The Clash of Languages in the Italian-Canadian Novel By Licia Canton



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The Clash of Languages in the Italian-Canadian Novel

By Licia Canton

In recent years, ethnic minority writing has played a major Pole in shedding light on the complexity of the Canadian identity. Italian-Canadians figure among the numerous communities active on the Canadian literary scene. In the last decade in particular the Italian-Canadian literary corpus, which traces its development alongside the growing Italian-Canadian community, has seen numerous publications, especially novels.

This paper discusses language, specifically the tension arising from the Italian word invading the Canadian text, as a representation of hyphenated identity in the following Italian-Canadian novels: Frank Paci’s The Italians (1978), Black Madonna (1982) and The Father (1984), Caterina Edwards’ The Lion’s Mouth (1982), Mary Melfi’s Infertility Rites (1991), Nino Ricci’s In a Glass House (1993) and Antonio D’Alfonso’s Fabrizio’s Passion (1995). The novels trace the process towards defining an identity which is torn between two conflicting cultures, the Italian and the Canadian. The analysis of these narratives shows that the tension and the negotiation between the Italian and the Canadian components of the bicultural identity represented at the level of the events narrated are also at work in the texture of the writing. Language causes friction between the two cultures presented in the narratives: the question of identity is played out in the weaving of the words.

In the Italian-Canadian novel, Italian elements are an impediment in the quest towards Canadianness. Although the new generation embraces Canadianness through education, friends and lifestyle, the presence of the old country remains through the influence of parents, customs and language. Otherness as represented by the old country can never be completely erased even in the second generation. The Italian component, therefore, is something of a weed which keeps resurfacing. The same occurs at the level of the writing. The novels discussed are written in English—Canadian English as opposed to American, British or Australian English—in a Canadian context and for a Canadian audience. The Italian word surfaces now and then thereby breaking the flow of the English-Canadian text. The presence of the heritage language in the English text is what Francesco Loriggio calls “the device of the stone” (39) or, to use Enoch Padolsky’s words, the “linguistic stone” (56). The Italian word within the English text is like a stone or a stumbling block. The presence of the “heritage” language within the “ethnic text” is a device used by the writer to illustrate the tension and negotiation at work in a bicultural identity.

Italian may take up as little space as a word or as much as a sentence, but in each case there is a noticeable effect on the narrative. Italian surfaces in different forms to break the flow of the English text: as a translated or untranslated word; as a literal translation of a phrase or sentence given in English; and as an English sentence having a latinate structure. There are two major reasons for the Italian word “contaminating” the English text: the first is purely to give the text an Italian flavour—to mark l’italianità of the writing; the second, which I focus on in this paper, serves a specific function in illustrating the duality inherent in the Italian-Canadian identity. The Italian word is present when there is no appropriate English equivalent: this points to the difference and, in extreme cases, to the incompatibility between the two cultures expressed within Italian-Canadian reality. And, the Italian presence, either as a word on the page or in the nuances of the sentence structure, points to the fact that within an Italian-Canadian reality there exists a constant process of translation.

The tension existing between elements of the Italian culture and the Canadian society in which the characters must constantly negotiate a space for their identity is especially evident in what I call “the irreplaceable Italian word.” In such instances the English translation would not do justice to the Italian original. Examples include the following discussion of polpi in Frank Paci’s The Father, polenta in Paci’s The Italians, calle and vaporetto in Caterina Edwards’ The Lion’s Mouth, and Ia busta in Antonio D’Alfonso’s Fabrizio’s Passion.

In Paci’s The Father, Oreste Mancuso who represents Italy, wants to instill a strong sense of the Italian heritage in his sons, whereas his wife Maddalena upholds Canadianness or the Canadian way. The tension between these two characters, and therefore between the two cultures, is illustrated in the following passage:
He [Oreste] brought up a bowl of dark grapes and set them on the table beside the polpi, a dish of fish stewed in large quantities of oil and red peppers...The dish was so strong that no-one else in the family could eat it. A fresh loaf from the bakery rested beside his favourite dish. (63-64)
In this passage, the word polpi breaks both the English language and the Canadian culture by highlighting the Italian one. The word polpi refers to Oreste’s favourite dish, something from the old country that he will not give up, like making his own bread and wine. In this scene the bread was made by Oreste in his bakery, and he has just finished making wine. The word polpi also emphasizes the tension between the members of the family: Oreste who represents the ways of the old country, and Maddalena and Stefano who want to become Canadianized. It is significant, then, that no one besides Oreste can eat the polpi because they are too strong, signifying “too old country.” The rejection of the polpi by the rest of the family is symbolically a rejection of Oreste and of the old country.

