender studies, and sound studies as she explores the acoustics within convents and chapels that gave the female voice a perceived sensuality at odds with the chaste body from which it emerged. Her work reminds us of what happens when "meaningful sound" meets with non-meaningful sound, what Mladen Dolar calls the "bad communication" represented by the singing voice: "Singing takes the distraction of the voice seriously . . . it brings the voice energetically to the forefront, on purpose, at the expense of meaning . . . lets the voice take the upper hand." This attempt to identify voice—"like a fingerprint, instantly recognizable and identifiable"—becomes another way of thinking about the hosting of difference, about the way that words themselves, no matter the language, can be obfuscated by the powerful "distractions" of physical sound.[15] Perhaps one might think about the openness of Italian to this distraction of sound in the singular invention of opera in the late 16th century, suggesting a curiosity about the way that music can expand, alter, even deform verbal meaning.

In those very years in which opera was being "invented," the Crusca was inveighing against Tasso, and it must be noted that the libretti of Monteverdi’s operas, even when they borrowed from Tasso’s poetry, were written in the very Tuscan language that Tasso had resisted. Still, the admiratio for the voice, unleashed in this strange and powerful new art form, and embodied by that distracting female presence that in the early 17th century when opera began, was itself strange and peregrina, perhaps owes something to Tasso’s aesthetic, one eager to include the novel and unfamiliar rather than categorically excluding it, or merely tolerating it. If, as Paolo Carile has suggested, hospitality is "one of the constituitive principles of social life that permits meeting and exchange, that forces us to leave the solipsism of our own habits, that opens other grammars for a reading of the world" (Carile 2004, 19), then in opening himself to "other grammars," Tasso challenged the authority of monolinguism in the same way opera can be said to distract us from the monolinguism of purely meaningful sound. That Tasso met with resistance in high places, as would female opera singers and actresses who were banned from performing in Rome until the 19th century, suggested that his theory and his practice touched a nerve.

Still, our own ongoing work demands that we consider the nuances and meanings of such resistance as well as its shortcomings. The Accademia della Crusca has periodically revised its original Vocabolario since the early 17th century, continuing to be alert about language usage, most recently with respect to universities that declared they would begin teaching all courses in English. The protests of the Crusca in the face of the Politecnico of Milan’s proposal to begin offering all its business courses in English as of 2014 was a protest against a linguistic empire by a nonimperial language, launched in order to uphold Italians’ "right" to express their own terminology in the global world of business, technology, and law.[16] Indeed, Italy’s readiness to adapt English in museums, in universities, in public discourse—Matteo Renzi’s "Job Act" is only one example in which Italian is jettisoned, seemingly without reason, for English—does suggest that the language of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Gramsci is ranked a poor second in its own country.[17] What then is the role of an institution like the Crusca, which, in the time of Tasso, as now, continues to worry about linguistic borders? At the same time, can such borders be meaningful if their arbiters don’t take into account the movements of texts and bodies within and outside of Italy’s physical borders?[18] To return to Du Bellay, what is the point of imitating what one already has?

Charting these movements becomes the challenge to not just "romance languages" but humanities departments more generally. But this insists that we take seriously the medium of exchange. In our drive to become departments of Italian or French or Spanish Studies—or World Literature—we must not undervalue the teaching of language; students major in Italian because they’ve fallen in love with Italy, but first and foremost, they need to, and want to, know the language. Indifference to or overlooking of undergraduate students’ skills in the interests of bringing in majors and warm bodies to perhaps dying disciplines is worrisome. Mary Louise Pratt has pointed out that foreign language learning at the national level is no longer overseen by the Department of Education but by the State Department, a sign that "language learning" is reduced to concerns about national security and a sign that we should do everything we can to ensure that students learn foreign languages in university and college settings where they will think about linguistic complexities, histories, and untranslatables.[19] We would thus do well to practice what Crichlow calls "interdepartmental hospitality": team-taught courses that bridge our linguistic differences and show our students how, as colleagues and teachers, we can model open and creative interfaces between and among languages. Courses in translation studies, in historical linguistics, in the study of migration would permit us to explore individual linguistic "edges" as well as common issues of definition, of defensiveness, of hospitality in a Europe, as Massimo Cacciari (1997) has put it, that is still inventing its own boundaries.

Let’s consider conversations not only with experts in other fields but with the non-experts who may like to know something about our own disciplines—eager to expand the imagination and life of the mind, to hear someone else’s voice and cultivate their own, in whatever language.

And to make the case convincing, we must think, finally, about the voices we use when speaking about our work. Must we always use magisterial voices, the voices of specialists? Italy’s weekly Sunday paper, 24 Ore: Il Sole, is much more than a New York Times book review: it’s an opportunity for some of the leading scholars in Italy to talk through and about their disciplines vis-à-vis recent works. There is a lightness of touch in these essays, irony at the expense of the author him- or herself, the assumptions that the general public wants to know about Renaissance contacts with the Arabic-speaking world and already does know something about them. As we move into a future in which the humanities will hopefully still have something to offer, let’s consider conversations not only with experts in other fields but with the non-experts who may like to know something about our own disciplines—eager to expand the imagination and life of the mind, to hear someone else’s voice and cultivate their own, in whatever language.


