Interview with Vera Gheno

Vera Gheno Picture

Vera Gheno, sociolinguist, translator from Hungarian and populariser, collaborated with the Accademia della Crusca for 20 years and with the Zanichelli publishing house for four years. She taught as an adjunct lecturer at the University of Florence for 18 years; since September 2021 she has been a Type A researcher at the same institution. Her first monograph is from 2016: “Guida pratica all’italiano scritto (senza diventare grammarnazi)”; from 2017 is “Social-linguistica. Italiano e italiani dei social network’ (both for Franco Cesati Editore). In 2018 she coauthored ‘Keep it on. Post, comment, share without turning off your brain’ (Longanesi). In 2019 she printed ‘Power to words. Why to use them better’ (Einaudi), ‘The dissertation. Ricerca, scrittura e revisione per chiudere in bellezza’ (Zanichelli), ‘Prima l’italiano. How to write well, speak better and not make a bad impression’ (Newton Compton), ‘Femminili singolari. Il femminismo è nelle parole” (EffeQu); the ebook for Longanesi “Parole contro la paura. Snapshots from isolation’. In 2021 she published ‘Finding words. Abbecedario per una comunicazione consapevole” (with Federico Faloppa, Edizioni Gruppo Abele) and “Le ragioni del dubbio. L’arte di usare le parole’ (Einaudi). In May 2022 he published “Chiamami così. Normality, diversity and all the words in between’ (Il Margine).

Considering your personal history, do you think that being multilingual and multicultural has influenced your life and career?

I think that being multilingual allowed me, from the very beginning, to “see” language issues with an attitude of curiosity rather than fear. I think that this has been a great advantage for me, because it has always prevented me from fixating only on Italian, always thinking from a multilingual and internationalist perspective.

Do you think that bi- or multiculturalism is an appreciated and enhancing asset for our daily lives and careers nowadays?

I think it is considered a necessity now. It could probably be argued that monolingualism as only key to understanding the present has become very inadequate due to the complexity of the present times – caused by various factors including globalization and the advent of the Internet. I also think that the cognitive advantages of a multilingual brain are often underestimated, while we persist perhaps on the mere level of linguistic pragmatics (that is, knowing just the necessary languages to “understand each other”).

What comes to mind when you hear the word “multilingualism”?

A sentence by Anthony Mollica, used as epigraph in the book by Paolo E. Balboni “Le sfide di Babele”: “Monolingualism can be cured”.

Could you please share with us how you approached the domains of translation and sociolinguistics?

My father, a Finno-Ugric philologist, is the person to blame for my approach to translation: he sensed that I might have the necessary skills for literary translation, and it was he who recommended me to a publishing house that was looking for someone to translate a children’s text from Hungarian to Italian. I realized I actually had that particular skill, but that I had never imagined I would. I came to know sociolinguistics thanks to my university professor, Patrizia Bellucci – a student of Tullio De Mauro – who literally made me fall in love with her field. The human factor is such a crucial element in this kind of dynamics!

One of your books is titled “Potere alle parole. Perché usarle meglio.” As a linguist, researcher and member of our society, what value do you give to words?

It has a triple value: that of serving as an individual linguistic act, and thus for personal well-being; that of being indispensable for performing collective linguistic acts, ensuring, therefore, a democratic maintenance of the social model; that of representing our means of understanding reality, hence, necessary to be able to decode it, to understand its complexity.

Being a translator, is terminology a part of your life? If so, how did you know about terminology?

Actually, I think I have always been fascinated by terminology issues due to the ongoing need to switch from a language to another, even outside of the work domain; in addition to that, the dictionary, be it monolingual or bilingual, is something that I have been familiar with since an early age. Plus, I read a great deal in the first two decades of my life: examining lexical repertoires was, therefore, necessary for me at that time; I think this has helped me create a sort of “terminological routine” in my existence. Reflection on the word comes naturally to me, so to speak….

A significant part of your work focuses on inclusivity in the Italian language. Do you think that studying and working with terminology can be of help for our use of language? Or mindset?

I think that dealing with terminology is relevant, because, as I was mentioning in the previous answers, a person’s well-being is also related to the ability to self-define, to call, to label. Therefore, yes, I think that reflecting on the words we use – or that we can use – is significant. Of course, it should not be for its own sake, but it should always be considered in its relationship, its entanglement, with reality and society. Otherwise, our lexical operations will remain on the surface, not useful for a change in our mentality.

Does language influence our behavior? Or does our behavior influence our language? What do you think about it?

I believe that the relationship is circular, that is, the influence is mutual, bidirectional. For this very reason, virtuous or vicious circles can be triggered between language and reality, between language and society.

Can you talk a little bit about how digital communication intersects with language in your career

I am a senior inhabitant of the Internet since I have been residing there since 1995. Over these years, I have been convinced of the great potential of the so-called new media, which we only need to know how to use. I try to communicate and popularize, however, I do not rationally aim at “changing the register” when I use social media. It comes pretty naturally to me to pursue as much clarity as possible, simplifying, when feasible, even complex concepts. I am lucky, for these 26 years spent online were crucial from the point of view of learning by doing.

Finally, can you share what your next projects are?

Together with three dear friends, I am writing a grammar book for the first two-year period of secondary school which will be obviously based on given criteria of inclusion of all diversity. Otherwise, I have a summer of festivals, conferences, and rest ahead of me. And I will submit a translation (poetry, this time) in September. I mean, I will not have time to get bored!

Bianca Pirrelli Picture

Interviewed by Bianca Pirrelli

Bianca is currently a student in the Master’s program Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg. She is passionate about languages, media, and identity.  She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Modern Languages and Cultures, with a focus on linguistics and linguistic mediation for tourism and business at the University of Trento, Italy. She was a Study Visitor at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament.