Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

The alphabet of impossible Italian translations

I work at The Florentine, where we do a lot of translations from Italian to English. Over the years, we’ve become quite the specialists in translations for the tourism industry, including texts about food, wine, places to visit, spas and the like. Personally, I’m not a born translator, and try to avoid this job whenever possible. On the other hand, our editor, Helen Farrell, is a court-registered translator who lives and breathes words and their conversions. She actually has big dictionaries on her desk, and not only does she use them, she has been involved in editing one of the most important dictionaries in Italy!

This month at the Italy Blogging Roundtable we’re talking about impossible translations, or untranslatable words. In our office, we frequently laugh about the language of tourism descriptions and press releases, with its funny phrases that are almost impossible to translate. There is a whole alphabet of frequently used words and sentences in Italian, the correct interpretation of which are the mark of the truly professional translator. I’ve asked my colleagues to help me collate this alphabet.

Impossibletranslations

 

A: Addetto

Probably the epitome of political correctness in Italy, an addetto alla pulizia is a glorified term for your cleaning lady (see also responsabile, below). You can also be a non addetto, i.e. unauthorized person. N.B. Never translate addetto as addict.

B: Bando

Plural, bandi. Correctly translated as “public tender”, this exquisitely Italian concept of competition for the assignment of a contract involves writing an extended proposal or even completing a job on spec, hoping to win the money associated with it. Not to be confused with concorso, which is when you personally apply for a job in the public sector.

C: Complemento/i d’arredo

If you’ve ever flipped through an IKEA catalogue, looked for the sections in a furniture store, or browsed home design online, you’ve found this category of objects that falls outside that of furniture: the complemento d’arredo. How to translate it? Try “home accessories”.

D: Doccia emozionale

Commonly found in descriptions of spa facilities, this one cracks us up. The “emotional shower” is truly impossible to translate. Renditions of Whitney Houston’s So Emotional spring (excuse the aqueous pun) to mind.

E: Emozione

Speaking of emotions, everything from a shower to an art exhibit is liable to involve the word emozione in Italian. Most of the time, we Anglos can simply remove the emotion, both from text and experience itself. If faced with translating “un emozionante esperienza tra natura e storia” you might replace emotion with any of the above: fascinating, amazing, beautiful, interesting. Or just delete the sentence.

F: Furbo

“Ma quella ragazza è proprio furba!” is half compliment, half criticism. She’s devious, she’s sneaky, but you have to hand it to her, buy, that girl knows how to obtain results.

G: orario Garantito

A two-word phrase that any self-respecting Italian commuter is familiar with. It’s a Friday, there’s a nationwide transport strike, but – do not worry! – because some trains will always be running at certain times and it’s guaranteed that you’ll be able to find a train home. The literal translation is “guaranteed hours” so to correctly translate this, we need to explain the concept the long way.

H: Herpes

It’s quite common for people to gesture to their mouths and not kiss you twice while apologizing that they have herpes, especially in the wintertime. If it’s on your lip, it’s a cold sore, not a venereal disease.

I: Immerso nel verde

This is a long-running joke about the style of tourism writing in Italian. Almost every hotel or bed and breakfast outside of a city center will be defined as immerso nel verde, literally immersed in green. To translate this, you’ll have to find out what green we’re talking about: a park, a forest… Then we can say that the hotel is located at the center of a large park, or at the edge of an enchanted forest, or simply that it has a garden.

Immerso nel verde - illustration by Leo Cardini for The Florentine

Immerso nel verde – illustration by Leo Cardini for The Florentine

J: Jolly

The letter J barely exists in the Italian alphabet, so when you have to phonetically spell a word with a J in it, you say Jolly (not Jello, with which Italians are not familiar!). The Jolly is a card in a deck (the Joker) but also is used in sentences referring to the usually exchangeable role of a person. Happiness has nothing to do with it.

