I had finished the book by the time we arrived back in Florence late in the day, so I had to laugh when I heard the Trenitalia announcements, first in Italian—a man’s voice—and then in English—a woman announcer with what Parks accurately describes as a “very English” voice. She uses the Italian name of the stations—Roma and Firenze, rather than Rome and Florence—but pronounces them in an exaggeratedly English way, as Roe-mah and Fi-ren-say. When she says Trenitalia, he writes, she “manages to rhyme with genitalia.”
Try it. Genitalia. Trenitalia. Train-it-ale-ya.
Is this a joke? Tim Parks thinks it might be. “It begins to sound as if the announcements were deliberately making fun of the Englishman’s or in this case woman’s famed incompetence with foreign languages. I feel sure that this woman knows the proper pronunciations and is hamming it. She’s having fun.”
The Italian passengers think so, too – “For them it has the welcome effect of making the speakers of this globally dominant language seem stupid”—and so do I. Who can say “Train-it-ale-ya” with a straight face?
(And what is it about Italian pronunciation in English? Think of the high-end grocery Eataly, which is clever—where Train-it-ale-ya is not at all clever—but also symptomatic of the odd relationship between English and Italian.)
Author Tim Parks
The tone of the Italian Ways is by turns wry, frustrated, affectionate, testy, and awe-struck, and the personal anecdotes alternate with some of the history of Italian railways—and of Italy.
When it comes to Italy, Parks is a man who knows his subject. He was born and raised in England, but then married an Italian woman and has lived in Italy for more than thirty years. A distinguished translator into English of some of the great Italian writers—including Moravia, Calvino, Calasso, Machiavelli, and Leopardi, he has also written several books on his experiences as an Englishman in Italy: Italian Neighbours and An Italian Education, and A Season with Verona. His much-admired essay Translating Style is now available in a new and revised edition, and he has just published A Literary Tour of Italy.
Best known to most of us for his novels—the Booker-nominated Europa, Destiny, Painting Death and a dozen others—and for his acclaimed book on healing, Teach Us to Sit Still, he is a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books. His New York Review online posts on writing, reading, and translation are collected in Where I am Reading From He’s written a lot more, too—including Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics And Art In Fifteenth Century Florence, which I have found illuminating in my exploration of twenty-first century Florence over the past few weeks—but I’ll leave it at that.
As though all that were not enough, the reason he has such a wealth of experience of Italian trains, and of northern Italy especially, is that he spent most of the past three decades living in Verona and commuting by train to Milan where he teaches literature and translation at the Independent University of Modern Languages.
Parks is a terrific and surprising writer, often provocative, never less than interesting. Always prolific, he seems now to be in the midst of a mid-life explosion of energy and creativity. A writer to read, both on and off the rails.
Part I is here.
© Linda Leith, 2016
Linda Leith is the publisher of Salon .ll. and the owner of Linda Leith Publishing. The founder of Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival, she is a novelist and essayist living in Montreal and travelling, when possible, in Italy and by train.