50 Shades of the Italian Language

Aug 5, 2013


Cinquanta sfumature di grigio

50 Shades of Grey

We were staying in a house in Tuscany filled with Italian translations of the great works of world literature (grandi opere della letteratura mondiale), from Hemingway’s Il Vecchio e Il Mare (The Old Man and the Sea) to Tolstoy’s Guerra e Pace (War and Peace).  As I scanned the leather-bound volumes, a paperback caught my eye.

With a glance at its cover, graced by a silvery tie (cravatta), I instantly knew I was looking at a publishing phenomenon: Cinquanta sfumature di grigio (Fifty Shades of Grey). This story of una passione proibita (a forbidden passion) of two young lovers ha conquistato le lettrici (has conquered readers) around the world–come un ciclone inarrestabile (like an unstoppable typhoon), as an Italian reviewer put it.

First distributed online as an e-book, poi in edizione tascabile (then as a pocket book), the erotic novel achieved unprecedented success (successo senza precedenti), thanks to word of mouth (grazie al passaparola).

The heroine, Anastasia Steele, is a graziosa e ingenua studentessa americana di ventun anni (a charming and naïve twenty-one-year-old American student). When she meets Christian Grey, giovane imprenditore miliardario (a young entrepreneur-millionaire), she finds herself attratta irresistibilmente da quest'uomo bellissimo e misterioso (irresistibly attracted to this gorgeous and mysterious man).

Initially Anastasia tries in tutti i modi di smettere di pensarci (in all ways to stop thinking of him). Then improvvisamente (suddenly) Christian shows up in the shop where she works and la invita a uscire con lui (invites her to go out with him) Each is incapace di resistere (incapable of resisting).

Anastasia begins to realize that Christian is un uomo tormentato dai suoi demoni e consumato dall'ossessivo bisogno di controllo (a man tormented by his demons and consumed by an obsessive need for control). She also discovers his gusti erotici decisamente singolari (decidedly unusual erotic tastes), which include detailed regole per obbedienza (rules for obedience) set by il Dominatore (the dominant one) for la Sottomessa (the submissive).

As I read through this tale of tensione erotica travolgente (overwhelming erotic tension), I found myself thinking of one of the three crowns of Italian literature: Giovanni Boccaccio, whose Decameron rivaled Dante’s poetry in its range, stretching Italian from the highest to the lowest levels.
Some of his bawdy stories sparkle with such earthy vitality that Italian coined the word boccaccesco to describe a spicy tale.

Author E.L. James’s exploration of il lato oscuro della passione (the dark side of passion) certainly qualifies.
The writing, however, doesn’t compare.

In a typical passage, Anastasia mormora (murmurs), “Sono tra le tue braccia. Baciami, ti prego.” (I am in your arms. Kiss me, I beg you).

“Anastasia, dovresti stare alla larga da me,” (Anastasia, you must stay away from me,” Christian replies. “Non sono l’uomo per te.” (I am not the man for you.)

Nor for me. I’m going back to Boccaccio.

Words and Expressions

fantasia erotica –- erotic fantasy

ossessione -– obsession

Sado – Maso –- S & M (sadomasochism)

scambista –- swinger

guardone -– voyeur, peeper

feticista –- fetishist

Dianne Hales is the author of La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.  Click here for more information on joining her for a week of writing, cooking, and savoring Italian pleasures in Capri this fall.   

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