Several years ago I went to Italy to get away from a bad love affair. How bad could a year in Rome be?  

I hoped that three years of high school Latin and five years of French grammar and literature would help me with Italian–which they did. Tellingly, however, the intensive lessons in conjugation with another bad (also, handsome and charming) boyfriend–this time Italian–were more effective in opening the Mediterranean idiom to me than any native talent I might have had for romance language verbs.  

My new love was an actor and a translator, and before long, I found myself trying to give him madra lingua support in translations of Henry James. I think no other enterprise could have more quickly dramatized for me the differences between English, with its sloppy and richly elusive referents, and the elegant sobriety of Italian, refusing all ambiguity regarding the gender of nouns and their adjectival modifiers, or the calibrated demands of possessive forms.  

In Italian, I was learning, words can’t bleed into each other as they do in English (though the ease of rhyme and the lusciousness of fully spoken double consonants in Italian offer compensation for these structural limitations).  It always struck me that this irremediable rigidity of reference is strange in a country famous for its love of amorous intrigue and sleight of hand—for instance, no way to glide over whether the friend you had dinner with is male or female.