K: Kermesse

A favourite of press offices, the kermesse refers to a calendar or line-up of events. Often these extend over a long period of time, with not entirely clear start and end dates.

L: Luminoso

Preferred lingo in apartment rental ads, in English, rooms are not luminous; they are well-lit, airy or spacious.

M: Musealizzazione

This Italian word is not even in the dictionary (we checked). Musealizzazione, whose literal meaning is “to make into a museum space,” calls for creative translation. Think outside the museum.

N: A Norma

If you’re buying a house, you may be comforted reading that the wiring is a norma. That is, it is “up to code,” not just that it’s normal.

O: Ospite d’eccezione

Every kermesse (see above) we translate seems to host an ospite d’eccezione, usually someone you’ve never heard of. The best way to translate this is not an “exceptional guest” but a “special guest”.

P: Prodotto Tipico

The “typical product” is the bane of all tourism translation, and all regions have so many of them! The best way to translate this is “local product” or “local specialty”.

Q: Questione

Possible translations: question, matter, issue, problem, point, argument, dispute, quarrel. Context is everything: the linguist lives in eternal hope of receiving reference material.

R: Responsabile

In job titles, everyone seems to be “responsible” for something. Responsabile della sicurezza, responsabile ufficio tecnico, io sono responsabile del social media di The Florentine… While in English it’s nice to know that you’re a responsible person, the correct translation of the job title will vary depending on what we’re dealing with. When in doubt, “head of” or “in charge of” usually does the trick, but it’s a descriptive rather than literal solution.

S: Sprezzatura

Thankfully not in common use any more, the word sprezzatura was used by Castiglione in his book The Courtier and is often cited as an untranslatable word (you didn’t think I could write a whole article without mentioning the Renaissance, right?). This refers to a man (a courtier) who does everything with calculated ease. Nowadays we would just say that he is “so cool”.

T: Tradizione e Innovazione

If you’ve ever read a description, in Italian, of any restaurant worth its salt, it will define itself as being “fra tradizione e innovazione,” meaning literally “between tradition and innovation,” i.e. we have updated our recipes to encounter modern tastes, but don’t worry, it’s still the same Italian food you expect. It’s a cautious phrase that embodies so much more than just language (see my review of John Hooper’s book, in which he talks about the fear of innovation in food). How should we translate this sentence? It’s not terrible to do so literally, but you might shake it up by extending it, something like “mixes traditional recipes with modern concepts” or “follows tradition while developing new methods and flavours.”

U: Urban Trekking

At least once a year, most regions hold an urban trekking festival. Italians don’t go hiking, they go trekking, and sometimes they do this in city centers, hence urban trekking, which they think is already translated into English. We are at a loss and have opted not to tell them this is not actually English.

Urban Trekking. Illustration by Leo Cardini for The Florentine.

Urban Trekking. Illustration by Leo Cardini for The Florentine.

V: Valorizzazione

Often incorrectly translated as “valorization”, this word is used frequently in descriptions of improvement or restoration of monuments, parts of cities, parks, etc. You also find it in the title of bandi (see above). In most cases, we can use the words improvement or enhancement, and sometimes promotion, though the translator must evaluate if the word is necessary at all in the sentence at hand.

W: Water

Potentially ripe with embarrassment. In Italian, “il vater” is short for water closet. If an Italian walks into a bar in desperate need of a water, here’s a tip: do not hand him/her a glass.

X: giorno X

Referring to the most important day for whatever (giving birth, going online…), we translate that as D-day, not X-day.

Giorno X. Illustration by Leo Cardini for The Florentine.

Giorno X. Illustration by Leo Cardini for The Florentine.

Y: “Y come yacht”

Like J, there are not many Y’s in Italian. Basically, just yogurt and yacht, making spelling my last name (Korey) out on the phone a real challenge. That’s why we at The Florentine made a video about learning the phonetic alphabet in Italian.

