My Dantean memorization journey

This is how it all began in March 2021. Initially I only planned to learn the first twelve lines of Canto I of Inferno in the original Italian, to match what I’ve known in English for years. Then I worked on memorizing six lines from Paradiso, and returned to Inferno I in April.

However, I still didn’t intend to memorize the entire 136 lines, just another nine. I felt Line 21 ends on a nice cliffhanger, “The night I had endured with such anguish,” La notte ch’i’ passai con tanta pieta. I also thought it would be really cool to do a video of myself reciting them for National Poetry Month.

You know what they say about the best-laid plans of men and men (and women). Though I finished memorizing those lines by the last day of April, I hadn’t 100% mastered them, and I felt it weren’t enough of a challenge. Why quit so soon into the canto? Go big or go home!

The very next day, I memorized four more lines like lightning. Writing them out longhand was such a huge help, since I was able to mentally picture the words in my own writing when I got stuck. Skimming over the next lines before I began working on them also helped them to come faster when it was time.

Several times along the way, I hit humps and had to spend an extra few days working on tercets, lines, or groups of tercets or lines. It wasn’t so much that the words weren’t sticking, but rather that I was hitting the kind of mental wall many people face when learning new information. Only after you’ve cleared the wall can you continue.

Other times I had difficulty mastering the latest section or tercet because the words seemed too similar too close together. Obviously, not super-common words like che, non, and poi, but like in the above example, di sua vista and ne la sua. Or I just felt overwhelmed by all the lines I had to learn and how many I had to keep fresh in the memory bank while constantly adding new ones. The first half or so of this page was one of my humps, and the first major one since the beginning.

This page, and the end of the previous page, went super-fast, since I already knew those 18 lines in English, when Virgil shows up. Though I only knew up to the end of Virgil’s opening lines, the next few tercets came really quickly by association. I don’t think any other parts of Canto I flew into my personal hard drive that swiftly!

There were a few more humps on this page, by which point I was over the halfway mark. Things were starting to get real by now. I often had the feeling of, “I can’t really keep going, can I? I already know so many lines, and there are so many more yet to learn!”

The final tercets also came very fast, since I’d listened so many times to the overrated Roberto Benigni’s recitation and said what I knew along with him. I was so familiar with the concluding lines, I almost knew them even before I properly learnt them. I also knew the final line long before I reached that point, so the penultimate line was truly the last line I learnt.

Constant practice and repetition made sure every line went from short-term memory to long-term memory to permanent memory. I often said them to myself at night while going to bed, and not infrequently fell asleep in the middle after a certain point. Dante’s words were the last thing in my brain when it switched out of waking consciousness.

I also frequently said them to myself while swimming, or out loud softly while waiting for my sunscreen to set when I was alone at the pool.

Near the end of memorizing Canto I, I decided to go big or go home in an even greater way and learn the entire Commedia. After all, plenty of Italians throughout history have done just that, without even seeing it written down. Many other people have also known many cantos by heart.

The first tercet of Canto II went really fast, but then I hit another wall, and decided to just focus on perfecting my recitation of Canto I before jumping right into another huge challenge. It’s the same reason it’s best to rest for awhile after finishing a long book (either writing or reading) instead of immediately beginning the next. Everyone needs down time between climbing mountains.

This is everything I know to date, the first 45 lines of Canto II. As aforementioned, they came much slower than most of Canto I, since my top priority was ensuring mastery of Canto I for my recitation video on Dante’s 700th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) on 13/14 September.

Now that that’s past, I can finally begin making up for lost time on Canto II. I hope to have it completed and mastered by my birthday (either the English or Hebrew date) in December.

Oh, and if you can’t read my handwriting just because it’s in cursive, that’s a sad indictment of the current educational system.

Why you should read The Divine Comedy in Italian

Note: Many of these points can be tweaked to apply to foreign language works in general.

While I doubt many people learn another language simply to read one book, there really is no experience quite like reading a work in its original language. And if you’re a Dantista, be you autodidactic like I am or professionally trained with a Ph.D., odds are good you’ll want to read the Commedia in Italian. Who cares if it’s not widely seen as a “useful” language like Spanish, French, German, Arabic, or Chinese? You should learn a language because you genuinely want to, other people’s opinions be damned.

However, one need not become fluent in Italian prior to reading or rereading the book, take formal classes, or do self-study. All one needs to do is get an edition with side-by-side Italian and English. Maybe you want to read each canto in English first, then Italian, or vice versa. Or do it tercet by tercet. Maybe even be bold and read the entire book in Italian first, or just listen to someone reading it in Italian.