In The Italians, the narrator (speaking from Alberto’s perspective) comments on Giulia’s tendency to prepare too much food: “To judge from the meal’s size, she still hadn’t got over the years in the old country when they had been forced to eat polenta almost every day. They had scarcely seen meat then...”(74). The word polenta disrupts the English passage in two ways. First, the mere presence of the Italian word causes tension within the first sentence. Second, the word polenta causes a shift in setting, from the overabundant Christmas meal that Giulia has prepared in the present to the poverty experienced in the Italy of the past. The presence of the Italian word results in the juxtaposition of the Italian setting and the Canadian one, thereby pointing to the fact that the Italian past (the poverty which caused a diet of cornmeal and bread) is an undeniable component of Italian-Canadian identity. In other words, the Italian past is responsible for the behaviour of the present, in this case Giulia’s fear of regression.

The inclusion of specific Italian words in Caterina Edwards’ The Lion’s Mouth also takes the reader back to the Italian setting. In the subordinate narrative (Marco’s story), the author uses nouns such as vaporetto and calle that are specific to the Venetian setting:
Seeing the floating station for the vaporetto before him, Marco realized he had been going in the wrong direction...(21) Stopping at the top of a bridge and gazing down at the twisting calle, he saw the last of the evening crowd...He began running, pushing his way down the calle, then turning off down a narrow, empty fondamento (30). He broke into a slight run. Calle. Bridge. One more—the last narrow street was blocked off. (37)
In this passage the Italian words which describe Marco’s Venice cause the reader to experience the Italian component of the novel. The vaporetto is a common means of transportation in the water city. An English equivalent such as “boat” or “little steamer” could have been included, but no English word could do justice to the image created by the word vaporetto. Similarly, the word calle could be replaced by “narrow street,” as in the last sentence quoted above. The calle, however, is one of Venice’s specific attributes. In fact, The Collins Concise Italian-English Dictionary gives the meaning for calle as “narrow street (in Venice).” The fondamento refers to the platform or quay at the edge of the water—where manmade construction meets one of the natural elements, water. The fondamento represents stability, a product of man’s rationality, whereas water represents nature’s uncontrollability and unpredictability—as in the recurring Venetian floods, one of which is described in Edwards’ novel.

The presence of Italian words in the above passage, as in the novel itself, which are very specific to the city of Venice, creates an image of the setting inhabited by Marco, a setting which is at the root of Bianca’s (the Italian-Canadian protagonist) quest for identity. Venice—the calle, the vaporetto, the water—is an ineffaceable component of Bianca’s identity as well as Marco’s. The passage quoted above reflects Marco’s unstable and precarious situation: his lack of direction, psychological and physical (given that “he had been going in the wrong direction”), and his sense of panic are indications of his impending nervous breakdown. The words italicized in the above passage are simultaneously associated with motion—the constant motion, therefore instability—and the maze which qualifies Marco’s psychological state. The author has chosen these specific Italian words to create a detailed image of the Italian water city and to illustrate the vulnerability of an individual’s identity.

In the last chapter of Fabrizio’s Passion, the narrator takes the time to explain the connotations of the busta (the envelope) which is an integral part of Lucia Notte’s wedding as of many Italian-Canadian weddings:
Peter is tripping over Lucia, their hands encumbered by white envelopes handed to them by the guests after the handshakes. Those famous Italian envelopes...La busta. How to describe this seemingly simple object intrinsically linked to Italian-American weddings? This tiny white envelope seals what consideration or dislike one family holds for another...Each envelope is a potential time bomb. It can celebrate a friendship or insinuate a subtle disenchantment. All confessed, yet nothing ever openly spelled out—one family’s unbreakable loyalty to you as well as another’s hypocrisy. (226-7)
The busta holds nuances and connotations that the “envelope” does not. What the narrator does not spell out is that the busta is the carrier of a monetary amount given to the newlyweds as a gift. It is the specific amount of money contained in the envelope which “can celebrate a friendship or insinuate a subtle disenchantment.” The word busta in the above passage is more than a simple envelope; it is a symbol of the traditional Italian wedding in Canada. It brings together the friends and relatives from the old country in the setting of the new country.

