Morning cappuccino at Caffè del Tasso on Bergamo’s Piazza Vecchia
What do a great Italian poet (1544-1595) and a great (actually, the great, as it was the only one) Soviet news agency (1925-1992) have in common? Their origin! I don’t mean the Origin as in my previous blog post, although translating for TASS (you guessed it right, that is how this only news agency was called) might have had something in common with Translating for Bob, in a metaphorical sense. No, I mean their origin verbatim. That is, their names are derived from the same word. So the answer is “both have the same name”, and if you, to quote another great poet of that period, ask “What’s in a name?”, the answer is that both names mean practically the same.
But before I go on with this riddle, I’d rather begin from the start.
This August I went hiking in Lombardy, North Italy. An one hour drive from Bergamo, the province’s capital, will bring you to Camerata Cornello, all along the beautiful Brembana valley. From here you can go hiking to higher altitudes (up to 2,000 meters) and away from the civilization. I was lucky enough to arrive at Camerata Cornello just before noon, closing time of the local municipal office. I saw the sign Pro Loco (a local tourism promotion organization) on the building which also housed the municipal office and the town school (you have to be multitasking in a village of some 600 inhabitants). Here I was hoping to get a map of sentieri (hiking paths). Unfortunately, the Pro Loco office turned out to be closed or dissolved altogether, but the three men in the mayor’s office (maybe one of them was the mayor himself, I don’t know), despite their hurry to get things done before going to lunch, did their best to provide me with all the available information they had. In fact, they gave me every English-language publication they happened to find in their office and the carta dei sentieri.
Among flyers and brochures was a 200 page, scientific-looking volume entitled “I Tasso e l’Europa”, a product of the 1st International Convention “The Tasso Scholars. Between Sorrento and Bergamo“ held in Camerata Cornello in May 2012. Too heavy for the backpack and generally not of much use for my immediate hiking tour, it was a touching gift nevertheless, and I made a mental note to read or at least leaf through it whenever the occasion would come up. So I did the next days. The place and the book got me interested.
“I Tasso e l’Europa” is a compilation of conference papers on the role of these two, Sorrento and Bergamo, and other locations in the life of Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). It was in Camerata Cornello where the illustrious, but fugitive Tasso family found shelter among the political turbulences of that time. The Tassos settled in Cornello dei Tasso, a small, medieval village, which is still accessible only on foot. It took me some 20 minutes to reach Cornello dei Tasso from Camerata, but, although only a tiny cluster of stone houses, made up for the whole trip.
Cornello dei Tasso
The Cornello episode in the life of the poet’s family is dealt with in the article “Bergamo, City of the Tassos” by Mons. Daniele Rota. The article also sheds light on the linguistic aspects of some proper names. In particular, it goes into much detail about the name “Tasso” itself. This is where the “breaking news” occurs. According to Mons. Daniele Rota, the persecuted exiles from Milano “drew inspiration from the name of the plant” (Taxus) which was also known as the tree of death and was believed to be dangerous to sleep under. “The assumption of this new surname… reveals itself within a few decades to be of a prophetic, magical efficiency. This name, which was adopted furtively by Milanese exiles in Bergamo, has become a common word… to describe everyday behavior and phenomena which have since become universally known… For example, the term “taxes” (tasse) is still used today to indicate a contribution due to the state that is responsible for public services. Financial institutions determine the banking “rate” (tasso). People use taxis as a mode of fast transport. In Russia, breaking news is delivered by the Tass Agency” (p. 168).
Oh my, breaking news indeed! I don’t have the authority to deny any logical (or historical) connection between the tree of death and taxi as a “mode of fast transport”, but a quick Google check would have revealed to the author that Tass Agency is a simple abbreviation meaning Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union, in Russian: Телеграфное Агентство Советского Союза (ТАСС). Sorry to disappoint you, Mons. Daniele Rota, but it was called Tass not to “indicate a contribution due to the state that is responsible for public services” and certainly not because of any breaking news it used to deliver.
So Volksetymologie lives on. Etymological fallacies, common misconceptions, and straight dope are still to be found even in today’s scholarly work and scientific publications. Does it qualify as news? There was no conspiracy between the medieval, mighty and mysterious Milano fugitives and the sinister masterminds of Soviet propaganda, but it would have made a nice story (se non è vero, è ben trovato, like they say in Italian). From now on, I am going to think of Tasso any time I happen to hear some breaking news in Russian. I will probably be reminded of the Italian poet also when sitting in a plane taxiing on the runway or maybe, occasionally, even seeing a taxi on the street.
It would have been a nice news story if the English translator of the article had made a quick Google check when rendering the “Tass as deliverer of breaking news” passage. Unfortunately, not every translator “vets the sources”, like they say in espionage novels, although I am used to believe that translators, in the rule, are more meticulous and thorough than the authors whose works they translate. Well, some are meticulous and some are not. In this particular case, the English translator obviously didn’t go to great lengths to check on the accuracy of the information he was translating.
No breaking news. I didn’t go far from Cornello dei Tasso either. Another footpath brought me to Oneta, the birthplace of Harlequin. I never realized it was not just a clown, a character from Commedia dell’Arte or a ballet enemy of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, but another grand Italian family (if you still believe the scholars). From Oneta I went back to Cornello and further on into the mountains. My initial plan was to reach Cespedosio (altitude 1,100 m) and go back to Camerata. But I didn’t have the time. It took me a couple of hours to go up the serpentine road to Brembella and then it was already getting dark. I had to go back, to my Smart parked near the municipal office (rented from AutoEuropa, I promised to mention this car rental company and their bargain prices…).
It was a very nice hike nevertheless. On the way, I was listening to the audio edition of Farther Away, a collection of essays, reviews and speeches by Jonathan Franzen. These are overwhelming stories. I think it was “The Chinese Puffin”, the longest one, which I was listening to on the way back to Camerata. And later on in the car, the whole way back to Bergamo, home of the Tassi.