This is what personally meaningful immersion is all about, something many foreign language teachers don’t understand. It’s easier to learn a language if one truly enjoys it instead of treating it like an obligatory academic requirement. While I studied Italian my senior year of high school, and studied the very similar Spanish for seven years, starting to read and memorize the Commedia in its original language has already begun working wonders on my language skills. I recognize verb forms and cognates, and can match Italian words with their English translations.

The more you immerse yourself in a language, the more you begin to naturally understand. After a certain point, you’ll rely less and less on the English side or looking words up. And then one day, you find yourself speaking, reading, and/or writing in that language as though you were always fluent.

Even the best translations will never be 100% accurate to the Italian original. E.g., Dante uses a lot of R sounds to evoke the feeling of dried, twisted tree branches in the Wood of the Suicides, and he uses many L sounds to evoke the running water near Geryon. It’s impossible to translate that into English without taking multiple linguistic liberties.

Another example is Canto XII of Purgatorio, where four tercets in a row start with the word Vedea (I saw), the next four start with the poetic one-letter word O (no translation needed!), and the next four start with Mostrava (showed, depicted, displayed). In many manuscripts until about the late 18th century, the letters U and V were printed or written interchangeably. Thus, Dante is spelling out the word uom (man, in the old-fashioned generic sense to refer to all humans).

Some translators have ambitiously risen to the challenge and spelt out MAN in English, with phrasing like “My eyes beheld,” “Ah,” and “Now was shown,” but again, that requires linguistic liberties. All translations (of any book or poem) do this to some degree, but it just looks and feels more impressive and emotional in the original.

When you have a side-by-side edition, it’s easier to discern when and where the translator took liberties, even if you’re not fluent in Italian. It’ll be obvious when entire big sections of lines are invented, when things are put in the wrong order, and when words are translated inaccurately. E.g., some translators translate the line “And like one with laboured breath” as “like a swimmer with laboured breath,” or simply as “And like a swimmer” in Canto I of Inferno.

I understand the reason for this, given the following lines where Dante compares himself to being released from the perilous waters of the deep to the shore, but again, it’s not helpful if you’re serious about learning Italian and having an accurate of a translation as possible.

Since starting my memorization journey in March, I feel much closer to Dante. He’s always been the only one of my fave writers who’s always felt like a dear, personal friend instead of just someone I deeply admire and/or would love to spend a few days talking with, but reading and learning his words in his native tongue made our suprarational connection even stronger.

When you read a book, story, poem, or play untranslated, you’re reading it exactly as the author wrote it, not someone else’s presentation of it in another language. So many words and phrases can’t be fully expressed in translation, and it just feels more emotional, evocative, expressive, beautiful, haunting, intense. Something is always lost in translation.

While you can understand many things and learn a lot of Italian from reading the original, it’s still in Medieval Florentine Tuscan, not modern standard Italian. Granted, modern Italian is strongly based upon Florentine Tuscan due to how many literary lights used it, but they’re not one and the same.

Open a new document, set the language to Italian, and type out a canto. You’ll see which words are flagged as misspellings and autocorrected, and which words pass recognition. Most of the differences aren’t that great, and if you already know Italian, you can figure out what a lot of the unfamiliar words mean based on context and similar spellings.

Basically, it’s equivalent to reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, with far fewer spelling differences.

Learning another language gives us a passport to another world. Who better to learn Italian with than the Supreme Poet?

Italian language

Copyright Enzino at WikiCommons

Because Italy consisted of independent city-states for centuries before unification, there are countless regional dialects still spoken all over the country. They include Tuscan, Sabino, Tarantino, Neapolitan, Barese, Romanesco, Venetian, and many more. There are also many Italian-speakers in border areas (the best-known probably being Switzerland) and countries with a long history of Italian rule (e.g., Malta, Slovenia, Croatia).

Other Italian-speakers are found in diaspora communities all over the world. Besides North America, many are also to be found in Somalia, Libya, Tunisia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Guatemala, Colombia, Paraguay, Costa Rica, the U.K., Australia, and France.

Percentage of Italians in Argentina, 1914 Census

Modern Standard Italian is based on Tuscan, in particular the Florentine dialect, because that was the language of Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Francesco Guicciardini. The lattermost was a politician and historian who probably isn’t very well-known to most people today, but he was huge during the Renaissance.

When the Kingdom of Italy was established in 1861, la pronuncia fiorentina emendata (the amended Florentine pronunciation) was chosen as the official language. Because of its association with such great literary lights, it was seen as a language of high culture and prestige.

About 3,500,000 people speak Tuscan Italian today. There are at least eleven sub-dialects of Tuscan, four Southern and seven Northern. The Corsican language also began as a direct offshoot of Medieval Tuscan.