Z: Zapping

At the end of a long day translating, is there anything more annoying than your other half sitting on the sofa and indulging in zapping? By which, we mean “channel hopping.” Oh, the joy of false Anglicisms…

 

This article in The Florentine

A version of this article was subsequently published in The Florentine 208, March 2015, in paper only. Subscribe to TF at http://theflr.net/pdfsub

TF208

TF208

What are the funniest sentences you’ve come across in Italian? Can you suggest better translations for any of these? Let us know in the comments.

If you require truly professional translation services, contact Helen at The Florentine: redazione (@) theflorentine.net

Italy Blogging Roundtable

The Italy Blogging Roundtable is back this year after a long haitus, and February’s topic is “untranslatable words”. Your familiar crew of female knights is also happy to welcome a seasoned knight to the group, Michelle from Bleeding Espresso. So take a look at the other blog posts on this inspiring topic, I’m sure you’ll have a good laugh.

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • Rebecca Winke

    Loved, loved, loved these. Have had to translate so many myself….or, worse, correct word by word translations of typical, emotional houses of charm immersed in the green. Great post for the bilingual and non-.

  • http://www.soolnua.com Padraic Gilligan

    Great post! My own favourite one is “valido e serio” as in “una persona valida e seria” When you translate literally into English you get a “valid and serious person” whicj is itself hilarious!

  • vinsss__

    This post is absolutely awesome! But I got another challenge for you. Try to translate the word “strizzichea”. It seems a dialect or something but in my region, Campania, it is used when you want to talk polite with someone you don’t really know well but with whom you can be friendly. It’s easier than it seems! Oh, I love languages…

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Now THAT is funny! I haven’t come across that yet, maybe valido e serio doesn’t show up when translating Tuscan tourism texts :)

  • http://girlinflorence.com/ Georgette Jupe

    Loved this article Alexandra, also because it brings back fond memories of my own first experiences of words like ‘Doccia emozionale’ and ’emozione’ which I literally see everywhere for anything. Zapping is interesting, I haven’t heard that yet but that’s definitely a ‘false friend’

  • nina

    “Payoff”! In Italian advertising agencies they all use this word to mean the “tagline”. It really winds me up because they think they’re being cool by using the English word – which of course doesn’t exist!

  • nina

    Also agritourism… is that even a word?!

  • nina

    Just came across “Lo screen shot”. I guess the English works better here. “la schermata” doesn’t quite express this.
    One thing to remember is that the English language is the richest in the world with over a million words and counting. Italian only has 350,000 or so it limits a lot of subtleties when translating.

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  • Girders

    I believe (though I haven’t seen it) that there is a monument to a 17th c lady in a church in England somewhere in which she is described as ‘officiosa parentibus, uxoriosa viro’. Of course, that means ‘Dutiful to her parents and wifely to her husband’, but…

  • Girders

    When I was growing up, ‘Zapper’ was widely used in Scotland for a TV remote. Perhaps it was imported by one of our Bargagiani.
    Still quite disappointed by an experience at Fiumicio last May to discover that the giant ‘Passa a Wind’ poster has been taken down from the big space above the escalator down to baggage reclaim.

  • Marsha

    Excellent article! Both entertaining and informative, it gives so many insights into Italian culture. I’ve wondered if “emozionante” could also be “moving”. Thank you to you and your colleagues.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Martha
    For sure, emozionante can be moving in many contexts (un emozionante esperienza immersa nel verde – a moving experience in the heart of the countryside… that works)!
    Alexandra

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Well… can you come up with a better translation for the translation of the category agriturismo??

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Ah, maybe that is where Zapping comes from in Italian.
    We called it the “converter” when I was a child and it was a box with big buttons that went POP. In fact I don’t know what to call the remote control, I ask my husband to give me the convertitore, he knows what I mean!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi nina
    I wonder if this is kinda a false friend… or just wrong… they also use the word tagline. I kinda thought there was a difference between the two, but that both exist in adv context in English. We should do some research into this, eh!?
    AMK

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    I know!! All this emotion, they seem to get emotional about soaps, showers, exhibits… I picture a whole population, crying!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Oh yes, corrections, don’t get me started. Whenever possible, I try to tell clients we prefer to translate than correct already literally translated texts. Too often I have to translate back into Italian to understand the latter.

