Thursday, May 28, 2009

Le Famose Patate

In Italy, I got my first look at the new edition of my book. The American title is Famous Potatoes and the original Italian edition, published 30 years ago, was Famose Patate. When I saw the new edition, two things were immediately obvious:
1. It was a high-quality edition, nice paper, nice endflaps, beautiful print job, soft almost leathery feel to the paper.
2. They'd changed the title. Now it is called Le Famose Patate.

So I innocently asked Paolo, the publisher, "Why'd you change the title?"

Immediately Seba, my translator, started shouting (in English): "See? I told you not to change the title! Never fuck with an author's title!"

Paolo, the publisher, shouted back: "It was the right thing to do!"

Then they switched to Italian and continued to shout at each other.

Hey, I was just asking...

It wasn't until a week later that I got the true story. It seems that in the last 30 years a new slang expression has emerged in Italy. While 30 years ago Famose Patate meant Famous Potatoes, now to the Italian ear Famose Patate means, um, excuse me but it means Famous Pussies.

By adding the "Le," it means Potatoes again. Don't ask me how.


  1. Hi Joe,
    It was a nice surprise to see you had stopped by our blog and left a comment.

    I'm looking for some more fiction to read, so which of your other books do you reckon I should try. And do you have a Wendell Berry (or even someone else) favourite? I'm currently winding down after a day shearing our small flock of small sheep with a small beer (on a day I usually don't drink alcohol).

    The reason your famous potato became the famous potato is amusing and would surely make your character Wally laugh out loud: famous pussy indeed! Learning French, we've made plenty of very rude howlers along the way.


  2. My favorite Wendell Berry writing is his essays. My wife likes his fiction and recommends Hannah Coulter.

    One time I tried to say "Salut" in greeting to a French person, but it came out "salade." Cracked him up. Actually, I had even worse misadventures in China, where you can use the right word with the wrong inflection.

  3. Hi Joe,
    I just read "LE famose patate" and I really loved it! By the way, it is not that adding "le" changes everything, it just makes it sound a little less ambiguous ;-)
    Anyway, when I was a child (and I'm fifty now), "patatina" was one of those silly but tender nicknames a lot of mothers used with their small daugters. So it could have been ambiguous even thirty years ago.

    I agree with you, Mattioli made a great job, the book is really beautiful inside as it is outside. I was wondering, though... is it a new translation or just a new edition? I'm asking because, being a translator myself, I met with a phrase or two that had me wonder. For example, not to change the "potato" subject, I wonder which word did you use for it (I'm really meaning "pussy" this time)? Because they translated it "micetta" (kitty) which I never heard of... maybe "patatina" whould have been quite the thing in this case! ;-)

    Anyway, I just came by to tell you how I loved your book. I will look for other titles, in English this time. Thanks for entertaining me so much! Ciao!

    Anna Tagliavini

  4. Hi Anna. It's the same translation, just a new edition.

    I used so much American slang in writing Famous Potatoes - much of it obscene - that it drove the translators crazy. The word "potato" has multiple levels of meaning (underground, common, earthy, taken for granted) but had no sexual meaning. In the USA we sometimes call a child our "little potato," too.

  5. Hi Joe, thanks for your speedy answer! I took a tour of your entries on Italy and I liked them a lot... although Italy can be a little more modern (but very often uglier) than that! ;-)
    Do not tell me about driving translators crazy, I just finished the third volume of the "Neely Trilogy" by T.R. Pearson; there's no slang to speak of, but... have you ever read something by him? If you have, imagine translating it!

    Hoping to have you in Italy again soon... you surely seem to like our country enough. Ciao!