The word paesano, or paesani in the plural, which appears in several instances in the novels has several connotations. In Italian a paesano is a person who is from the same town, or nearby town, in Italy. For instance, in commenting on his first weeks in Mersea the narrator of In a Glass House points to “the strange half-familiar faces of the paesani who came to visit” (3). Here, the word paesani refers to people originally from Valle del Sole, Vittorio’s hometown, or from neighbouring towns. For the Italian living abroad, such as the Italian-Canadian, the word paesano has taken on a broader meaning to refer to Italians of the same region. And, in regions outside of Italy inhabited by few Italians, paesano refers to Italians in general. This meaning of paesano has also been adopted by non-Italians to show kinship or goodwill, be it sincere or not. It is sometimes used to make fun of the Italian as well. Mario Innocente (In a Glass House) comments on the non-Italian’s use of the word paesano in the passage below:


“Mario,” he [the German] said. “Mario, Mario, como stai, paesano?”...

“That was the guy I bought the farm from,” he [Mario] said. “Those Germans —paesano this, paesano that, everyone’s a paesano. But the old bastard just wanted to make sure I don’t forget to pay him.” (31)


The passage shows the Italian’s mistrust of non-Italians who try to ingratiate themselves by relying on the inherent friendship implied in the word paesano. Although Mario Innocente is not fooled by this, his young son Vittorio is lured into a false sense of friendship by the bullies on the school bus:
Italiano,” I [Vittorio] said, clutching at the familiar word. “Ah, Italiano!” He thumped a hand on his chest. “Me speak Italiano mucho mucho. Me paesano.”

When the other boys got on the bus and came to the back, the black-haired boy said they were paesani as well, and each in turn smiled broadly at me and shook my hand. (49)


Vittorio soon discovers that the pretense of friendship is simply a way of making fun of him.

The word paesano, then, brings together the Italian and the non-Italian, be it positive or negative, sincere or not. For the Italian-Canadian, the word creates a link between the new country and Italy by defining and uniting those of the same origin; at the same time the word allows the non-Italian, or the Canadian, to enter into the Italian culture albeit under false pretense. The word paesano brings together the two components of Italian-Canadian identity in uniting the true sense of the word with the meaning adopted by non-Italians. In each of the examples quoted above, the presence of the Italian word highlights something specifically Italian within Italian-Canadian reality and emphasizes the fact that this component cannot be erased or replaced within a Canadian context.

The author’s choice to include the translation of an Italian word or sentence renders the text accessible to the reader who does not read Italian. It therefore establishes a certain openness—the will to reach beyond a minority audience. On the other hand, the absence of the translation renders inaccessible certain sections of the novel to readers who do not read Italian. In this case, it can be argued that the author risks alienating the non-Italian speaking reader, thereby establishing a certain degree of elitism for the novel. Arun Mukherjee distinguishes between the two by labelling the reader a “cultural insider” or a “cultural outsider” (44). Of course, in certain instances in which the Italian word appears without the translation the meaning is not lost for the reader. In other cases, the translation is necessary to understand the allusion made and the nuances of the action. In The Italians, for instance, it is necessary for the reader to know the meaning of the words “ero ubriaco” (20; “I was drunk”) in order to understand the reason Lorenzo gives for raping his wife. Another such instance occurs in The Lion’s Mouth: Stasera mi butto is the title of “the silly pop song” Marco and his bride-to-be had danced to the summer before their wedding (30). The reference to the pop song has a number of implications that the reader who does not read Italian will miss. The English equivalent of Stasera mi butto is “Tonight I throw myself” or “I abandon myself tonight.” The meaning is very important because it refers to Marco’s status in his marriage: by marrying Paola—a wealthy but overly demanding and domineering wife, whom he does not love—Marco abandons “his” self, losing his own identity in order to improve his social status. At the same time, the reference to the song foreshadows Marco’s one night stand with Elena, the woman he has loved since childhood: Marco abandons himself to Elena that same night (stasera), thereby unknowingly entangling himself in a terrorist plot and jeopardizing his marriage and his reputation.

