Pablo Picasso (II)

Silvio Berlusconi has said some strange things in the current election campaign. It’s a sign of the kind of politician he is, a charismatic authoritarian populist. To some extent it’s the equivalent of having Kilroy as the leader of a major political party, or Enoch Powell, or Cyril Smith: to his opponents he’s crude and offensive, but to his followers he’s saying the unsayable, he’s telling it like it is, he’s the man they can’t gag. (Thatcher tapped right into this before she was elected, and coasted on the memory for years afterwards.)

But there’s another level to it, which I don’t think works so well in the British as in the Italian context. Berlusconi’s battute (‘quips’, but literally ‘blows’) are wild, outrageous and often genuinely funny, if only because they’re so absurd: I laughed out loud when I heard that he’d compared himself to both Jesus Christ and Napoleon (“only I’m taller”). This kind of ludicrous exorbitance prompts immediate scepticism, but it also evokes a kind of amused tolerance – go on then, what are you going to come up with this time? In short, it puts you in the mood to judge Berlusconi – and other politicians – primarily on entertainment value: they all talk bollocks anyway, so let’s just see who tells the best story. And Berlusconi, the old crooner, gives good story. (Thanks to Pietro for this point.)

So it’s not entirely surprising that Berlusconi has said some strange things in the course of the current campaign: it’s what he does. What is surprising – well, you know what I was saying about politicians talking bollocks?

Berlusconi, 3rd April:

“Ho troppa stima dell’intelligenza degli italiani per pensare che ci siano in giro così tanti coglioni che possano votare contro i propri interessi”

“I have too much respect for the intelligence of the Italian people to think that there are enough coglioni around here who could vote against their own interests [and elect the Left].”

Where coglioni means… well, what does it mean? If you’re reading this in America the answer’s simple: a coglione is an asshole (shades of Roy Keane…). Which brings us back to the BritEng slang lexicon: ‘prat’ is close, but it doesn’t have the shock value of coglioni – or the implicit malice. ‘Shithead’ is probably closest in meaning, but its relative rarity makes it seem more extreme.

La Repubblica has devoted some attention to the problems of translation. It’s an interesting piece, although less illuminating than it might be – apart from anything else, the Italian-speaking writer doesn’t feel the need to explain to her Italian-speaking readers what coglione means. (There’s probably a name for this problem among translators. I hit it once when I was trying to describe a city district to an American colleague. Brownstones? I don’t know, we don’t use that word in England. Oh – what do you call them?)

The literal meaning of coglioni isn’t too difficult, of course. La Repubblica quotes Reuters:

“Berlusconi labelled centre-left voters as ‘coglioni’. The Italian word is slang for ‘testicles’ but is also commonly used as an insult to describe someone of little intelligence.”

Fair enough. The paper’s survey of the European media is also interesting:

The French commentators do better than the English-speakers, as they have an equivalent word – but any citizen of the République would shudder to think that, even in the heated climate of these last few days, Sarkozy could call his opponents cons … The word is all right in a song by Georges Brassens, but not the political arena; in fact France Presse opted for couillons, no less vulgar but less idiomatic as slang. The agency may have chosen this term because, like the word used by Berlusconi, it refers to male organs; the French term honoured by Brassens, which effectively means ‘idiot’, refers to the female organ.Juan de Lara, director of the Spanish press agency Efe, is still in shock: “We can laugh about how to translate the word used by Berlusconi, but in reality this is a very serious matter.” For Spanish readers, Berlusconi’s epithet will be translated as gilipollas. [No idea – PJE] “But it’s a very vulgar word,” Lara notes; “I can’t even imagine a Spanish politican using it!”. And in this case, too, translation is awkward but delicate: for Efe, our Prime Minister called a good part of the electorate “tonto del culo” [‘crazy-arse’].

Carola Frentzen, correspondent for Deutsche Presse Agentur, is stunned by Berlusconi’s language but remains diplomatic. She says, “We have many ugly words corresponding to the one used by the Prime Minister, but I won’t use them in the article. I’ll use the more banal ‘idiots’. The meaning is as clear as in the Italian, and for the German press it’s not really worth the trouble of getting upset about the language used by the Prime Minister. The German people have already used their own words about him on the occasion when they didn’t appreciate his joke about the word ‘Kapo’.” This was the term with which Berlusconi addressed Martin Schultz, head of the German EU delegation, during his inaugural speech [when Italy held the EU Presidency] at Strasbourg.

Update: according to Reuters, Translations of “coglioni” in British and American dictionaries range from “idiot”, “cretin”, “fool” and “moron” to “prick” and “asshole”. However, the English-language service of the Agenzia Giornalistica Italia demurs: English and American vocabularies are wrong. The best translation is, in fact, “sucker”, “dickhead” or just “dick”. The latter is most popular one, with the commonly used phrase “Don’t be a dick”. So now you know.

One final thought from la Repubblica:

At the end of this linguistic journey, we still have room for doubt in the Italian language. Given that the term used by Berlusconi doesn’t have a feminine form, can female centre-left voters regard themselves as excluded from his judgment?

It’s a silly question, but the language is nearly offensive enough to make it significant. However you render it in English (or French, or Spanish), what Berlusconi said was an insult not just to his centre-Left opponents or their committed supporters, but to anyone who might be thinking of voting centre-Left. This wasn’t just another battuta, in other words; grave offence has been taken, and the Italian public has been treated to the unusual sight of Berlusconi squirming. First, he insisted that he was joking (“I said it with a smile on my face”, an assertion apparently contradicted by TV footage). Then he took refuge in the frankly casuistical argument that he’s being attacked for what he didn’t say: “I didn’t state that some of the Italian people would vote against their own interests and so deserve that epithet – I denied it.” Subsequently he’s insisted that ‘coglioni‘ didn’t refer to all potential Left voters, only the ones whose material interests would be damaged by a Left government. The latest – but probably not the final – fallback position is to argue that it’s all a fuss about nothing, and that using the word in question is in fact comune e bonaria (normal and polite). Nice try. Thankyou and goodnight.

Four. More. Days.

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