A little while ago Peter of Detectives Beyond Borders asked me about the original expressions in a passage at the beginning of chapter 7 of "The Smell of the Night," one of Camilleri's Montalbano novels. I promised him I would write about them, e ora mantengo la mia promessa (now I keep my promise).
Peter expressed a desire:
to see the original versions of the sayings that in English became "count your chickens before they hatch," "eat like a horse" and "sow your wild oats" in the scene.
Here they are, in the same order:
- vendere la pelle dell'orso prima di averlo ucciso
- mangiare a quattro palmenti
- correre la cavallina
In the original text the expressions are given in Italian, without any Sicilian influence. Montalbano gets upset at Livia, his eternal fiancée, for using a frase fatta (cliché, idiom) in a conversation and then comes up with the set of three examples listed above. You can read the the translation of the passage here, together with Peter's thoughtful comments.
The literal translation of vendere la pelle dell'orso prima di averlo ucciso is to sell the pelt before killing the bear.
The next sentence has to do with food. Palmento is the millstone (however, the Italian word most commonly used in this sense is macina) and the sentence literally means to eat like four millstones. Millstones don't eat, they grind, and in fact an alternative version of the same idiom is macinare a quattro palmenti, to grind like four millstones, i.e., like a mill that has four millstones1. The idea then is to describe a voracious person that grinds as much food with his/her teeth as four millstones grind wheat. (June 11, 2014 update: Jeremy of DoBianchi has written an informative post on the subject of palmento which includes some vintage photos.)
Cavallina is a young mare, but also the (vaulting) horse and the game leapfrog. The Italian dictionary I usually consult associates the idiom to the first meaning. Still, the construct of the sentence sounds unusual. I will tentatively translate it as to run like a young mare (unbridled).
When he first started learning Italian, my husband was intrigued by the apparent love we harbor for the numbers four and two, and he wanted to know why we did not use other numbers in the same way. Non ne ho la piu pallida idea, as my mother would answer: I really don't know. But it is indeed true that there are many Italian idioms that feature the two numbers, sometimes interchangeably. Here are four examples:
- fare quattro passi / fare due passi = to go for a short walk (passo is step)
- fare quattro salti = to go dancing (salto is jump)
- fare quattro chiacchiere / fare due chiacchiere = to chat (chiacchiera in this context is chat)
- fare due gocce = to rain just a little (goccia is drop)
The opposite of fare due gocce is piovere a catinelle, to bucket down (no cats and dogs involved). And speaking of rain, here is an image from my garden after a night of rain.
Final note: for an introduction to Salvo Montalbano, you can read this post or, better still, the novels that feature him.
1 I added this clarification after publication. Apologies to the early readers.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the mangiare a quattro palmenti audio file [mp3].
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