Every year, in February, my mother insisted we watch the Sanremo Music Festival.
For five days, we’d sit on the couch in front of the TV and listen to those uninspired songs, stunned by a deluge of roses and teased hair.
Well, at least my brother and I listened – she couldn’t – she read the subtitles to follow the songs.
The melodic pop singers on that stage always put on operatic airs, waving their arms around, but with nearly all of them doing it, my mother couldn’t tell any difference between their songs. She couldn’t see from their stance if the song was sad or about love or social commitment; she had to trust those terse, often out-of-sync subtitles popping up.
My mother has always loved music. She grew up in a family that was always playing music on tapes and the accordion, and enjoyed watching Neapolitan musicals, with their cloying choruses and repetitive rhythms, usually about some unexpected betrayal or a time when someone was unjustly imprisoned.
When I decided to major in anthropology in college, it felt like I was enrolling in an anti-stereotype program. I couldn’t wait to learn about class, gender, and ethnicity, to see them blown apart, and discover a new kind of hybrid humanity, so I could forget all those things that had conditioned me and made me who I was. Early on, one professor told us: ‘By the time you’re through here, you’ll realize there’s something to the fact that Germans are rigid. That Neapolitans steal. That Romans are bad drivers.’ He was being honest with us, and in some sophisticated ways, he was right. Soon we’d be reading Michael Herzfeld’s Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State, and we made our peace.
And this is why I don’t feel guilty about stereotyping my Italian-American family through passionate criminal references, the great fantasies they aspired to. These were their favorite movies, their favorite songs.
Back then, I didn’t know what metaphors and allegories were, and neither did my mother – when I translated a song for her, the texts of Nino D’Angelo or Mario Merola, so she could feel closer to her father, who loved those Neapolitan singers, everything seemed literal to us: the people they sang of were truly prepared to kill or die for unrequited love. Those songs were declarations of war, not transfigurations of sorrow; they were transformative acts, not passive comforts.
My mother and I were out of context.
My mother and I preferred our texts real, but we were surrounded by fiction. Fiction in the blood: delusion was common in her family – she may have been deaf, but every year, her brother Arthur still gave her a Walkman as a gift.
She’d hook one of Sony’s first yellow Walkmans onto the belt loop of her jeans while she cleaned the house, and she swore she could feel the beat. ‘Aren’t you crazy about this band?’ she’d ask a guest, and this friend would turn to me with a questioning look, given the fact that my mother couldn’t hear. It would be like saying he had a favorite letter in braille. Maybe, but since he wasn’t blind, it wasn’t the same.
To her family, my mother was, above everything else, a foreigner, an incomprehensible girl: now they live far apart, and she goes to visit her brothers every year or two, but they still don’t know how to deal with the fact that she can’t hear. They’ll speak together and it won’t be in sign language or in an immigrants’ language, either: none of them know English like they should, and no one mentions disability. What’s disability anyway in a household where no one speaks like anyone else?
‘What’s the music like?’ my mother would ask when I was little and swaying to the sound of the tarantella, down in her father’s basement. He’d invite her to dance, stamp his leather shoes on the floor, hoping the vibrations would sail up her calves, ripple in her hips, crash against her ribs, while his old friends played their accordions and drank like fish, and sometimes she danced, and sometimes not. Then, there came a point when she retreated. She stopped asking about the music, grew increasingly weary of that game. And no matter how much I liked to see her dance, it also made me angry, I was annoyed by her performance, her desire to join in: her steps were never quick enough, never in rhythm. Just like I resented her laughter when we watched a movie together – if she noticed I was laughing, she’d laugh, too, but a few seconds too late. A physical reaction, almost involuntary, whether or not she’d understood, and in those few seconds, everything in me turned sour.
My mother watched the Sanremo Festival like it was a competition for the best story of the year. The texts were all that mattered, prose poems overindulging in love and pain.
She liked singer-songwriters and had a collection of books on music: the history of reggae, an anthology of songs from prison, communist anthems, Patti Smith’s early poems, Bob Dylan’s collected lyrics. Like her, I never wondered what those songs sounded like when I borrowed those books; we were both there for the story. Before someone took me to a record shop, I didn’t know Patti Smith and Bob Dylan even had a voice. I’d experienced those musicians just like my mother – in silence.