  • Michelle | Bleeding Espresso

    I’ve had quite a few emotional showers over the years, though never at a spa. Excellent work :)

  • Michelle | Bleeding Espresso

    Ooh a word I just thought of that always makes me chuckle…when a village is described as suggestivo. The dictionary lists “suggestive” as an acceptable translation, but…….. ;)

  • http://katebailward.com/ Kate Bailward

    We always talked about the zapper at home, too – seems like it might be a Brit thing :)

    One of the ones that drives me nuts is ‘toast’. I’m constantly having to confirm with my Sicilian other half whether he wants his bread as-is or toasted. (9 times out of 10, when he says he wants toast, he means he wants a sandwich …)

  • http://italyexplained.com Jessica | Italy Explained

    While the whole thing made me chuckle quite a bit, the line “We are at a loss & have opted not to tell them this is not actually English” just cracked me up.

  • Lynn

    I agree, first one I thought of. We sort of translate it as “evocative”

  • Miriam Hurley

    I have a collection of them too! http://miriamhurley.com/pesky/

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Oh yes, “all’insegna di” could possibly start this alphabet!

  • Un po’ di pepe

    Great list-I’ve started keeping one too. I was dumbfounded last year when I heard my Zia’s use of the word snob. She complemented someone who had gotten all dressed up to go out with ‘allora sai fare la znob!’ I tried to explain to her that calling someone a snob is definitely not a complement, but I’ve since heard it used quite a bit in Italian. I’ve even heard it as a word, although in this sense it was not a positive comment-‘mi ha snobbato’. Language is so interesting! I’ve always heard the remote control called ‘il telecommando’ in Italy. Ciao, Cristina

  • Laurel

    We’ve been “urban trekking” for years! I thought I’d actually made up that term when we used to hike in the hills of Portland, Oregon! Rome is good for Urban Trekking, too.

  • http://cintiasoto-photography.blogspot.com Cintia Soto

    Great article, In less than a week I read two articles about the Italian languages this is really good too about how the italians use a lot of english words than they can do in Italian http://www.libreriamo.it/a/10997/lingua-italiana-le-50-parole-straniere-che-potremmo-benissimo-dire-in-italiano.aspx

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Ooh, good ones, especially nervoso/a. This and anticipare are I guess false friends, though even in false friends we end up with words that are difficult to exactly translate their full meaning.
    Cheers, and thanks for reading!
    Alexandra

  • dejudicibus

    Well, that’s because you focus only on touristic jargon, but if you consider all terms in our language, I suspect you can find hundreds of untranslatable term. That is, you can translate them, but you hardly give to reader the same “taste” of the original term. An example could be “problematica”. :-)

  • dejudicibus

    Other false friends… pullover, phon, scotch (i.e. the tape).

  • Veronica Fae Fabbri

    nervoso can mean both agitated and nervous :) I personally find it better to say nervoso for nervous and agitato for agitated though

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi! For sure, there are a lot more words that are difficult to translate. I said “figurati” to another north american friend the other day and we were talking about how the sentiment of that expression is wonderful and there’s nothing quite as reassuring of the lack of trouble caused in English. Problematica is wonderful! That has so many… sfumature! In any case it was not super easy to find one word for each letter; tourism is not the ONLY limit of this article, though I encounter so much tourism PR writing in my line of work that it was the easiest to address. Thanks for your comment, I hope you take a look around the rest of the blog!
    Best regards
    Alexandra
    PS – false friends could be another article!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Thanks Veronica! In fact, nervoso is a wonderfully deep word. I don’t know how to translate when my boss comes in “nervoso”. It’s like a whole bundle of bad things that can only be described by a whole sentence!