The process of translating is an undeniable step in writing for the Italian-Canadian author. Joseph Pivato makes this point in Echo: Essays on Other Literatures: “Independently of the language or languages the Italian writer uses, he or she is always translating. It often seems that the translating process becomes more important than the distant Italian reality that it may be evoking” (125). Translation is a way of bringing together the two worlds which make up the Italian-Canadian reality. Bianca, the narrator in The Lion’s Mouth, is very conscious of the activity of translating inherent in the process of narration and in her Italian-Canadian reality. Edwards’ novel highlights the complexity of the presence of Italian words, and their English equivalents: Bianca simultaneously reads her aunt’s letter written in Italian and translates it into English for herself:


“Bianca, se sapessi, Se sapessi,” if you knew, if you knew, “Que [sic, Chel disgrazia di Dio.” God’s disgrace? I must be translating incorrectly, a disgrace from God. “Barbara scossa.” Barbara has been shocked? hit? shaken?...Worse, Marco (you, you) suffered a nervous breakdown.” Esaurimento nervoso, the words translated literally as an exhaustion of the nerves. (9-10)
This passage illustrates the interplay between levels of the text and the complications resulting from the presence of Italian as well as the negotiation involved between “the Italian” and “the Canadian” components of the narrator’s Italian-Canadian reality. The narrator translates for her own benefit: to ascertain that she understands the written Italian word, she feels compelled to find the English equivalent. This illustrates the constant need to bring together the two components of her reality in an attempt to better understand herself. The narrator points to the importance of the translation process necessary when the Italian word, in this case her aunt’s letter, enters her own Canadian context. The narrator takes her role as translator very seriously in finding the appropriate word, which testifies to the notion that the Italian-Canadian lives in a state of constant translation.

Fabrizio, the narrator in Fabrizio’s Passion, shares the same attention to detail in the act of translating: “When I finish the pasta, faccio la scarpetta. (Literally, this translates as ‘to wet one’s shoe,’ that is, to soak a piece of bread in the tomato sauce, and wipe clean one’s plate!)” (65). In the two examples mentioned, the act of translating is an attempt to unite the two worlds which comprise the narrator’s reality, that of the Italian-Canadian. This is done in two simultaneous ways: first, by stating in Italian that which has its origin in the Italian world (the aunt’s letter; the way one cleans the plate with bread); and second, by giving the English equivalent so that the non-Italian reader, rather than feel alienated, feels connected to that Italian world being described.

The tension existing between the Italian and the Canadian is rooted as deeply as the structure of the sentence, virtually beneath the texture of the writing. The stilted sentence is an English sentence which sounds Italian—a sentence which has a latinate structure as opposed to an anglo-saxon or germanic structure. It is important to stress that the stilted sentence is different from the literal translation. In Infertility Rites, for instance, Nina is asked “When are you going to buy your baby?” (11) which is a direct translation from the Italian idiom meaning “when will you have a baby.” This is a literal translation purposely used to maintain the Italian flavour and to indicate that the words were spoken in Italian. The same is true of the following: “I pour myself another cup of American coffee—what mother calls ‘coloured water”(137). The expression “coloured water” is a direct translation for the Italian cliché on American coffee. In The Lion’s Mouth, Bianca reads in her aunt’s letter that her cousin Marco has had “an exhaustion of the nerves”—the literal translation of esaurimento newoso meaning a nervous breakdown (10). In these examples, the objective is not to sound English but to transmit the Italian idiom into English words without remaining faithful to the nuances of each language. This is usually done to indicate that the words are originally spoken in Italian.

In the stilted sentence, on the other hand, Italian is not present as words but at the level of the sentence structure, a characteristic which has been criticized as badly written English, or simply bad writing. I would suggest, instead, that the presence of latinate structures within the Italian-Canadian novel represents, to use Pasquale Verdicchio’s words, “the utterances of immigrant culture” (214) and mirrors the reality of the Italian-Canadian experience.

The following passage from Black Madonna illustrates the latinate structure present in a conversation between Assunta and Marie, who represent polar opposites of the Italian-Canadian duality:
“Ma, I’m going to Toronto,” Marie said abruptly. “They. .

She couldn’t find the Italian word for “accepted.” [sic] “They took me. .

“Ma, I have to go. More times I go to school, better job.”

“You tell to your father...These things, I don’t understand...You go to school—good. You smart—good. But you crazy. Your head in the clouds. The older you get, the crazier you get. I don’t understand you. To Toronto you want to go?” (70-1)


In order to communicate with her mother, Marie is forced to speak like her. Although Marie’s “More times I go to school, better job” is not correct English, the structure is correct in Italian. Likewise, Assunta’s “These things, I don’t understand.” and “To Toronto you want to go?” (where the (in)direct object precedes the verb) have an Italian structure. The sentence “You tell to your father,” on the other hand, is a direct translation of the Italian. Moreover, the subject of their conversation consists of the “push and pull” characteristic of the old way versus the new way: the traditional Italian mother does not want her daughter to leave home, whereas Marie wants to experience the freedom of Canadian society.