1898 linguistic map

Though there are many differences between Standard Italian and Tuscan, the most obvious tends to be that of gorgia Toscana (Tuscan throat); i.e., the weakening of consonants. There are also a number of Tuscan words which are completely different in Standard Italian, false cognates, or only used in that way in literary Italian.

Like all other languages, Italian too developed through many centuries. It evolved from Vulgar Latin, and gradually entirely replaced Latin as the area’s official language and lingua franca. Because Italian is so closely tied to Latin, it’s easy to learn one language if you already know the other.

Italian also has many similarities with Spanish, which made it very easy for me to take to it like lightning when I studied it my senior year of high school. At that point, I was in my sixth year of Spanish, and had informally studied Italian a few years earlier on a public TV show (the same channel where my mother and I learnt some Japanese).

I really wish I’d decided to continue with Italian when I went to community college or transferred to university. Though I usually got good marks in Spanish, I only studied it because my parents chose it for me over French. Night and day next to my genuine passion for Italian language, history, culture, and literature.

My mother herself told me my Italian pronunciation was a lot better than my Spanish pronunciation!

I would absolutely love to get back in touch with the language so I can read Dante and Boccaccio (and other great literature) untranslated, watch Italian films without subtitles, and do serious genealogical research into my Italian branch of my family tree. They came from Sacco, a small town in the Province of Salerno, in the Campania region. At the moment, I only know back to my four-greats-grandparents, born in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Dante is known as the father of the Italian language because he was the first major writer to use his native vernacular instead of Latin, just as Geoffrey Chaucer broke tradition when he chose to write in Middle English. In Italian, Dante is called il Sommo Poeta, the Supreme Poet. He, Boccaccio, and Petrarch are the tre corone (three crowns) of Italian literature.

Though Latin continued as Europe’s lingua franca into the early 19th century, it was more a language of scholars, theologians, scientists, historians, and musicians who needed their works to reach a wider audience, not poetry and prose. Dante’s success in Italian was a major force in kicking down the doors for writers to use their own languages instead of Latin.

Many musical terms from Italian have become an established part of English; e.g., duo, concerto, fortissimo, pianissimo, coda, cadenza, operetta, libretto, intermezzo, soprano, oratorio, and vibrato. Many art, architecture, and food words also come from Italian. Other fields with Italian loanwords include literature, theatre, clothing, geology, geography, finance and commerce, military and weaponry, politics, science, and nature.

IWSG—November odds and sods

InsecureWritersSupportGroup
The Insecure Writer’s Support Group virtually meets the first Wednesday of each month, and lets us share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever googled in researching a story?

I’ve definitely researched a lot of creepy, depressing, and macabre things over the years—footbinding, what happens to someone in the electric chair, how to survive being shot in the head without becoming disabled, the projected timeline of the very far future, anything to do with the Shoah.

Probably the strangest research subject is if someone could live a semblance of a normal life with the loss of all five senses. As a child, I created a story about a girl named Carmel Allison Jaywalker who loses them all in her sleep before her third birthday. In my juvenile imagination, I made up “the killer pimples,” giant pimple-like things growing over her nose, eyes, ears, skin, and tongue. My brilliant idea was for Carmel to learn to communicate through ESP.

Someday I’d like to go back to this story, which never made it beyond an unfinished picture book, though it seems best to “only” make Carmel blind-deaf. Someone missing all five senses would live entirely in their own reality, hallucinate constantly, be as if in a waking coma, with sleep and dreaming being the only enjoyable things in life.

Minus every major sense, one would need a constant caretaker, and the brain would receive no sensory input. This would not be a meaningful life. At most, I might write a short story about such a person, but I can’t think of any compelling storyline to fill an entire novel.

FYI: The thumb in the B letter is draped WAY too far over the palm. Most artistic depictions of the ASL manual alphabet are guilty of this.

Speaking of, I recently began teaching myself ASL, and mastered the finger alphabet in about a week. I’m a longtime Deaf ally, and have several Deaf characters.

I’m planning a future post on how to write a Deaf character, both historically and today.  Since I obviously don’t have the POV of a Deaf person, I welcome corrections and additions.

This is my sixth year officially doing NaNo, and I’m far from the only person who’s deeply unhappy with the new website. So many people are complaining and considering not doing it again next year, while others opted out this year due to the difficulty of navigating this revamped design.

I can believe there were serious tech issues behind the scenes, but was this really the best new design possible? And if they began testing it in January and still had so many bugs on the eve of NaNo, that should’ve been a sign it wasn’t ready for primetime yet. Supposedly these problems didn’t become apparent till a lot of traffic was thrown at the site all at once.  Why not keep it in beta and wait till after the big event to make the full-time transition?

