A while back, over at EasyItalianNews.com, we had a couple of people moaning about our writers’ use of the term ‘ragazzo nero’ (literally ‘black boy’ but better translated as ‘black guy’) to describe the unfortunate recipient of a rather generous number of police bullets.
The commentors separately made the point that the use of the term ‘boy’ to describe a black ‘man’ is entirely inappropriate in English, which we totally accept. Except that the text was not written in English, but in Italian, where the use of the term ‘ragazzo’ is meant much more kindly (and has no racial connotation), as in ‘not some decrepit old geezer but someone in the prime of life’.
I’m fifty-three years of age, and so mostly past the ‘ragazzo’ stage, in my own mind at least. Elderly neighbours still use the term to me, but my teenage kids would laugh if they heard.
Languages are more complicated than you might imagine: a good rule of thumb is not to assume that what something means in the language you’re not yet totally proficient in is the same as what it means in your own language. It might be, or it might not. Or it might sometimes be, but othertimes not.
So today I moderated another comment, on another breaking news story from the USA, this time about the death of, and political turmoil surrounding, a Supreme Court justice. Here’s what we wrote:
“Prima di morire avrebbe espresso il desiderio
di essere rimpiazzata
solo dopo le elezioni,
ma è probabile che il presidente Trump
cercherà di far nominare
un giudice conservatore
spostando così gli equilibri della Corte
che si ritroverebbe
con 6 giudici conservatori
e 3 democratici.”
“The US Supreme Court Justices are referred to in the article as “conservative and democratic”( my translation for “conservatori e democratici”), but the term democratic is not correct for the judges because that implies they belong to the democratic political party. A better term would be liberal. Thus the judges in the court may be considered conservative or liberal in their views and court judgements.”
There’s more in this than is first apparent, and reading Karen’s comment again I see that if we were writing this in English we might capitalise the word ‘democatic’, or maybe use the noun, Democrat, were we intending to refer to party affiliation. But also that, using the two terms to indicate different political persuasions, without the capital, does rather seem to suggest that conservative judges are not also democratic in their outlook, which they would surely disagree with.
However, in my reply to Karen’s comment, I tried to focus on the Italian side of things:
“Of course, you’re absolutely correct, Karen. But the word ‘liberal’ would mean something entirely different to someone reading in Italian, or at least it should – something more like ‘free market capitalist’, which is the opposite of what is intended. In Italian, the word has a pretty negative connotation.”
“I haven’t looked at the source articles (in the ‘real’ Italian press) for this piece, but it’s likely you would find that the Italian journalists are using the terms in a similar way that we did. And probably journalists writing in French or Spanish about the US Supreme Court too. Appointed by a democrat = democratic!”
Well yes and no. Approving comments (and occasionaly replying to them) is a job that gets squeezed in between other, bigger tasks. But when I had a moment free later, I did actually take a look at the two source articles to see if the pros had handled the situation better than we did:
Here are some extracts from the first source article:
“Ginsburg, seconda donna a diventare giudice della Corte Suprema, fu nominata nel 1993 dall’allora presidente Bill Clinton ed era considerata una giudice progressista…”
“…Donald Trump e il Senato potrebbero nominare un nuovo giudice e scegliere qualcuno con posizioni e idee molto più conservatrici…”
“…ci sono otto giudici, cinque considerati conservatori e tre progressisti…”
As you see, the journalist solves the ‘liberal = exploitative bastard’ connotation problem by using ‘progressive’ instead. Conservative/progressive seems reasonable, and unlikely to offend either party.
However, in the second article, things are rather more confused:
“Usa, addio a Ruth Bader Ginsburg, giudice icona liberal della Corte Suprema”
“…Donald Trump, c’è da giurarci, farà di tutto per eleggere un ennesimo conservatore…”
“…che potrebbe spostare definitivamente a destra quella Corte Suprema attualmente formata da 5 giudici repubblicani su nove”
“…nel 2015 Barack Obama l’aveva invitata con discrezione a dimettersi, per via dell’età avanzata, sperando di farle lasciare il posto a un collega più giovane e di provata fede democratica.”
This time we have liberal/conservative, as Karen suggested, but also republican and, if not exactly democrat or democratic, at least ‘of proven democratic faith’.
So, yes, in theory, judges are not chosen for their affiliation to a particular political party, but in practice? There’s certainly something very tribal about the current situation: one of ours or one of theirs, pro-life or pro-choice, likely to favour this party or that party in a disputed presidential election? It obviously matters to all concerned.
Conservative and progressive works in English and in Italian, but what is actually meant is Republican and Democratic, both capitalised. It’s unsurprising, to me at least, that we foreigners get mixed up!
Learning tip: reading news articles in the language you’re learning about your own country, or a country that you know well, is a good way to build your reading skills and vocabulary, certainly better than just selecting an article at random. When I read in French or Spanish these days, I avoid articles about the politics of either country (so far, utterly incomprehensible) in favour of anything with ‘Boris’ or ‘Trump’ in the headline, on the basis that I’ll already know what’s being written about. Articles about science and technology, or internationally famous people, are good for the same reason. Smartphone reviews, sex tips, stock market crashes – you get the idea.
And the more you read, the more you pick up – not just about the language you’re learning, but about how those writing in that language (and presumably their readers) perceive your country, which sometimes turns out to be much more kindly, and in a less-partisan way, that you might expect!
A lunedì, allora.
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