  • dejudicibus

    I have similar problems when I have to translate from American to Italian. The point is that we should not translate words, but concepts, and concepts are often strictly related to cultural backgrounds. This is a serious problem for non-English writers as me, because even if our works are translated to English, the final results can hardly compete with native writers since the reader might have difficulties to understand the cultural context that generated the story.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Absolutely! I always say we don’t do translations but “cultural translations”. You have to understand what non-linguistic information is contained in the text and translate that as well as the words (and concepts). If I try to write directly in Italian, while some sentences come out okay and in the “shape” you’d expect in Italian, my thought process is so Anglo, it’s bound to be a simple and direct construction that reads as non-Italian.
    AMK

  • dejudicibus

    One of the terms that I have more difficulties to translate in English is “compagno/a”. Possible translations are boy/girlfriend, partner, life companion and so on, but they do not give an idea of the meaning of the word in Italian. The fact is that in Italy to marry and to divorce are quite complicated and bureaucratic processes, so a lot of people live together. In most of situations the cohabitation is exactly the same of wives/husbands — a real family, included children — but the fact that the couple is not married makes the difference in our country. So the term COMPAGNO/A means “we live together as spouses, but we are not”. In some cases, “partner” is misleading, because today is often used for same-gender couples, especially in USA; as well, “boy/girlfriend” are not suitable, since they mean “fidanzato/a”, terms that are not used for co-habitation (we use “convivente”) and are typical of young people in Italy.

  • Veronica Fae Fabbri

    phon sarebbe föhn in teoria, ed è tedesco, non inglese :)

  • gagiodilo

    I’m afraid you didn’t check properly. Musealizzare is in the dictionary.

    http://www.treccani.it/vocabolario/musealizzare/
    http://dizionari.repubblica.it/Italiano/M/musealizzazione.php

  • Samantha Assenza

    Thank you very much for sharing this interesting article. May I ask you just one question: how would you translate “go trekking”? Would you say “go hiking”?

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Samantha
    Trekking is generally “hiking” (questo weekend vado a fare trekking in maremma – I’m going hiking in maremma). Though in some cases it might just be “walking”. The difficulty is in “urban trekking” which is a very strange word indeed.

    The verb “to trek” of course does exist in English, meaning to walk a long distance, usually with heavy bags. If you walk across the desert that’s a trek. “I trekked from santa maria novella to my hotel in the 100 degree heat because there was a taxi strike” being an ideal example :)
    Best,
    Alexandra

  • Samantha Assenza

    Thank you very much for your answer. You are very kind

  • Samantha Assenza

    I think payoff doesn’t mean the same as “tagline”. According to wikipedia you can translate “tagline” as “tag-line”

  • Samantha Assenza

    How would you translate “suggestivo”?

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    I agree, payoff is not quite the same as tagline, and different from slogan too…

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Personally, Samantha, I would avoid translating the word per se and work around the sentence. People who actually ARE translators, which I am not, might have other solutions!

    I think the correct word is “evocative”.

  • Samantha Assenza

    Thank you very much for all your answers. You are very kind. Hope you will write soon another article like this because it is very interesting.

  • Max

    “un emozionante esperienza tra natura e storia” un’emozionante or una emozionante :-P
    As italian, I loved this article!!

  • Martine

    Thank you for sharing this post, Alexandra and the girls! I know exactly what you mean by “being lost in translation” sometimes (call it professional bias ;)).
    Italian is rich and full of imagery but it’s also soooo romantic…(“doccia emozionale” ah ah ah!)
    Happy to see so many posts about Italy in all of its different aspects and so many (foreign) people in love with this (my) gorgeous country! :)
    Going to lurk on your blogs, girls ;)
    Best,
    Martine
    (Translator)

  • Massimiliano Viel

    “B” is not entirely correct. “Bando” is also used as the call for personal applications in public jobs, such as a position in high formation institutions such as (public) universities.

