By Lorenzo Pelosini
The problem of translation is central to the very concept of storytelling. We write and recount our stories so we can translate our subjective perception into a collective experience. In that sense, we misunderstand what translation truly means. We end up writing stories “for everybody,” presenting high concepts for the average consumer, intentionally depersonalized to appeal to every culture and individual impartially. It’s easy to understand why stories from (and about) other countries and written in different languages are often considered extraneous products in the United States—if they come from afar and need to be translated, they couldn’t possibly have meaning for us. But there’s a paradox here. The more personal and specific a given narrative is, the more it becomes translatable to a wide audience. James Barrie wrote Peter Pan after his afternoons with the Davis family, and what we read in the novel is specific to what Barrie felt as he was rediscovering his childhood—being a cowboy, a pirate, a lost boy—and making up stories for the Davis children. Yet when we read the book, we don’t see Barrie’s childhood. Instead, we rediscover our own. That’s because there is a truth to our stories that’s more essential than the objective truth, an emotional knowledge that ultimately represents the reason we love stories.
Now, every culture has evolved by following dogmas, rituals and values. These values are often based simply on historical events and social reactions to them, which should theoretically make such stories valuable only to those who experienced such events. However, some of these values reflect archetypical desires able to transcend local realities. As James Joyce would say, “The particular contains the universal.” Besides, cultures are much more fluid entities than we tend to think, to the point where one may “pass on its genes” to the other. Take Italy and the United States, for example. They are, in a way, different planets, alien to each other in terms of values. Italy was founded on the concept of family, while the United States is centered on the individual. Italy is about living a happy and simple life, while the U.S. is about reaching the top. It’s present versus future, relaxation versus ambition, enjoyment versus achievement. But the fact is that one of these cultures is at least partially the product of the other.
Mario Puzo eloquently describes this transition in his novel The Godfather. He tells one of the most epic (and most American) stories of our time, the story of how Western culture’s European way of thinking has evolved into a quintessentially American way of going through life. The saga follows the life of Vito Corleone and his son Michael. Young Vito is forced to leave Sicily for the New World when the local mobster kills his mother. A new mother, the Statue of Liberty, welcomes him, but it’s only a mirage. The real America is a brutal arena where only the strongest seem to survive. Vito starts a family, but the hostile environment and the fear of once again losing his loved ones forces him to join the mafia himself, ultimately condemning Michael to the same violent life. The metaphor couldn’t be more perfect. Initially, Vito is an innocent child, living in an environment that encourages a peaceful way of living. But when violence erupts, the child is forced into another world, one where he is tempted to play the same game that killed his mother and his innocence. This is the same way that Europe gave life to America.
As Antonio Monda once said, America is more of a concept than a nation. It was born from the desire to escape restrictions and find a new life. Generally speaking, Europe—with Italy at its core—is a relatively peaceful place, like a cottage on a lake, but it’s anchored to its past, a past too rich and ancient to be ignored. Deep down in our cultural id, we wish we could re-create the glory of the Roman Empire. However, our superego rejects the violence attached to that glory, leading us toward a simple life made of rest and good food. We could liken Europe to an overprotective mother who hides the glory that marked her youth from her ambitious children. But you can’t repress ambition for long, and eventually some of her kids escaped that safe haven for a wider universe where they could pursue their ambitions. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, a new world had been born, a world that placed no limits on dreams. Like adulthood itself, America was a place of possibility and danger, a place where dreams and corruption were inextricably entwined. Which is why it’s so important to have our priorities in order when we venture into this world.
The massive European immigration that shaped the United States also mirrors another, more fundamental transition that happens on an individual level: the evolution from childhood to maturity. Europeans left for America for the same reason we all leave for adulthood: We want more. We want to pursue the dreams we dreamed as children. And the only way to realize them and achieve our own glory is to turn those dreams into something tangible: a true story to live and tell. But the problem with wanting more is that there is always something more to want after our original goal has been fulfilled. An old Italian poem by Giovanni Pascoli tells how, when Alexander the Great conquered the world, he looked at the moon with anger, knowing he wouldn’t be able to conquer that, too. That human obsession is what turned America into a realm of self-sustained productivity, a machine that tends to serve itself more than the dreams that fuel it. When we’re caught in that game, it’s easy to forget why we wanted to play it in the first place.
In this sense, we are all born Italians. Our childhood, if we’re lucky, is nothing but good food, comfort and relaxing times spent surrounded by our loved ones. In a word, peace. Later, adulthood robs us of our serenity and asks us to join in the game of success. A game that could gift us with a journey of self-discovery but also a game that could corrupt us and alienate us to our core. The game of adulthood isn’t bad per se, provided that we’re able to keep our priorities in order. Valuing success will help us to survive and even evolve, but honoring the children we were and the peace we once knew is the only way to stay alive.
Moving from Italy to the United States has been my greatest dream because it’s a life transition that mirrors the most archetypical journey. When I embraced that journey, my life changed. Each day, I marvel at the possibilities I have here, at the dreams I can finally follow. And each day, I do my best to remember where I come from, to remember the peace I had as a child and the story I need to live and tell to make that peace complete. Mine is one of many personal stories that have come from afar, stories that need to be translated. That old world we came from is only geographically located on the other side of the ocean. Culturally, it lies at the core of the American experience, which somehow makes European values our mother tongue, the same way we all spoke “child” before speaking “adult.” Exploring European and Italian values does not mean shifting the focus from what matters—it means digging into the core of American culture, bringing the very essence of the American dream to the surface. We’re talking about an outside perspective that turns out to be an inside one, just like a story of someone else’s childhood that somehow reminds us of our own. A perspective that perhaps could help us understand why exactly the journey we all take is worth our time and how dreams like the American one can actually come true.
Lorenzo Pelosini is an Italian novelist and screenwriter. His latest novel is River Runner: The Golden Thread (2014, Hermatena Mutus Liber). He’s currently working on a pilot for a folklore anthology show in Hollywood.