In Fabrizio’s Passion, Fabrizio uses an Italian sentence structure when he says “I am fourteen years old but am thirty in my head” (72). This does not work grammatically in English but is often used in Italian. Likewise, in The Lion’s Mouth: “But where have you been?...We waited an hour, but since you didn’t have the courtesy to even phone...” (37-38) and “So loud you have to have that record?” (42) have an Italian sentence structure. Such a structure is appropriate here given that the sentences are spoken by an Italian, Marco’s mother. Bianca, too, is guilty of using the latinate sentence structure: “Her bedroom, that evening I visited, was sparse, cell-like” (116). The following passage appears at the end of The Lion’s Mouth, in the Epilogue:


This week, Barbara arrived and I must play the wise aunt with a trunkful of distractions. Poor child—as I write she is standing in the living room, staring out the window at the still leafless trees and mud-filled garden, wondering what place is this. . . So I begin again my life in this city, this land. (my italics, 178)
Even though narrating her tale has given Bianca a clear focus on both components of her cultural makeup, the stiltedness of the italicized words emphasize the influence of Bianca’s Italian heritage. It is also significant that the first phrase, “wondering what place is this,” refers to Barbara, the Italian girl visiting from Venice, taking in the novelty and difference of western Canada.

The presence of the heritage language within the “ethnic text” has led to accusations of bad writing, and the use of the stilted sentence may be perceived as the writer’s inability to master the English language. On the contrary, these “ethnic markers” or “linguistic stones” are devices purposely used by the writer to illustrate the tension and negotiation at work in a bicultural identity. As Pasquale Verdicchio argues:


By stressing latinate vocabulary, by the insertion of Italian syntactical forms, and by the inclusion of linguistic elements that represent the utterances of immigrant culture, these [Italian-Canadian] writers have altered the semantic field of English, thereby denying expected meaning. (214)
The fact that the Italian word interrupts the flow of the English text is a way of illustrating the symptoms of otherness which are an undeniable characteristic of Italian-Canadian reality. The presence of the Italian word within the English text should not be interpreted as a barrier between the two (Italian and Canadian) cultures. Rather, the meshing of Italian words with English words should be seen as the negotiation necessary in order to bring the two cultures together. Arun Mukherjee writes that “Ethnic minority texts inform their readers, through the presence of other languages...about the multi-cultural and multilingual nature of Canadian society” (46). Through their fiction Italian-Canadian writers suggest that in order to come to terms with the element of “schizophrenia” inherent in a bicultural identity, the individual must undertake the process of reevaluating the heritage culture. By using the “device of the stone,” the Italian-Canadian writer attempts to illustrate the continuous transfer from one culture/language to the other experienced by bicultural individuals.

Canton , Licia. (2004). “The Clash of Languages in the Italian-Canadian Novel.” Adjacencies: Minority Writing in Canada . Ed. Lianne Moyes et al. Toronto : Guernica.

Works Cited
D’Alfonso, Antonio. Fabrizio’s Passion. Toronto: Guernica, 1995.

Edwards, Caterina. The Lion’s Mouth. Edmonton: NeWest, 1982.

Loriggio, Francesco. “History, Literary History, and Ethnic Literature.” Literatures ofLesserDiffusion. Eds. Joseph Pivato et al. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1990.

Melfi, Mary. Infertility Rites. Montreal: Guernica, 1991.

Mukherjee, Arun. “Teaching Ethnic Minority Writing: A Report from the Classroom.” Journal of Canadian Studies 31.3 (1996): 3 8-47.

Paci, Frank. Black Madonna. Ottawa: Oberon, 1982.



The Father. Ottawa: Oberon, 1984.

The Italians. Ottawa: Oberon, 1978.

Padolsky, Enoch. “Canadian Minority Writing and Acculturation Options.” Literatures of Lesser Diffusion. Eds. Joseph Pivato et al. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1990.

Pivato, Joseph. Echo: Essays on Other Literatures. Toronto: Guernica, 1994.

Ricci, Nino. In a Glass House. Toronto: McCleltand and Stewart, 1993.

Verdicchio, Pasquale. “Subalterns Abroad: Writing Between Nations and Cultures.” Social Pluralism and Literary History. Ed. Francesco Loriggio. Toronto: Guernica, 1996. 206-226.

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