Sbrodeghezzi e potacci.

I was reading Tim Parks’ 2017 LRB review (which may or may not be accessible to nonsubscribers) of Jenny McPhee’s translation of Lessico famigliare (A Family Lexicon) by Natalia Ginzburg, and was struck by this passage, of clear LH interest:

Yet the first impression on opening A Family Lexicon is one of infectious vitality, a quality conspicuous by its absence in the novels.

At the dinner table in my father’s home when I was a girl if I, or one of my siblings, knocked a glass onto the tablecloth, or dropped a knife, my father’s voice would thunder: ‘Watch your manners!’

    If we used our bread to mop up pasta sauce, he yelled: ‘Don’t lick your plates. Don’t dribble! Don’t slobber!’

    For my father dribble and slobber also described modern painting, which he couldn’t stand.

    He would say: ‘You have no idea how to behave at the table! I can’t take you lot anywhere.’

There is a translation problem here. In the Italian, paternal repression (‘we lived in a recurring nightmare filled with my father’s sudden outbursts,’ Ginzburg tells us later) is transformed into comedy by the bizarre words her father uses – sbrodeghezzi (‘dribbles’), e potacci (‘messes’) – originating in Triestine dialect and unknown to most Italians. Though Jenny McPhee’s new version of the book is always sprightly and readable, the English version inevitably loses the fun of these and many other odd words and expressions that turn up in the ‘family lexicon’.

Happily, I was able to google up a 2018 essay by Sarah Axelrod that discusses this very passage in detail, with the original Italian and remarks on how it can affect learners:

Let’s first get into the “easy” part: “Non fate” means “Don’t do.” Fare (the infinitive of “fate”) is a verb that all beginning Italian students know well, because it is so widely applicable that they end up resorting to it all the time when they can’t think of the specific word they want. “Fare” means to do or to make, but the Italian language is littered with delightful little phrases that depart from the literality of doing and making even as they depend on “fare” for their meaning. “Fare la spesa” means to go shopping; “fare due chiacchiere” means to have a chat (two chats?); “fare bella figura” means to show off or to make a good impression.

Now for the tricky part. The closest I can get to “Non fate malagrazie!” is “don’t be rude!” but I would be tempted to say something more like “Don’t do rudenesses!” This sounds funny in English because it actually sounds funny in Italian, too – “malagrazia” is a real word, a noun that means “bad grace,” but as far as I can tell, “fare malagrazie” is not a phrase that exists outside of this father in this family. As for “sbrodeghezzi” and “potacci,” don’t bother looking them up in the dictionary, because you won’t find them. My Italian edition of Lessico famigliare makes liberal use of footnotes to help readers decipher the strange words in the family lexicon, because they don’t exist in standard Italian. For “sbrodeghezzi” the given translation is “porcherie,” meaning anything from “embarrassing mistakes” to “dirty business” and for “potacci” the footnote suggests “pasticci,” meaning “messes” or “trouble;” two words with quite a wealth of meanings in their own right.

So what I tell students is to forget all that. If you want to read the footnotes and say “ah, that’s what a sbrodeghezzo is,” go right ahead (though you’ll still need a dictionary for the supplied synonyms). But try to remember that Natalia Ginzburg did not put those footnotes there, and she does not need you to know what these words mean in a literal sense. Just go ahead, say it to yourself: “z-bro-de-GHE-tsi!” Now say it and roll the R. “Sbrrrrodeghezzi!” That is a goddamn great word. You know some things about this father now. Read the passage again. Kids being kids – knocking a glass over, dropping a knife, dipping bread in sauce. The father thunders “Non fate malagrazie!” and “Non fate sbrodeghezzi! Non fate potacci!”

Incidentally, I am familiar with the name Natalia from Russian, where the antepenultimate is stressed, so I was surprised to learn from Wikipedia that in Italian it’s the penult: [nataˈliːa].


  1. David Marjanović says

    “fare bella figura” means to show off or to make a good impression.

    eine gute Figur machen, usually negated (k-)

  2. Stu Clayton says

    Cut a good/fine figure.

