Sunday, September 12, 2010

La Sirena

John William Waterhouse - A Mermaid (1901)

La sirena (‘The Siren") is story by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896 – 1957) written in the late 1950s and first published in the early 1960s. Lampedusa is famous for Il gattopardo (‘The Leopard’) in which Burt Lancaster played the leading role in the movie adaptation. (I always thought he learned Italian for the role, but learned recently it was all voice over, doppiaggio as they say.) We are reading La sirena – in Italian, slowly over several weeks - as part of a conversation course at the Seattle Language Academy (SLA).

In the story, we meet a young Sicilian journalist, Paolo Corbèra, living in Turin just before the Second World War. At the beginning of the story Corbèra has a bit of woman trouble, loses two girlfriends in the same day, and exiles himself to a café that is like a purgatory for him. There he meets the eminent classical Greek scholar, Professor Rosario La Ciura. As their friendship develops we learn more about La Ciura and how the titular sirena figures into the story. Along the way, Corbèra takes a lot of good-natured abuse from the professor, but, nonetheless develops a deep affection and reverence for him.

While the sirena of the story translates better to what we call a mermaid (water-based) rather than siren (land-based), the terms have been confused in some European folklore over time and sirena in this case means a siren of Greek mythology that is a mermaid. In the story we learn that sirens have been seriously misunderstood and they don’t really lure sailors to their deaths.

Here’s a favorite part from the beginning of the story where Corbèra first notices La Ciura in the café and describes him:

Aveva bruttissime mani, nocchierute, rossastre con le unghie tagliate dritte e non sempre pulite, ma una volta che in una delle sue riviste s’imbatté nella fotografia d’una statua greca arcaica, di quelle con gli occhi lontani dal naso e col sorriso ambiguo, mi sorpresi vedendo che i suoi deformi polpastrelli accarezzavano l’immagine con una delicatezza addrittura regale.

Our approximate translation: He had ugly, knotty, reddish hands with fingernails cut straight and not always clean, but once, in one of his magazine he came upon a photo of an ancient greek statue, one of those with the eyes set far apart and with an ambiguous smile, and I was surprised to see his deformed fingertips carress the image in a manner that was quite delicate.

Bing translation (for comparison): “Had bruttissime hands, nocchierute, reddish with fingernails cut straight and not always clean, but once in one of his journals s ' came in the photograph of a statue Greek archaic, those with eyes away from nose and col ambiguous, I surprised smile seeing that his deformed pads they embraced the image with a delicate Regal addrittura”

Google translation (for comparison): “He had very bad hands, helmsman, with reddish nails cut straight and not always clean, but once he came in one of his magazines in the photograph of a statue of ancient Greek, those eyes away from his nose and his ambiguous smile I surprised seeing his deformed fingers caressed the image with a royal delicacy addrittura.”

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