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Formative experiences

Thursday December 14, 2006

Nik Boini

The time is April 1974.

Abba are about to win Eurovision with Waterloo. Tony Blair is unknown. In a room overlooking the gardens of the Olivetti Staff Training Centre in a renaissance villa on a hill north of Florence sits a 21-year-old English translator who has been working here scarcely a week. The MS* cigarette between his fingers, the drained espresso cup and open green glass half-litre bottle of Cerelia sparkling mineral water proclaim his desire to fit in as much as the length and style of his hair and crushed velvet suit prevent it. He stares at the sentence against which nicotine, caffeine, A-Level Italian and patchy university attendance are of little use: "Il personale dovrà essere raggiunto da un intervento formativo."

He considers the literal rendering: "The personnel will have to be reached by a formative intervention". He imagines his grandmother's scorn: "What's a bleedin' formative intervention when it's out?" He imagines the quiet of the villa gardens shattered by gunfire as shock troops burst into the building and round up the occupants, herding them outside as a military jeep careers through the gates. A commander-in-chief paces before the nervous huddle with grim satisfaction. The recklessness of youth prompts the translator to demand to know what's going on, at which the Maurice Micklewhite-like commander brings his face perilously close: "What's a formative intervention, sonny Jim? Not a lot of people know that. But you're in luck. Get yourself a right formative intervention all of your own, you will." Startled out of his unpleasant reverie just in time ? that's it. Enlightenment. A training course, that's all it is. "Staff will follow a training course." He celebrates with another MS and the rest of the Cerelia, amused and annoyed in equal measure. Why the hell can't they just say what they mean?

The time is October 2006

Abba are long gone. Tony Blair is on the way out. In a room overlooking a ploughed field and vineyard on the flatlands north of Bologna sits the same translator, tobacco-free for over 15 years, espresso now decaffeinated, open green plastic bottle of Fonte Lieta (slightly) sparkling mineral water, baldness and casual garb appropriate to age and country of residence for the last three decades. Some things have improved since 1974. For instance, leaflets accompanying medicines no longer read like a medical textbook combined with obscure philosophy. Yet among the intellectuals, academics and professionals with whom he deals, nothing is straightforward.

Witness some tribulations resulting from a client?s in-house efforts to translate a text on training, or "la formazione" ? the noun related to the adjective "formativo".

Formazione è emergenza di forme, morfogenesi
Forming is emergency of forms, morphogenesis

The client meant "emergence" of course, although he didn't know it. Definitions are invited for "emergency of forms". This translator's preference is for "panic resulting from unavailability of documents to be delivered by a deadline already dead", a sensation frequent here among foreigners whose native bureaucracies do not demand written declaration of their own existence or good conduct but which afflicts most Italians only when required to compile the wad of papers constituting their annual income tax return, in which one form appears to beget the next in endless, Old Testament-like fashion. In a word, morphogenesis. Sounds like a good word to avoid.

So much for ?formativo?. What of our old friend "intervento"? After all this, you might think the down-to-earth native of the village where the translator now lives would view such language with contempt. It ain't necessarily so. The Polisportiva, or local sports club, sends a van with roof-mounted horn speaker around the streets to publicise events at piercing volume, invariably concluding with "Sportivi! Intervenite e fate intervenire!" The inexperienced young man in 1974 would have reached for an MS, frustrated and entertained at his own literal "Sportives! Intervene and make intervene!" His older, smokeless self knows that, for all its totalitarian overtones, the message's meaning is a harmless "Sports fans! Come one, come all!" Then he recalls the Maurice Micklewhite-like commander's threat of inflicting him with a right formative intervention all of his own and decides he will neither intervene nor make intervene.

*Officially standing for "Monopolio di Stato" ? State Monopoly. Unofficially said to mean "Morte Sicura" ? Certain Death.


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