March 28

Antony Shugaar is a literary translator working from Italian and French. He is writing a book about translation.

Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi’s father served as Baltimore’s first Italian American mayor from when she was 7 until she was 19. I wonder if she ever asked him about Maryland’s unofficial motto, which appears on the state seal. After all, Maryland is the only state to boast a saying in Italian, “Fatti maschii, parole femine,” and Nancy’s grandparents were born in Italy.

If she had asked, I imagine Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., who was a five-term congressman for Maryland before serving as mayor, wouldn’t have wanted to discourage his daughter from dreaming big.

“Fatti maschii, parole femine” (the second word is pronounced with a hard K sound, “mask-ee”) is an old Italian proverb. According to the state of Maryland, the phrase translates to “strong deeds, gentle words.” Yet this is willfully misleading. The direct translation is hardly gentle: “Manly deeds, womanly words.” I’m a professional literary translator of Italian, but don’t just take it from me.

Giuseppe Patota, the director of the Garzanti Italian Dictionary in Milan, says that the phrase “has distinctly sexist connotations, and the translation proposed by the state of Maryland misses its literal meaning.” Patota goes on to say that the proverb “belongs to a misogynistic and politically highly incorrect tradition.” He lists similar sayings, culminating with “Chi dice donna dice danno,” which plays on the similarity of the words “woman” and “damage” and means, roughly, “When you say ‘woman,’ you’re saying bad news.” One Italian Web site listing proverbs includes the unofficial Maryland motto, with a wry attribution: “Anonymous Sexist.”


The Great Seal of Maryland (Courtesy of Maryland Office of the Secretary of State)

The history of the seal and the motto is complex, but like many things in Maryland, it all comes back to the founding family of the Maryland colony — the Calverts — and George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore.

Lord Baltimore was a colonist and a diplomat, as well as an English Catholic in the early years of the 17th century, when England had turned its back on the pope. The official story is that he named the state after Henrietta Maria, the queen consort of Charles I, and he did so at a time when he needed favors from the king. It was common practice to name counties, cities and states after monarchs and their wives. But many historians believe that Calvert named Maryland after Mary, the mother of Jesus. Virginia had been named after Queen Elizabeth, the “Virgin Queen,” a quarter-century earlier. Could Calvert have been thinking of the fact that the two states were now Virgin(ia) and Mary(land)?

Whatever his thinking, the family motto was probably adopted in Italian because that was the language spoken by most Roman Catholics. In fact, there is an early etymology for the motto that attributes it to Giulio de’ Medici, Pope Clement VII, a century earlier. Apparently, when Pope Clement came up with the line, he wasn’t a happy pontiff. He was traveling back to Rome from Marseilles, France, and expected to stop for lunch and a rest at a castle outside Siena. The warden of the castle refused to open the gates, however, and the pope was sent on his way hungry and dusty. When envoys from the city of Siena apologized, he replied, “Le parole sono femmine e i fatti sono maschi.” By which he meant: “Actions speak louder than words.”

That’s a long way from “strong deeds, gentle words,” or from “courage and courtesy,” a formulation of the Maryland motto that was suggested in the 1920s.

But former state archivist Edward Papenfuse is having none of it. After all, he says, when Lord Baltimore adopted the proverb as his family slogan in 1622, he also created a coat of arms that paid tribute not only to his family but also to the family emblems of his wife, Anne Mynne, a helpmeet and an intellectual equal. And Papenfuse points to the fact that while Calvert was traveling, both as a founder of colonies and as a diplomat for the king, Mynne lived in a house where she was likely to have met John Florio, a scholar raised in Tuscany who insisted that words have no gender (true in English, less so in Italian). Papenfuse believes that Calvert, a Catholic living in a Protestant kingdom, was accustomed to shaping words to mean the opposite of their literal translation.

This may be, but we are left with the words, not Lord Baltimore’s private meaning for them. After all, die-hard Scottish thanes secretly loyal to Bonnie Prince Charlie, who had been defeated in battle and fled to France, liked to drink to the British king while subtly waving their raised wineglasses over their water glasses, toasting “the king (over the water).” This is the sort of linguistic subterfuge to which even brave people resort when speaking openly is dangerous. Might Calvert have been launching a cunning dart at the Church of England by quoting the very pope who refused to grant Henry VIII an annulment, and thus began the split between the Catholic Church and the Church of England?

We can speculate endlessly. But I’m a translator, and all I have are words and their meaning. It’s up to the state of Maryland to decide what to do with its motto — and for that matter, the state song, which calls President Abraham Lincoln a “despot” and a “tyrant,” and the Union forces “Northern scum.”

Traditions can become embarrassing. Sometimes they need to be changed — or tolerated with a smile.

tony@paraculture.com

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