Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2010

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Of Dreams and D-Minuses

Of Dreams and D-Minuses
© Fondazione Federico Fellini, Rimini; images from Federico Fellini, The Book of Dreams, Rizzoli, 2008.

An alumnus overcomes his early struggles with Italian to become one of the foremost translators of Italian to English

By Aaron Maines ´95



In spring 2007, I had the good fortune to be asked to translate filmmaker Federico Fellini´s personal diary.

I had no idea that the great Fellini, creator of cinematic masterpieces like "La Dolce Vita" and "Amarcord," even kept a diary. Its existence was unknown to all but his closest friends and collaborators, and the diary was only made public years after his death, in 1993.

When the publishers sent me a copy, I discovered a marvelous document: a detailed diary of Fellini´s dreams, filled with anecdotes and glimpses into his private life. Before he got into film, Fellini worked as a magazine illustrator, and his entries were almost always accompanied by colorful, richly illustrated sketches.

I began translating the diary in late spring and continued through the summer, working on it in a small café in Cavi, a seaside town in Liguria.

I worked early, coming to the café at dawn when its dour, shuffling and unfailingly courteous owner opened for the early-morning trucking traffic that runs that stretch of the Antica Aurelia, a 2,000-year-old Roman road that originally connected Rome to Pisa and ultimately Genoa.

Aside from the truckers, who came in, told a few rough jokes or exchanged loud buongiornos with the owner before bolting back espressos and stomping out again, my only companion during those early working hours was a deeply tanned, elegantly dressed, elderly lady. She appeared just after 7 every morning, arriving in a wave of flowery perfume and dragging a nervous Pomeranian behind her.

We spoke on a few occasions. One conversation — our first to move beyond polite good mornings — struck a chord. Noting the colorful pages spread out on the table before me, she asked what I was doing. When I told her, she confided that she wasn´t a fan of Fellini´s work, that his films were “vulgar” and “base.”

I´d heard that before, especially from older Italians. Today Fellini is a household name, but Italian authorities banned several of his films when they were originally released, including "La Dolce Vita."

Our conversation soon turned into her monologue, in part because I find it hard to argue with the elderly. Often they don´t seem interested in what I have to say, and the few who are seem so wise that I´d rather just ask questions and silently hope I age that well too.

The lady took my attentive silence as an opportunity to air a long list of the woes that had afflicted Italian society over the course of her lifetime, from Federico Fellini to Edwige Fenech, the Communists and, strangely, Bettino Craxi´s exile, all of which she felt should have been “kept out of movies and off the television,” if not erased from this earth altogether.

The irony was that on the very page I was translating, Fellini had recorded a dream of his most vocal critic, the man who had managed to impose a ban on some of his films during the 1960s, before being elected pope:

"In a big balloon basket together with Pope Paul VI, who is wearing a pope´s beret on his head. The situation could even be considered dangerous because there´s no balloon in sight above our little ship. But everything was going just fine and I wasn´t afraid. The beach and seaside at Riccione are below, crowded with people looking up into the air and pointing at something. Suddenly a marvelous creature wearing a bathing suit appeared, higher and vaster than Monte Bianco. She was a woman, a goddess. … She looked into the blue sky without seeing us, and then from her incredibly beautiful, soft mouth she released an ´oooohh!´ of wonder and the whole sky filled up with white clouds …"

I don´t know if the lady saw me staring at the page, or if she´d sensed I was no longer really listening. I like to think she suffered a pang of guilt for her all-out attack, but life rarely offers such storybook justice. Whatever the case, she abruptly changed tack.

“Your Italian is quite good,” she said. “And to translate Fellini´s diaries, well that´s something, isn´t it? You studied Italian at your university, yes?”

I said that I had, for two full years.

“You must have been first in your class,” she concluded.
Actually, no. I was last.

* * *

More than a decade earlier I´d received a D-minus in Professor Robert Proctor´s introductory Italian class. A D-minus! I didn´t even know the grade existed. Out of the 80-odd students who took the course, I came in dead last.

I wish I could say the grade was undeserved, but the truth is I should have failed. Professor Proctor, glimpsing some infinitesimally small glimmer of promise in my Italian, decided to grade me just high enough that I wouldn´t lose credit. But he was wholeheartedly critical of how I´d frittered away the year (I had) and wasn´t going to make life easy for me (he didn´t).

Proctor knew what he was doing. At the time, he was not only my Italian professor, he was also the director of the Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts (CISLA), which I´d been determined to join before his D-minus tore a gaping hole in my plans.

I pleaded with him to change the grade, but he said that was impossible. After all, I´d failed the final. I offered to do extra credit, a special assignment, clean toilets … anything! He was inflexible. Summer had arrived, the academic year was over, and I was going to have to live with the consequences of what I hadn´t done.

I remember being shell-shocked. I toughed it out in front of Proctor, but by the time I made it downstairs to the CISLA offices where they were awaiting the verdict, I was on the verge of tears. CISLA was all-important to me: a dream. I was young and inexperienced enough that I had to feel it slipping away before I figured out just how much it meant.

Proctor had left a tiny window ajar. After reviewing my grades, he pointed out that if I did ridiculously well over the following two semesters, I´d be able to bring my GPA up just high enough to qualify. I don´t remember exactly what I had to maintain — a 3.8 or a 3.9 — but for me it ranked up there with similarly unthinkable feats like winning eight gold medals at a single Olympics or electing a black man president.

I returned from summer vacation determined to try, vowing to party less and study more. I began to get up early, often before dawn, to work and reread my lessons.

I made it, just barely. I like to think that´s how Proctor intended it.

The CISLA internship introduced me to a country I´d never even considered visiting and forced me to get serious about learning a language I began studying on a fellow freshman´s dare. Today I live in that country and work, at least part of every day, in that language. I have a wonderful Italian wife and a nonchalantly bilingual son.

Would those things have happened without CISLA? Would I still have found my way to Italy? Would I still have found myself there in Cavi, harangued by a latter-day censor the color of Fendi leather? I suppose it´s possible, but I doubt it.

On that morning, in that moment, between the lady, the yipping Pomeranian, the shuffling bar owner and the fat, jovial truck drivers, life felt wonderfully fickle and Fellini-esque. And more than a simple grade, Proctor´s D-minus suddenly seemed like destiny´s cusp.

* * *

Explaining all of this to the lady sitting at the table next to mine would have been impossible. Besides, I suspected that despite her disdain for Fellini´s opus, she´d feel insulted that the personal diary of a man who had become a global cultural icon had been entrusted to a near-failure in introductory Italian. One more sign of Italy´s dangerous tilt toward cultural despair.

“First in my class,” I said with what I hoped was a winning smile, “with honors.”

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