Ask Dr. Terpsichore

[ This article appeared in volume 4 of the Letter of Dance. ]

A column for the choreicly challenged

Dear Dr. Terpsichore,

My greatest desire is to read Negri's Le Gratie d'Amore in the original. My problem is that I can't make heads or tails of the Italian. What should I do?

--Wanna Readit

Dear Wannabe,

First off, don't despair, very few of us are born speaking Italian, and luckily you have set as your goal reading one of the more accessible period texts. Cesare Negri wrote in a language that is essentially modern Italian in much the same way that Kit Marlowe wrote in modern English.

Italian is not that hard to cope with. The Italians put their pantalones on one leg at a time, and when they step on a discarded banana peel they fall down just like the rest of us.

The first hurdle for you is grammar. I recommend a book by Olga Ragusa, Essential Italian Grammar, available from Dover Books. It will give you all the basics in a quickly digestable form. There are several self-instruction book series on Italian out there, and they may make it easier for you to feel comfortable in the language by gently introducing you to the grammatical concepts, but for fast and dirty, Ragusa can't be beat.

The next hurdle is vocabulary. Since the language is mostly the same as modern Italian, any bilingual dictionary of modern Italian will get you most of the vocabulary that you will need. I like Mondadori's, but there is also a nice HarperCollins dictionary, and of course Cassel's is always serviceable. For those hard-to-cope-with period words that have since dropped from use in the language, any good academic library will have the facsimile edition of John Florio's Queen Anna's New World of Words, published in 1611, which is as close to a period bilingual dictionary as you're going to find.

Just in case you find a verb form that looks familiar but that you can't place immediately, there are always the ever-popular 201 Italian Verbs and its larger cousin, 501 Italian Verbs. These books are also helpful in the off chance that you ever decide that you need to record your own 16th-century dances in Italian.

Always remember when reading Negri that just as you have to stretch and exercise your English vocabulary to read Marlowe in the original, it's going to be the same here. Open your mind to the concept of cognates and variant word forms, and you'll go far.

Dr. T

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