Just look at these differences in the daily graphs:

The new graphs are just hideous! Too little info and not clustered together in one concise place. The new design isn’t very intuitive or attractive, and there are no bells and whistles making the changes worthwhile. Mobile users say it’s even worse there.

The site isn’t as buggy as it was, but our Camp projects from this year still haven’t migrated over, we lost all our buddies, the popular Faces charts can’t run till next year, Home Regions are a mess, and there’s annoying infinite scroll instead of manageable separate pages on the message boards.

They even went all virtue-signalling Woke™ by including a field for freaking pronouns in profiles!

I decided to take the stress off myself by continuing with Part IV of A Dream Deferred as my primary NaNo project, instead of forcing myself to fly through it with just weeks remaining. It feels right to publish this book in four volumes.

Part IV will be the shortest by far, under 200K. If I finish, I’ll make general chapter-by-chapter notes for the fifth book and go right into that.

Queens Village and the qalam

Copyright Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York; Source

Queens Village is a very spacious, green, suburban neighborhood in eastern Queens. It started life as Little Plains in the 1640s, and then became known as Brushville in the 1820s, after prosperous resident Thomas Brush.

Mr. Brush put down roots in the neighborhood with a blacksmith shop in 1824, and after achieving great financial success, he built a factory and a few other shops.

The first railway came on 1 March 1837.

St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church

In 1856, residents voted to change the neighborhood’s name to Queens, but both the neighborhood and depot were called Inglewood and Queens during the 1860s and 1870s. The former name Brushville also continued to be used.

When the borough of Queens was incorporated into NYC in 1898, and Nassau County was created in 1899, the border between them was designated directly east of the neighborhood. By at least 1901, the name Queens Village had arisen.

The Long Island village of Lloyd Harbor, formerly in Queens County but now in Suffolk County, was called Queens Village from 1685–1883. In 1923, Long Island Railroad added “Village” to the Queens neighborhood’s station’s name to avoid confusion with Queens County as a whole.

193rd St. war memorial

Queens Village contains the sub-neighborhoods of Hollis Hills (a very wealthy area) and Bellaire (the largest section of the neighborhood).

Many people seeking a suburban lifestyle and fleeing the congestion of Manhattan came to Queens Village starting in the 1920s. A great many of the Tudor and Dutch Colonial homes built during this era still stand, and attract a new generation of people wanting a slower, less crowded lifestyle.

Queens Village LIRR Station, Copyright Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York; Source

Like many other NYC neighborhoods, Queens Village too once had a large, thriving Jewish community, but today the population mainly consists of African–Americans, Caribbeans, Guyanese, Filipinos, Asian Indians, Jamaicans, and Hispanics.

Recent demographic developments include an increased amount of Asian–Americans and Middle Eastern Jews.

Southbound view of LIRR bridge over Springfield Blvd. and the Hempstead-bound platform at Queens Village station, Copyright DanTD

Landmarks include American Martyrs Catholic Church, Chapel of the Redeemer Lutheran, Hollis Hills Jewish Center, and the Windsor Park Branch of the Queens Borough Public Library. Nearby are Alley Pond Park, Cunningham Park, and Long Island Motor Parkway.

Remnant of Long Island Motor Parkway, Copyright Nowa at English Wikipedia

My characters Rodya Duranichev, Valentina Kuchma, Patya Siyanchuk, and Vladlena Zyuganova move from Manhattan to Queens Village with their children in the late summer of 1945. Both Valentina and Vladlena are expecting again, and they want a fresh new life in a more spacious corner of the city, with detached houses and yards.

Their children are delighted to discover each house has a pool in the backyard, though Patya is less than delighted to discover a little girl next door, Ruth Blumstein, thinks he’s a monster on account of his missing arm.

Copyright Aieman Khimji

qalam is a dried reed pen used for Islamic calligraphy, particularly creating those beautiful Persian and Arabic letters. It’s also a symbol of wisdom and education in the Koran. Sura 68 is called “Al-Qalam,” and describes Allah’s justice and the judgment day.

The etymology comes from the Greek kalamos (reed). In modern Arabic, Persian, Kurdish, and Turkish, it means “pencil” or “pen.” In Hindi, Urdu, and Bengali, it just means “pen.”

Copyright Baba66

My character Inna Zhirinovskaya receives, among many other things, a qalam set in a leather case for her 31st birthday in October 1937, a present from her admirer Arkasha Orlov (a prince by birth). They met in Aden in June, and Arkasha has been hopelessly smitten since then.

Arkasha gave her a lesson in Persian writing with a normal fountain pen a few weeks earlier, and Inna was mortified when she involuntarily gasped at the sensation of his hand over hers. She knows both Arkasha and her little brother Vitya heard that.

That night on the Siosepel Bridge, Inna agrees to be his sweetheart.