What They Learned: Lina Marsella ’23

For her thesis, the double major combined her interests in linguistics and Italian studies to conduct her research.

As a passionate student of linguistics and Italian studies, Lina Marsella found her academic interests converging in the studies of Italian dialectology and translation. 

“This thesis allowed me to engage in that field of study, through the translation and analysis of a poem written in a marginalized Italo-Romance language,” Marsella said. “In the future I hope to build upon the work done in this thesis to further my studies in linguistics, Italian, and translation studies.”

Marsella, a double major in linguistics and Transnational Italian Studies, worked with three thesis advisors to develop her topic, conduct her search and to interpret her results. 

Since this was a joint thesis, I worked with faculty in both departments – Giulio Genovese and Chiara Benetollo on the Italian side of things, and Jane Chandlee for the linguistics side,” Marsella said. “My advisors helped me develop my thesis by supporting my interdisciplinary work and challenging me to highlight the intersection between Italian studies, translation studies, and linguistics.”

Marsella’s project is innovative due to the nature of the text she chose to translate. The language in which it was written (Neapolitan) is rarely translated, and no canto of La vaiasseide has ever been translated in its entirety.

“My translation of the second canto is the first translation of an entire canto of this poem,” Marsella said. “This research is unique in that it bridges the gap between two fields of scholarship – Italian studies and linguistics – through the study of translation. Language studies and the study of linguistics are connected on a deep level, though their intersection often lies within theoretical or applied linguistics using a language as its source of data. With this thesis, however, linguistics and the study of language (in this case, of both Italian and Neapolitan) are connected through a cultural and socio-literary analysis of the social hierarchy of languages in 17th century Italy, by means of translation.”

Through her research, she learned that the act of translation is intrinsically a linguistic endeavor. In the process of translating, one has to interact deeply with both the language of origin and the target language, on levels both structural and stylistic. “Throughout my work translating and analyzing La vaiasseide, I encountered an Italian saying that has lasted with me – traduttore, traditore,” Marsella said. “In direct translation, this phrase means “translator, traitor”, and it represents the idea that the act of translation is inherently a betrayal. It is impossible to remain faithful to and “perfectly” translate every aspect of a given text; a “perfect” translation does not exist. Though this may seem like a discouraging idea, I found it very liberating, for it freed me from unrealistic expectations regarding the act of translation. In accepting that I could not (and will never be able to) create a perfect translation, I was free to focus on the characteristics and aspects of the text that I wished to maintain the most.”

Marsella’s thesis also prompted her to question the concept of a ‘standard’ language. 

“My investigation of the socio-cultural significance of Giulio Ceare Cortese’s choice to write in a marginalized, ‘non-standard’ language raises broader questions about what standard languages are and what it means to exist outside of them,” Marsella said. “It is a common misconception that a ‘standard’ language – a term with a convoluted definition – is the most sophisticated form of a given language, in terms of linguist structure. As my thesis shows, this is an oversimplification. In reality, the concept of a standard language is inherently tied to the identity of the speaker; linguists have found time and time again that the designation of a standard language is predicated on the social power and privilege of the speaker, rather than on the linguistic value of the variety itself (for more on this, I recommend “The ‘Standard English’ Fairy Tale: A Rhetorical Analysis of Racist Pedagogies and Commonplace Assumptions about Language Diversity” by Laura Greenfield).Thus, a ‘standard’ language does not only create a set of linguistic norms, but a set of social norms as well. In declaring what a standard language is, we are also declaring who can speak it, where it can be spoken, and what it can be used to be spoken about.”

Since graduating from Haverford, Marsella has made plans to attend Middlebury College where she will pursue a Master of the Arts in Italian Studies, as well as the University of Oxford (a Master of Studies in Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics) and the University of Pennsylvania (a PhD in Italian Studies.) 

“In line with my research and thesis project, I continue to find my academic interests in the fields of Italian studies and linguistics converging in the studies of dialectology and translation,” Marsella said. “This thesis allowed me to engage deeper with my academic passions and find new ways in which they intersect, which I hope to continue in my graduate career.”

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.