I’d tried to imagine how they sounded, and I found their pulse, their rhythm, the same way I did with any other fiction writer or poet I read. And when I first heard their voices, I wasn’t disappointed, not really, but I did lose something in the bargain – a closeness to my mother. I stepped over the line and into another world, where songs could be heard and repeated ad nauseam. In that moment, I also lost my appropriation fantasy that comes so easily when I read literature: I could no longer fill in the cracks between the words with a music that was mine alone. That’s why I haven’t understood the debates about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize: to me he’s always been more alive in his writing than in his voice.
The songs presented at Sanremo were less ambitious than the ones described in those books. They weren’t revolutionary or inventive or prophetic, and they did nothing for the genre: the main concern of those musicians was avoiding losing someone they loved, or else losing someone they loved so they could write a song about it.
But there were exceptions. My mother and I lived for the exceptions.
In 1993, a kid named Nek got on stage to sing ‘In te,’ his song about abortion. It was emphatically pro-life, but at least it was different. In 1996, Federico Salvatore dealt with homosexuality in ‘Sulla porta,’ a song focusing on a mother rejecting her gay son. In 1999, the singer-songwriter Daniele Silvestri sang ‘Aria,’ a story ripped from the headlines about a man sentenced to die at Asinara prison.
These songs, by the way, were my first real exposure to these national, sociopolitical debates. I lived in a society where suffering didn’t exist unless it could be measured by someone’s physical distance from a doctor or a priest.
My mother couldn’t stand fiction, so she always rooted for the songs with social repercussions, and these usually won, since they wound up discussed in the papers. I think it was her way of standing up for the victory of meaning over sound, and getting her revenge on those few mainly instrumental pieces that left people like her without a clue. So maybe it’s more accurate to say that in this particular contest, my mother was searching for the best nonfiction story of the year.
Her comments about these songs: ‘His girlfriend really did have an abortion and now he’s suffering.’ ‘How awful it must feel to be rejected by your mother.’ ‘I wonder if I could write him in prison.’
My father couldn’t stand fiction either. For him movies like Scarface and Evil Dead are documentaries, real-life stories. Every time I tried to explain that ‘this never happened,’ to introduce him to the subtleties of fiction, he’d protest and wave me off, sometimes enraged. If I told my mother that the movie she just saw wasn’t a biopic, then that movie wasn’t worth a damn. She still thinks The Exorcist is a realist masterpiece.
Both my parents interpret life as fact and cling to words for what they are, but they’re also suspicious, like many deaf people, always afraid there are those conspiring about meanings behind their back; for my parents, a rose is truly a rose is a rose, but is it truly?
My life as a writer depends on irony and metaphor, and my parents are horrified and alienated by both. When we’re together, we enter a strange territory, a language black market: I force allegories onto them, and they fight back that words are unequivocal, can’t possibly have multiple meanings.
My father kept having terrible dreams after the divorce, so one year for Christmas I gave him a small white eraser. I wrote on it, ‘To erase bad memories,’ which he didn’t take very well. I was just trying to be his daughter, to identify with the healing properties of objects, the literalness of things, but this wasn’t my battle; it was his.
I’ve always thought deafness was an obstacle to their fully recognizing figurative language. As a girl, without reflecting on it, I believed a gap existed in my parents’ knowledge and that I could work my hardest to fill this gap, by interpreting and swapping out words for them. According to some studies, though, there are no real differences between deaf and hearing teenagers when it comes to understanding a metaphor they might find in a novel. Irony is a bit different: apparently, deaf teenagers understand irony more as they develop, as they grow increasingly aware of a tone that inflects (or infects) the people around them. But irony is a figure of speech that arrives with a loss of innocence for all, hearing or otherwise. (The first time my mother understood an ironic joke she was fifty-five, and my brother and I just stared at her, amazed and incredibly grateful.)
For a deaf reader, the journey inside a metaphor can be slower, more winding and unpredictable, but this is true for many of us: while we rely on a shared archive of symbols when we read a work of art, our internal translations of those symbols vary. When it comes to tests for measuring reading comprehension, I do think it’s a mistake if a child misses all the symbolism in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but I like that kind of mistake. If a metaphor is an accident, a revelation, a car crash, I’m always left picking up the same shattered bits of glass. I never capture, never obtain even one new splinter; I just stick to my part in the constant recycling of beauty.
I don’t know if my parents were proud of not following proper grammar rules or were just too lazy to develop their skills in literacy or simply put too much trust in their senses and preferred demystifying a code that didn’t pertain to them anyway, but I often think of them when I’m translating novels from one language to another: I’m no longer worried that I’m drawn to errors, that I have a soft spot for them.
Not too long ago, I found myself thinking about James Barrie’s Neverland in Peter Pan. In Italian, Neverland has been translated as ‘L’isola che non c’è,’ The island that’s not there, but honestly a literal translation of the English would be better: while ‘L’isola che non c’è’ suggests a territory that’s impossible to find or even non-existent, the literal ‘Maiterra’ is a refusal, the longing to cut all ties to the traditional world, and is closer to the Lost Boys’ intentions. No, as a children’s resounding battle cry, ‘Terramai!’ works even better.
‘Terramai’ is the literal translation of Landnever. Some thing James M. Barrie never used, which is just bad English, not something that was ever there to begin with, but my parents would like it: I think this error is more faithful to what a child would say; it restores a joyous sense of escape, and as I rewrite the story in my head to include this word, I’m imitating my parents’ daily acts of linguistic defiance. Translation is also a story of poetic imprecision. In this game, my parents always win.
As much as my mother liked watching Sanremo, she despised the purely musical aspect to it. There were never subtitles for instrumental sections. No attempt, no effort whatsoever to describe what was going on in the rhythm, if it was slow or rapid or dreamy. The only symbols appearing on the screen were: ♫ ♫ ♫.
Those notes meant nothing, were like writing a a aa bbb /// – – cc and assuming these represented something in the absence of a shared code. Those notes were just neutral icons tossed in as distraction, to keep my mother in front of the screen without really having her there.
It was only later that I started thinking about those notes and those lost sounds.
In movies and TV series, the subtitles indicating a sound property, sound captions, are minimalist but effective [scary creaking] [heavy storm] [old man crying]: these formulas characterize noises through physical objects and adjectives that a deaf person has learned to decode over time.
The sound a text communicated would get a physical reaction out of my mother: a reference to a ghost would be enough to scare her; a hint of a storm would make her uneasy. The subtitles were innocuous in appearance: in Western culture, they’re barely considered at all, are just white marks on black backgrounds, in anonymous typeface. They rarely include different fonts, any movement or color, any means for words to slip into some other aesthetic dimension; usually they show up at the bottom, unless they’re covering up some necessary visual detail. But what if a character on the screen is writing a letter or typing something out? Wouldn’t it make sense to synchronize the emerging words with the rhythm of the typing? The subtitles could also scroll down the side of the screen, one letter appearing at a time, or disappearing into the background, a pulsing flow of letters.
I wish poets always worked on subtitles; I wish public television would hire a whole army of surrealist or language poets who could make the blood run from a scary word in a horror movie, or make words disappear when they’re said by gh ts or cross out angry words or sweep them away or make a statement pulse like a heartbeat if someone on the screen deserves it.
But most of all, I wish they’d quit with the formatting that makes absolutely no sense, like:
DON’T TELL HER I TOLD YOU
Who whispers in all caps? And how do I explain that to my mother?
We’ve never been to a concert together. I’ve taken her to see musicals, plays, ballets, movies, but we’ve never gone to see a live band. There’d be no point to this – except for a Beyoncé concert, maybe, with all the fantastic dancing and special effects – concert venues in Italy rarely have interpreters in a Deaf Zone: there is no Deaf Zone.
The last time I went to a music festival in America, I purposefully visited that area below the stage, prepared to feel like an outsider, since I don’t speak sign language, a choice my parents made for me.
All the CODAs (children of deaf adults) I’ve met know how to speak it. One of my mother’s friends has a daughter who’s ten and knows how to sign in both Italian and Serbian; she’s always teasing me when I’m not able to follow their conversations and I draw shapes in the air that are entirely made up. I haven’t taken any classes to learn sign language, but I do try my hardest to come up with gestures that the adults around me might understand. Usually with disappointing results, and my mother will beg me to stop signing while we’re out; she says I’m like some crazy dancer who’s just been booted out of a company.
Dancing, that’s what everyone did in the Deaf Zone: the interpreter’s performance was impressive, but really, every language is a performance. Though unlike my attempts, her performance was coordinated, graceful, and most of all, meaningful: French philosophers are always obsessed with finding subjects that can ‘embody the text’: they should pay more attention to sign-language interpreters at music festivals. American Sign Language interpreters translate incredible amounts of hip-hop, country, and folk music; every day there are more and more videos on YouTube that reveal what goes into this art form. The interpreters – usually women – especially love working on hip-hop pieces because they’re so challenging, with every line break-danced.
Jay-Z is easy to translate for someone who knows American or Italian sign language, but what about wordless pieces? How likely is it for a deaf Italian or American to be exposed to Finnish ambient music or to African psychedelic rock? Who visually interprets these pieces, and for whom?
In 1979, John Varley published a science-fiction novella, The Persistence of Vision, about a drifter who tells the story of a world in collapse. One day, he comes across a commune made up of people who are deaf, blind, and mute and have developed their own linguistic code, bodytalk, with words spelled directly onto the skin. The protagonist becomes friends with an ‘able’ girl, one of the few who can see and hear in this community. But her ability is relative: the girl doesn’t know how to articulate the signs her parents mark on her body in order to communicate, and she doesn’t know how to translate the words of the outside world for them. The members of the commune also speak through ‘touch,’ a physical linguistic act of sorts, where people establish contact through the body but with no sexual gender, no country of origin, no ethnicity, because they all communicate with each other while never being seen or heard, only through the sum of years and experiences that have rendered a particular body, where the skin is the story and every scar is a verb.
John Varley’s deaf and blind people are empathetic, deeply fair, and devoid of prejudice; they deserve to govern because of their disability; in a utopian world, we’d all be imperfect and work together toward the common good.
It’s nice to think about, that a sudden disability leads us into a different relationship with power, will make us fairer, but my parents aren’t anything like the deaf people in this novella, and I don’t kid myself that they are.
I wish an interpreter of non-Western music could help my mother enter a transitional realm made up of bodytalk and synesthesia, where the hierarchy of the senses is constantly challenged and reshaped, so a piece of Finnish ambient music might still hold all the power of its own cultural landscape while dissolving into the familiar.
The surest way to translate sounds for the deaf is through technology. My mother’s parents and brothers were visionary in this regard: the Walkmans and ordinary CD players they bought her may have been inadequate, but her family was on the right track. She needed add-ons to hear what they heard; she didn’t necessarily need to see music to experience it: she could also touch it.
I have a piano at home, which my partner plays, and my mother will set her hands on top and say she can hear it, and I believe her. We may be listening to two different things, but I wonder if they converge somewhere, if at some point, what’s visible of a sound might blend and dissolve into what’s invisible.
Various high-tech companies are experimenting with special sensors that cause sound to travel through the skin, transforming the body into an ear stimulated by a sequence of vibrations. Technological transducers are becoming increasingly popular in the non-hearing community, but I’m bothered sometimes by their literal nature. Once again, my love of figurative language clashes with my parents’ craving for materiality.
A fact is a fact, and a sound is a sound.
Subtitles and sound captions are interpretations. And they’re intrinsically ableist: we’re the ones who choose what noise or rhyme or applause is meaningful, based on what our hearing body perceives. We’re the ones who decide what to include or not in this representation, we’re the ones who create a disruption between silence and non-silence for the other who feels these things in a different way.
How do we represent this silence, our silence, if not by writing [silence]?
The Italian record label Alga Marghen released a record titled Sounds of Silence – The Most Intriguing Silences in Recording History!, a collection of incised silences on vinyl from Crass, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Afrika Bambaataa, and other artists.
According to the liner notes, ‘These silences speak volumes. They are performative, political, critical, abstract, poetic, cynical, technical, absurd. The LP presents the silences as they were originally recorded, preserving any imperfection that the hardware conferred upon the enterprise, without banning the possibility to [sic] satisfying the ear This album is meant to be played loud (or not), at any time, in any place: a true aural experience!’
In the last silence I experienced – the perfect silence of Doug Wheeler’s semi-anechoic chamber in New York’s Guggenheim Museum – I heard my own swallowing, the imperfect sounds of my imperfect body. Before going in, I couldn’t truly understand the disorientation and vertigo my parents experienced, the same vertigo that made me seek shelter by the walls, like I was under attack. They tried to tell me, to explain, but I always turned that information into something else. Distance, usually.
Language is a technology that reveals the world: words are flames that we hold close to the inexpressible, so it might appear – as though reality were written in invisible ink – without words. Gestures are what make this translation possible. Maybe that’s why I tried to learn how to use them, these words. Faced with silence, with the white, advancing shadow, I’ve raised my written pages and my parents, their tired vocal cords. At times we hurt each other quite badly, but we did so in an attempt to understand one another.
I can’t build a semi-anechoic chamber and pretend the silence we share is the same, but like John Cage, I can tell my mother about the sound of my blood, and she can tell me about the sound of hers.
Photograph © Andre Roberto Doreto Santos
This is drawn from Strangers I Know, translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris and forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo Editions.