Sunday, 17 March 2013

Te Capi' and Italian Absurdism

The curtain opens on a long rectangular table covered with a floral-print tablecloth and the detritus of a recently consumed meal. Two old men, Marianni and Ettore are seated opposite one another at one end of the table, and two younger men, Alex and Sam the Flamingly Annoying sit next to them, also on opposite sides. 

The two older men are native speakers of the Milanese language, an Italian “dialect” that is actually a distinct language, more similar to French than modern Italian. They normally speak standard Italian, but occasionally slip into Milanese when talking to each other.

The conversation is conducted entirely in Italian, with English where noted. Milanese phrases are in italics.

Alex: Hey Marianni.

Marianni: Yes?

Alex: So I know that “te capì?” means “do you understand” in Milanese, but how do you say “I understand” or “I don't understand”?

Marianni: I don't understand.

Alex: Ok, so when you say te capì...

Marianni: Yes, te capì! Te capì?

Alex: Right, so when you say that...

Ettore: It means “do you understand.”

Alex: Yes, I understand that...

Marianni: Oh, te capì?

Alex: Uh, yes, I understand. But when someone asks you, “te capì?” how do you respond?

Ettore: Well, you either say “I understand,” or...

Marianni: Or if you don't, you say “I don't understand.”

Alex: (pauses to take in a deep breath) But what about in Milanese? What would you say in Milanese?

Marianni: Te capì?

Alex: No, in response. Like answering the question.

Ettore: Eh! (makes a hand gesture that signifies “what is so hard about this?”) The question is te capì? Then the response is “I understand,” or “I don't understand!” Eh! Sorry! (this last is added in heavily accented English, it being one of the few words that both Marianni and Ettore know; it can mean “my condolences,” “apologies,” “you should apologize,” or “why are you being such a humongous moron?” Here the final definition applies.)

Alex: No, but...

Marianni: Te capì?

Alex: No, I don--

Sam the Flamingly Annoying: (to Marianni) Te capì?

Marianni: (makes approving noise) You see?

Sam: (in English) Yeah, it's pretty simple, Alex (shakes hands with Marianni).

Alex: Ok, but what if I'm speaking Milanese with someone, and they ask me if I understand...

Marianni: Te capì?

Alex: Well, no, I don't understand, actually....

Ettore: (leaning in closer, as if this a point that can only be understood at full volume from ten inches distance) They say te capì because they want to know if you understand.

Alex: Good, so we've established that they've said “do you understand?”

Ettore: Right, but if they're speaking Milanese, they'll say “te capì?”

Sam: (with a huge grin plastered across his face, in English) You're pretty thick tonight, aren't you, Alex?

Alex: (glares at Sam but after being incapable of thinking up any sufficiently offensive words turns back to the Italians) Yes, if they're speaking Milanese, they'll say “te capì” and--

Marianni: Eh, te capì? It means “do you understand?”

Alex: (begins absentmindedly but vigorously strangling his fork) No, I don't capi. That's what I want to learn to say. “I don't understand” in Milanese.

Ettore: Eh! Sorry! Someone asks you “te capì”--

Sam: (English, in a helpful tone) Which means “do you understand,” Alex, just in case you hadn't caught that--

Ettore: --and you say “sì” if you understand, and “no” if you don't! Eh! Sorry! (leans back in his chair, clearly proud of a pedagogical task well accomplished)

Marianni: So if I come to visit you in I-take-a-dump (in an unfortunate turn of circumstances, the word “Chicago” is pronounced in Italian exactly like a phrase that means “I poop there,” a reference that serves as the base for a single but oft-repeated fecal joke) I come to visit and I say “te capì?”--

Alex: But what am I understanding?

Ettore: (dolefully shaking his head) You don't understand.

(Alex snaps his fingers and points at Ettore)

Alex: Ok. That right there. How would I agree with you? Agree and say, you know, “I don't understand.”

Marianni: (in a sorrowful tone of voice) Yes, it's true, you don't understand...

Ettore: To agree, you say “.”

Alex: What if I want to say something other than “sì”?

Ettore: Then you say “no.”

Alex: Is there anything, any word or phrase, that means the same thing as “sì” in this case?

Ettore: Of course—you can say “I don't understand.”

Sam: (In English, while shaking his head in a passable imitation of Ettore) That's the one you'll have to use a lot, Alex. Memorize the phrase “I don't understand.”

(Alex looks around for something breakable to punch, but finds that the table has by now been completely cleared. Sam hurriedly scoots his chair back in anticipation that he may be deemed breakable in the near future.)

Marianni: Well then, te capì?

Alex: No. I--

Ettore: No te capì?

Alex: Look. (directs his gaze wildly across the room, as if hoping that a new plan of attack will saunter out perhaps from behind the cupboard.)What if I asked you to translate the phrase “I understand” into Milanese. What would you translate it as?

(Both men look puzzled; they glance at each other, shrug, and shake their heads at Alex.)

Alex: But what...fine. Can you translate “I don't understand?”

Marianni: (in English) Ey, “Ay don tandeirstend.”

Alex: In Milanese.

Ettore: Te capì?

Alex: (stares directly ahead for three full seconds before responding) Yes. I understand.

Ettore: Ah. Good. (in English) No problem. (turns away from Alex.)

Marianni: Eh. Sorry.

Sam: (in English) Believe me, Marianni, he's very sorry.

Marianni: (pushes his chair back) Well, then, I'm going to Chicago.

1 comment:

  1. I expelled vegetable lasagna from my nose while reading this post.
    That means I liked it