You shall know a word by the company it keeps
(John Rupert Firth)
The premise of The Adventures Di Pinocchio is simple: what if we could learn a new language simply by reading a book? What if we could do that without realizing it?
We’re all familiar with the notion of learning a new word after finding it in a well-known context. By seeing an unknown term surrounded by words we already know, we can pinpoint the general meaning of the new one simply by inference. As the new word is seen in more frequent and varied ways, its meaning can be refocused and we become capable of understanding and using it correctly. Now imagine doing that with words in a language you do not know. And if it’s true that to have another language is to possess a second soul, wouldn’t it be great to learn one while enjoying a novel?
The Adventures Di Pinocchio is two books in one: the English translation of Pinocchio is gradually mixed with the original Italian version. In the first few pages, an Italian word pops up here and there, made obvious by its italic type. Gradually more and more words are added to the mix. By the first quarter of the book, we see the first few, very short Italian sentences. By the middle of the novel, half of the words are in English, half in Italian. Eventually, the book ends in its original form, in glorious 19th century Italian.
Some parallelisms came to my mind while I was putting together this book. First and foremost: the journey. Pinocchio yearns to become a real boy, in the same way as any translation wants to be as close as possible to the original. Only by the end of the book you get to enjoy the prize of the real thing.
Second: the original Pinocchio is darker than any adaptation you might have seen as a cartoon or movie. Its roughness resonated with me as I witnessed the results of a “machine-mediated” linguistical metamorphosis: if translating is an arduous effort, gradually morphing sentences is bound to create even more friction. But when it does work, it is so much fun to read the ambiguous, demilitarized zone that is the bilingual sentence—the pleasure and pain of every parent of every bilingual child.
And lastly: the big lie. As Pinocchio struggles to keep his stories straight, so does The Adventures Di Pinocchio. Can you really learn Italian by reading this? Of course not. 160 pages are not nearly enough. But it’s a great start. For a more complete language transformation, I will focus on applying this same method to “In Search of Lost Time” (À la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust), a novel tallying a whopping 2,215 pages. Now that’ll be your chance to learn French!