Sunday, January 27, 2008

You eat like four millstones! — The truth behind Camilleri's clichés

I wrote last year (here and here) about an amusing scene in Andrea Camilleri's The Smell of the Night (published in the U.K. as The Scent of the Night). Camilleri's protagonist, Salvo Montalbano, seethes when his girlfriend, Livia, tells him that "You would try the patience of a saint!"

"Oh, God, not another cliché!" Montalbano thinks. "Sow your wild oats, count your chickens before they hatch, or eat like a horse, when you're not putting the cart first!"

The scene is funny and tender. I also realized that its original-language version must challenge translators. A cliché or, indeed, almost any idiom cannot be translated literally if it is to retain its flavor. What, I wondered, were the Italian originals behind the clichés that so exasperated Montalbano?

Thanks to the delicious blog Briciole, I now know. The Italian for what English speakers mean by "counting one's chickens before they hatch," Briciole reports, is vendere la pelle dell'orso prima di averlo ucciso, literally "to sell the pelt before killing the bear."

That's a good expression and worth repeating. My favorite, though, is the Italian version of "to eat like a horse": mangiare a quattro palmenti, literally "to eat like four millstones." Even better is this variant: macinare a quattro palmenti, "to grind like four millstones, i.e., like a mill that has four millstones." That's voracious. And now you all have something new to say at your next family feast.

I find the specificity of the four beguiling, and I will make every effort to introduce this delightful expression into English.

Mille grazie to Briciole and its keeper, Simona, whose complete comment you can read here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Simona said...

Grazie a te, Peter. I like being asked questions that make me research words and expressions in my language. Alla prossima!

January 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Prego! I have an Italian (born in Lazio) acquaintance who owns a restaurant. I can hardly wait to shock him and his friends and customers with my new vocabulary.

January 27, 2008  
Blogger Simona said...

Do you know where he was born? My parents are from Lazio too, while I was born and raised in Perugia.

Also, I just added a few words to my post to make the description of the reference to palmenti a bit clearer, based on something I read this morning.

January 28, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Peter.
The "vendere la pelle dell'orso prima di averlo ucciso," literally "to sell the pelt before killing the bear" will be very useful when discussing my children's finances.
I will also start practicing now for when my best man, whose mother was from Livorno, visits and I can shock him with my new Italian phrases.

January 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Simona, he told me the name of his native town, but I've forgotten it. I'l try to remember to ask him. And thanks for the notice of the addition to your post. I'll adjust mine accordingly.

January 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah, I suggest you try out "tu mangi a quattro palmenti" when your interlocutor has a mouthful of spaghetti, though I would not suggest that for his mother, If she is still alive, or for anyone her age. For an elder, the formal "Lei mangia a quattro palmenti" is called for.

January 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

Simona: My Italian friend is from Alatri.

February 02, 2008  

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