  3. Eli Nelson says

    I think the penult stress in Italian Natalia might be related in some way to the penult stress in abstract nouns from Greek that end in -ia, even when the I was short in Ancient Greek, and therefore would have been expected to be short in classical Latin (e.g. democrazia). Although French has lost phonologically contrastive stress, my understanding is that the syllabic /i/ found in the French name Nathalie and the noun démocratie is equivalent to Italian [ˈia] from a comparative perspective. And the same stress pattern is found in porcheria/porcherie (which was familiar to me based on the Spanish porquería). But the i in (mala)grazia is unstressed, I guess because the Latin noun ending in -ia that it came from was not from Greek and not a new formation. (Likewise, the related French grâce has regularly lost the i.)

  4. January First-of-May says

    I’m reminded of the one instance in the Eugene Onegin text of Tatiana in Latin script; it has four syllables and final stress.

    (I think it was supposed to be French.)

  5. There’s a 13 year old (almost to the day!) comment thread about this at word reference:

    Comments there draw out parallels to brodo (broth) and potaggio (potage). So it seems like there’s a lot of soup going on in that phrase.

  6. When I was searching in a Bologna bookshop for a copy of Il formaggio e i vermi (by Natalia’s son Carlo), I pronounced the surname with a hard G, as if it were German — but when the shop assistant repeated it back to me, she used a soft G. Since I assumed she must have known better than me, I changed the way I pronounced it for several years after that, until I met someone who knew Carlo Ginzburg personally, who assured me that my first instinct had been correct.

  7. Huh, that never even occurred to me, again because of my familiarity with Russian — and of course her husband Leone (presumably born Lev) was from Odessa. But it’s not surprising an Italian would pronounce it the way it looks; I wonder why he didn’t change it to Ghinzburg when he moved?

  8. I’ve never, ever heard anyone in Italy pronounce it with a soft G, so it never occurred to me either. And all three of them are famous enough here that I might have had uncharitable thoughts about that shop assistant… But apparently in the twenties it was still an open question, according to this interview with Norberto Bobbio (who was Leone’s classmate in high school and later became an important political philosopher). He says the hard G is correct, but that back in the day the other pronunciation usually won out: “Even today, those of us who went to school with him still pronounce his name with a soft G, maybe as a little affectation that we relish, a private, secret habit that we consider a cherished privilege.”

  9. Great quote, thanks!

  10. Looked up both while reading in Italian, then found your post. Laughed even more.

  11. Glad you found it and got a laugh!

  12. I just started reading “Lessico Famigliare” and those two words were driving me nuts. I had tried to get them translated at many different sites, and I also have a large Italian-English dictionary, but I couldn’t find hide nor hair of “sbrodeghezzi” and “potacci”. Thank you so much for clearing this up!

  13. You’re most welcome!

  14. John Cowan says

    And as is well known, the French for Ginsberg is ‘Bon appetit!’.

  15. I’m afraid that zoomed over my head. To start with, is that Ginzberg as distinguished from Ginzburg (the subject of the post)?

  16. John Cowan says

    No, to begin with.

    Ginsberg (spell his name as you will) is on an underpopulated cruise liner, and his assigned dinner seat is with a Frenchman who has no English (it goes without saying that Ginsburg has no French) at an otherwise empty table. In any case, the Frenchman wishes Ginzberg “Bon appetit!” Ginsbourg doesn’t get it, so he politely replies with his name, and the two eat their dinners in companionable silence.

    Later, Ginsb[uj]g asks his friend Moskowitz (friends in Jewish jokes tend to be named Moskowitz) what this “bone-appatee” means. Moskowitz replies, “He’s telling you to enjoy your meal.” “Oh,” says Gintsberg, and thinks “How nice!”

    On the second day, Gintsburg decides to win on politeness, and he says to his dinner partner “Bone appatee!” The reply is, of course, “Geensberrrg!”

  17. the final musical project from the great singer / scholar / composer jewlia eisenberg zts”l has just come out, and is a tribute to and examination of natalia & leone ginzburg, focusing on their antifascist work! The Ginzburg Geography is out on john zorn’s Tzadik label, and has been getting some lovely reviews. i don’t have the distance from jewlia’s work to say more than that i think it’s as brilliant as (almost) everything she cut, and that i’m incredibly grateful to marika hughes for having completed the work of assembling the album after jewlia’s death.

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