Triggering a Spark: Italian Professor Donatella Melucci Provides Real-World Experience through Translation Project

Georgetown professor Dr. Donatella Melucci brought Italy’s language and culture to life through a unique project in her Italian translations course. Last spring, instead of looking back on old literature, her students actually took on a real translation project: the biography of Amir Issaa, an Egyptian-Italian rapper.

Melucci wrote about her experience in Words Without Borders.

“The idea was inspired by an event hosted by the Department of Italian at Georgetown University at which [Issaa] presented his 2017 autobiography, Vivo per questo (This Is What I Live For). … After the presentation, my colleagues and I gathered with Amir Issaa and his team for a very informal conversation, during which Amir expressed his interest in having his book translated into English. Those words fecero scattare la scintilla (triggered a spark), and I immediately saw an opportunity for my students. When I proposed to Amir—’a cuor leggero’ (Italian idiom for “light heartedly”)—that my students could translate his book into English as a class project, I did not expect him to take me seriously, but he agreed.”

Translating a current piece of work from a diverse source offered an unprecedented look into modern Italian culture.

“Throughout the project, it was incredible to see the growth in my students’ language competence,” she wrote. “They learned that translation is not just about words—nouns, adjectives, verbs—but rather about transferring cultural content from one language to another so that the reader of the target language can read it and appreciate it.”

The CNDLS staff caught up with Dr. Melucci to further discuss the course. Melucci is currently participating in the CNDLS Doyle Fellowship program.

Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship: Why did you think this would be a good project for your class?

Dr. Melucci: Since in the Italian Translation course my students learn about the theory and practice of translation, I thought it would be a good practice to work on an actual translation and go through a full process to produce a translated text. If the book is published, it will be a great accomplishment for my students. I believe in task-based projects, and this is an example of what students can do with what they learn in our courses.

CNDLS: Were you surprised by the outcome?

DM: I was positively surprised. We covered, researched, and discussed topics that are usually not covered in a language class. Therefore, exploring those cultural and social aspects of Italy was an enriching experience for all of us.

CNDLS: What were some of the challenges of taking on this exciting new project in your class?

DM: First of all, I needed to make sure that all the students understood the text. It was not always easy. Therefore we read the book together and completed weekly comprehension activities. The other major challenge was to learn about specific terminology about rap and hip-hop. Finally, it was necessary to create a “text” that was uniform in its writing style.

CNDLS: What was the students’ initial reaction to this project?

DM: Some people were very enthusiastic, others were perplexed. But they trusted me. During and after its completion, my students realized that it was a good practice and a meaningful experience. …

I was very surprised about the commitment, hard work, and care that my students put into this project from the beginning to the end. Also, I did not expect such positive feedback from my students. Many of them told me that they were able to deepen their understanding of the Italian language.