Gioia’s special words: a lesson in translation

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Today I’ve decided to sink my teeth into a Young Adult novel, Eppure cadiamo felici (2017). This beautiful story was written by young Italian author Enrico Galiano, and has yet to be translated into English. However, this one time, us Dutchies have lucked out, for last year a Dutch translation was published! I’m writing this blog in English despite there not being an English translation right now, since there might be one eventually. And otherwise, you’ll know what you’ve missed. I’m actually going to hold on to the subject of translation for this blog, since it seems to haunt this book in every sense, and I love it.

The title of a novel is a hugely impactful thing. It draws readers in, it characterizes it, it distinguishes the novel from other works and most importantly: it raises expectations. Whether that happens from the title alone or from it’s reputation almost isn’t important, but it does set the tone.

And that is where the party starts with Galiano’s novel. Eppure cadiamo felici can be roughly translated into ‘Yet we become happy’, which implies a story of hardship through which the beauty of life is still discovered and celebrated; a popular theme among YA novels.

However, when we look at the Dutch translation, we encounter a whole different title, and along with it a different approach toward the story. ‘Gioia’s special words’ graces the cover of the Dutch edition, along with the image of a redheaded girl laying down in the grass, looking up toward the reader (the same cover-art is used for the original Italian version).

This already implies a much more character-based narrative, rather than a thematic one. Which is of course no problem in and of itself, but it does drastically change the way the story is read. Even for me, who only learned the meaning of the original title after having read the translation, looking back on the story was influenced by this alternate title.

Funny how they’ve spiced up the color palet of the cover as well… Not sure which one I prefer actually.

Today I’ll discuss this book under its two titles, since the title heavily influences the perspective it offers. As some of you might already know (Hi Wesley! Hi Belinda!), I have a strong affinity with the study of translation, and I appreciate George Steiner’s (and many others’) notion that any attempt at interpretation comes with a healthy slice of translation. I

n short, Steiner suggests that even within the same language, one still has to ‘translate’ everything from the ‘outside’ world into their ‘inner world’ in order to understand it (for those who aren’t very familiar with this concept, keep an eye on this blog! I’ll probably write about it soon). Technically, along that train of thought I’ve not actually read Eppure cadiamo felici. I’ve read a Dutch translator’s interpretation of it which they named differently.

When I translated the original title of the Italian version, I was baffled that it differed so much from the Dutch one, for the Dutch title reflects on the main character’s notebook in which she writes her ‘special words’. Words which only exist in one language, and are therefore near untranslatable.

Wait, what’s that? Do I smell a theme?!


The Dutch title directed me towards Gioia’s words as a perspective for the entire book. Gioia has difficulty blending in with her peers since she has other interests and other ways of thinking. Her situation at home certainly doesn’t help matters either, which leads to her isolating herself from others. Due to the title’s emphasis on these untranslatable words, it’s not a very big leap to identify Gioia herself as similarly ‘untranslatable’. People around her don’t seem to understand her, and she too has difficulty connecting to others. The few exceptions are her grandma, who hardly speaks at all (which is very telling); her philosophy teacher, who challenges her to shift perspective (as philosophy teachers do) and a boy she falls in love with named Lo. Gioia’s untranslatable words which scatter through the narrative keep reminding us of this invisible barrier of translation. The meaning of each word is explained, while at the same time it is emphasized that it doesn’t exist outside its own language. This situation fits really well with the struggle with identity and understanding many teenagers feel. The novel does offer a way out of it: a very accepting view on the existence of this ‘inside’ world of the untranslatable.

Whereas true translation can’t take place, a shot at understanding is still possible. This point is driven home by the fact that there’s a list of all Gioia’s words at the end of the book, as if to emphasize that though the exact identity of a word might remain unreachable, we can still experience it from ‘outside’ a specific language bubble. The same goes for Gioia. Though she might not fully understand the world and everyone around her (and vice versa), that’s not strictly necessary in order to enjoy it, or them.

Let’s now return to the original title, Yet we become happy. Looking at the theme of the book (along with the well known coming-of-age-trope), the original title also fits very nicely. However, it shifts the focus of the story from the concept and struggle of translation into the general conceptions and misconceptions about happiness.

This is another theme that is very present throughout the novel. It is so striking that the Dutch translator, someone for whom a book full of untranslatable words probably would’ve been a darn nightmare, would shift the focus from the theme of happiness to that of her words, and of translation.

I am very grateful for the translator in this case, since he or she did some of my interpreting work for me by pointing me toward the theme of translation, even though the author might not have emphasized on it that much.

So yes, Galiano’s novel is not only a well written YA-novel with a powerful story, it also offers some clever insight into teenagers’ sense of self and how they relate toward others. The notion of translation and ‘untranslatable’ words is an awesome metaphor for their struggle for identity if you ask me. And the fact that the book itself was translated in order to emphasize its theme of translation, that’s just icing on the cake.

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