  • jaro

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/pullover?r=75&src=ref&ch=dic

    which is a pretty accurate description of what I have in mind when I say “pullover” in Italian. Are you sure they are false friends?

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Thank you Samantha, I’ll try to come up with some ideas! The funny thing is that I’m not a translator… so these ideas don’t jump into my head every day like they do for my colleague Helen, who IS a professional translator!

  • toyg

    TheJolly is an interchangeable person because, in some popular card games, the Joker can be used to impersonate any card. As such, “jolly” is something or someone that will be useful in any situation.

  • FedericoMassi

    You have to study a little bit of Italian…
    – Y: Italian alphabet has no Y, nor J, K, W, X. We use it in foreign words and in texting (“SMS”); it should be funny to find Ψ in english words (as “Ψchology” instead of “Psychology”).
    – About “addetto”: for a literal, word by word translation there is Google Translate algorithm; for a professional one there is always periphrasis, or better “a professional translator” who could render in a language a concept from another language.
    – “Herpes”? It’s herpes labialis (HSV-1), not the herpes genitalis (HSV-1 and HSV-2). So, biology class was boring too?
    – “Jolly”? A good dictionary will suggest you “wildcard”. It’s quite accurate.

    P.S.: Near “water” there is always “bidet”, a French word very used in Italy you could find more difficult to explain.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Thank you for reading, Federico.
    I believe I have studied Italian sufficiently to write about the language since I’ve been speaking it in the home for the past 15 years, although I clearly do not purport to be an expert on it, nor a translator.
    Perhaps you missed the humour in the alphabet concept (I realize all too well that the Italian alphabet does not include Ks, my last name starts with that and also has a Y in it, again not exactly a popular Italian letter) and the stretch that one has to make to find a word for each in order to fit the concept of the article.
    I would challenge you to write the same article about another language.
    Regards,
    AMK

  • FedericoMassi

    Ehehe, is Javascript, Java or C# an acceptable language? Because I world write an article only about what I know at professional level.

  • Gloria Casina Di Rosa

    First of all this is not a post for translators, but it reports on some general reflections by an expat who finds herself in the sometimes difficult situation of having to write about specific linguacultural concepts and she is mostly addressing (tongue in cheek) her fellow expat readership. The fact that this post has been shared in a group for specialized translators doesn’t changed its intended audience. So maybe while she was getting bored in biology class, other people were getting bored in pragmatics and text linguistics class. Secondly, nobody has ever said that these words cannot be translated into another language by professional (or non professional) translators (as a matter of fact, the author and her colleagues find ways to translate them on a daily basis if necessary for the article they are writing). We are all well aware here that everything can be translated in a way or another through one of the many ways to process the text when “moving it” from a linguistic system to another, through covert or overt translation or one of the many translation shifts of which Catford has provided a fabulous overview at the end of the 60’s already and many others after her over the past 50 years. Sometimes, you will admit, certain culturally specific terms make our life a bit more difficult than others. “Impossible” here is used in the sense of “very difficult to deal with”, not in the sense of “not able to exist, occur or be done” (just to quote the OED that translators seem to like so much). And that they certainly are. Of course the fact that so many translators have interpreted the term in the latter sense is not encouraging. Not one little bit. Anyway, thank you for your fine analysis of Alexandra’s linguistic skills. I am quite confident she might put more than one person here to shame in many ways, but she’s too nice to do it. But that’s just my humble opinion.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Thank you Gloria. I love having a linguistics professor on my side.

  • http://italiaanse-toestanden.duepadroni.it Stef Smulders

    Wow, I like this as I have just completed my own Alphabet of Anecdotes of the Italian language (in Dutch). There are so many words that you can only understand when you have come across them in real life, by Italians using it. Great fun finding out these peculiarities!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Thanks Stef! This was a very popular article when it came out. I wish I came up with more of these things…

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