  1. As Du Bellay’s most recent translator, Richard Helgerson, has put it, during the prosperous 1540s, Du Bellay wanted "a rebirth of the Roman Empire with France as the new Rome" (Du Bellay 2006, 1). Further references to Du Bellay’s own work are from Helgerson’s translation and are cited in the text.
  2. From Bond et al. 2015, 1; they suggest that for "updated statistical data" one should follow the periodic reports by the Istituto Nazionale di Statistica at
  3. In addition to the essays in Bond et al. 2015, cited throughout the text, see Maya Angela Smith, "Multilingual Practices of Senegalese Immigrants in Rome: Construction of Identities and Negotiations of Boundaries," in Research Archives at the University of Washington 2015 at; Cristina Lombardi-Diop and Caterina Romeo, eds., Postcolonial Italy: Challenging National Homogeneity (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2012); Bouchard and Valerio Ferme 2013, especially chapter 7; Graziella Parati and Anthony Julian Tamburri, The Cultures of Italian Migration (Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011); and the ground-breaking essays in Italian Mobilities, edited by Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Stephanie Malia Hom (London, Routledge, 2015).
  4. The work of Paul Ricoeur has been important for these reflections, particularly his final collection of three essays, On Translation, translated by Eileen Brennan (London: Routledge, 2004).
  5. And, in fact, many of us are strangers to Italian, having learned it painstakingly, sometimes painfully, over years. This may be one reason that the current moment of migration to Italy is a moment that may help non-native scholars identify more explicitly their own relationship, and that of their students and readers, to their chosen area of work.
  6. Cassin’s current project turns to untranslatables in writings of the three monotheistic religions—taking off from twenty words through which the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran each "unfold" and around which they intertwine, in an attempt to understand not equivalences, but differences.
  7. Doris Sommer, Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Education was published in 2004; this recapitulation of its argument is from Sommer’s more recent The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 93.
  8. See the work of David Forgacs, Italy’s Margins: Social Exclusion and Nation Formation Since 1861 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), and Federica Mazzara’s blog on current migration issues,
  9. Lakhous’s remarks were from a conversation with Stefano Albertini at NYU’s Casa Italiana on November 23, 2015.
  10. As discussed by John Hamilton in Security: Politics, Humanity, and the Philology of Care (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).
  11. Karla Mallette, The Kingdom of Sicily 1100–1250: A Literary History (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Alison Cornish, Vernacular Translation in Dante’s Italy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
  12. Salviati’s critique was published in 1585, Risposta all’apologia di Torquato Tasso intorno all’Orlando furioso; this reference is from Maurizio Vitale, L’officina linguistica del Tasso epico (Milan, 2007), 44.
  13. I expand these reflections in two recent essays: "Imagining Narrative in Tasso," Modern Language Notes 2012; and "Parole pellegrine: L’ospitalità linguistica nel Rinascimento," in L’ospite del libro. Sguardi sull’ospitalità, eds. Nicola Catelli and Giovanna Rizzarelli (Lucca: M. Pacini Fazzi, 2015), 7–20.
  14. Determining the boundaries of Italy, as well as that of Europe in early modernity, was, as it is today, an uncertain project. Katharina Piechocki has taken up such a project by considering the versions of maps of Ptolemy generated after the Columbus expeditions and the process through which Europeans imagined the other at borders not only to their west, but to their east; "Erroneous Mappings: Ptolemy and the Visualization of Europe’s East," in Karen Newman and Jane Tylus, eds., Early Modern Cultures of Translation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 76–96. Similarly, Veronica Della Dora (2010) has explored the changing cartographic versions of Italy from the 14th century onward, in "Mapping Metageographies: The Cartographic Invention of Italy and the Mediterranean," California Italian Studies 1(1): 1–25.
  15. Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 30. An analogue from the visual arts might be found in a project funded by the EU and overseen by the Scuola Normale in Pisa, "Looking at Words through Images: Some Case Studies for a Visual History of Italian Literature," which considers what seems to the modern eye the strangely out of sync juxtaposition of visual material with texts. A database of images from 16th-century books, it enables what the editors refer to as an unfolding history of interpretation, typography, and exchange, punctuated with apparent randomness as visual imprints were reused by the printers to illustrate strikingly different texts: the Bible, Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
  16. The president of the Accademia della Crusca at the time, Nicoletta Maraschio, brought together a group of linguists and scholars for a day-long symposium in Florence, followed by the collection of essays which she edited with Domenico De Martino, entitled Fuori l’italiano dall’Università? Inglese, internazionalizzazione, politica linguistica (Rome: Laterza, 2012).
  17. One is reminded of the advice of Leonardo Bruni, one of the first theorists of translation in the early modern period, when he chastised translators who acted like mendicants, going "begging" for words outside their own linguistic register. His targets were Aristotle’s scholastic translators, who, rather than find words in the Latin that were appropriate translations from the Greek, simply placed Greek words wholesale into their Latin texts; see his De interpretatione recta, in James Hankins’ translation: "[the good translator] will not beg or borrow or leave the word in Greek out of ignorance of Latin," The Humanism of Leonardo Bruni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 220.
  18. In Polezzi 2012, 347: "Migration . . . reminds us that it is not only texts that travel, but people." The Crusca has in fact been far more responsive to different linguistic communities since the 18th century when terminology used by artisans and rural workers was included in the revised Vocabolario. One can now consult the website to find what the Accademia lists as "parole nuove," or new words; a recent search yielded clarification on the gender of jihad (masculine) and confirmation of the word "microondabile" (microwavable).
  19. Remarks, NEH seminar, "Global Competencies," New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College, September 16, 2015.


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