Quite some time ago I posted here and on FaceBook, asking for help with translating a single sentence (“Why did you kill your wife?”) into a wide variety of European languages and dialects of those languages.
The response was terrific, and tremendously useful. Over a couple weeks I learned the sentence in something like ten dialects of Italian, five of French, six of German, and a handful of Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish (European, and different parts of South and Middle America), Dutch, Portuguese, and a slew of other languages.
At the time I said that I needed this information for a scene I was writing, and that I would reveal all at some point in the future. So here we are in the future, and here’s an excerpt from The Gilded Hour that will make it all clear. You may wonder, after you read it, about the translations I haven’t used yet. For those you’ll have to wait for the next novel.
This is a scene between Jack Mezzanotte, a detective-sergeant with the NYPD, and Anna Savard, a physician and surgeon. The year is 1883, and they are in Manhattan. They don’t know each other very well, but have been conversing for a while about their jobs. The scene is from Jack’s point of view.
The Gilded Hour
All Rights Reserved
She said, “Do you think that a woman wouldn’t be able to cope with the realities of the work you do?”
This tone he understood; she was irritated and willing to let him know that.
“Your sensibilities don’t strike me as fragile,” he said. “So let me tell you about yesterday morning. A cobbler with a business on Taylor Street killed his wife. He is more than seventy, she was less than thirty.”
She seemed to be interested. “Jealousy?”
“Italians make an art of it. So we got the call and went out, but the cobbler disappeared before we got there. We spent most of the day looking for him and were about to give up—it was just getting dark—when he walked past me. This was in the Italian colony in Brooklyn. It’s not hard to disappear for a few days at a time over there.”
Anna said, “You recognized the cobbler?”
“I had a description—short, bald, a gray mustache—”
“That must describe hundreds of men. You’re smiling. Is there a joke here somewhere?”
Jack rubbed the corner of his mouth with a knuckle. “Not a joke, but maybe a bit of a secret weapon. I’ll tell you how I caught him: I asked him a question.”
She made a gesture with her hand, impatient for him to go on.
“I was standing on the corner when he walked past me. He fit the description so I said, ‘Hey, Giacalone!’ and he stopped and turned. Then I said, ‘So why did you kill your wife?’ He told me, and I arrested him. End of story.”
She had stopped and was looking at him the same way he might look at a pickpocket with a dodgy alibi. “Why would he do that? Just because you used his name?”
“Don’t you turn when somebody calls your name?”
“Yes, probably. But I wouldn’t confess to a crime on that basis. There must be something more to it.”
She liked puzzles, clearly, and would ask questions until she got to the bottom of things.
“Yes, there was more to it. I said it in his language.”
“You spoke Italian.”
“They don’t speak Italian in Sicily?”
“The Italians in Sicily do. The Sicilians do not. I can see you don’t believe me, but it’s true.”
“Say it for me. First in Italian and then Sicilian.”
“A command performance,” Jack said, giving her an exaggerated bow from the shoulders. “‘Perchè hai ammazzato la tua donna?’ would be a colloquial, friendly Italian. ‘Picchì a ttò mugghieri l’ammazzasti?’ is Sicilian. Or one kind of Sicilian.”
They walked on, and he could almost hear her thinking, looking for flaws in his story.
“There is more than one Sicilian language?”
“Dozens of dialects of Sicilian. Hundreds of dialects of Italian.”
“How is it you speak Sicilian?”
“I don’t, really. I just have a collection of sentences at the ready.”
Her mouth contorted as if she were repressing a smile. “Do tell.”
“‘Why did you kill your wife—or friend, or neighbor?’ ‘What did you do with the money you took?’—that kind of thing.”
“Are Sicilians responsible for most of the crime?”
“Oh, no,” Jack said. “Which is why I know how to say those crucial sentences in more than one kind of Italian.”
She was quiet for a full minute. “Detective Sergeant Mezzanotte,” she said a little huffily, “I think you’re pulling my leg.”
“Test me, then, if you don’t believe me.”
“All right. Florence.” She said it as if she knew for a fact that the men of Florence would never kill their wives.
He smiled openly at that. “‘O perché tu ha’ammazzaho la tu’ moglie?’”
She pressed her lips together while she thought. “Of course I have no way of knowing if that’s right. You could be making it up out of whole cloth.”
He laughed, and very deftly took her hand and hooked it through his crooked arm.
“Your claim,” she began after a long pause, “is that this man was so taken by surprise to find a countryman that he let his guard down.”
“Something like that.”
“I find it hard to imagine.”
“If you found yourself on the other side of the world in a country where you were disliked and distrusted on sight and you didn’t speak the language—”
“I would learn the language.”
He glanced at her. “You would learn the language. But you would miss your own language, your people. In a crowd you hear nothing but this other language that has been so much work for you, it gives you a headache sometimes trying to follow. The people you talk to make fun of your accent, the way you turn sentences around. They insult you to your face. Then all of a sudden you hear somebody speaking your language. The language of your town and family, the language you heard around the dinner table as a little girl, or playing with other little girls like yourself. It’s like being handed a wonderful present with no warning. Suddenly you’re not alone in the world.”
She was listening closely, her head canted. “When you put it like that, yes. I can see it. To put it bluntly, you took advantage of his loneliness.”
“He killed his wife,” Jack said. “His feelings are not my concern.”
“So you only pursue Italian-speaking criminals.” Her tone was vaguely disbelieving and he wondered what she had up her sleeve.
“I never said that. I arrest all kinds of people, young and old, rich and poor. This week I arrested a banker, an associate of the Astors whose family has been here for two hundred years. For embezzlement, a rich man’s crime.”
“But your secret weapon works only with Italians.”
“Dr. Savard, do you begrudge me my professional tools?”
“No,” she said, and bit her lip. “Maybe a little. I am glad that the rest of the world is safe from your tricks.”
He lifted a brow, and saw her expression shift.
“Now you are boasting. How many languages do you speak?”
“I don’t know,” Jack lied, just to see her expression. “I’ve never counted.”