Translating into English has a lot of advantages due to English’s status as an international lingua franca. Resources are abundant. You can find texts written originally in English on nearly any subject, which I assume is less true for those translating into, say, Icelandic. For academic texts, the author likely did much reading in English and has effectively translated the concepts into their language and you can often glimpse the ghost of English behind their words (or Google the ghost). The client is likely to know enough English to give you feedback (this is a mixed bag; if they have advanced English and some humility, it’s great; a little English and a lot of miss-placed confidence and it’s a time-waster). Early on, I remember a client calling me up after I delivered the translation and asking why I didn’t leave “testimonial” in English and instead translated it as “spokesmodel.”
As Tonia Botticella discusses in depth, English in Italy is tied to values of cosmopolitanism, modernization, and globalization. Under fascism, these values were out of favor and Mussolini tried to suffocate the use of English in Italian. When fascism fell, using English loan words and often altering them to fit the logic of Italian raged freely. The result is that there are many words in Italian that look like English, sound like English, but don’t quack like English. They are officially known as “false anglicisms.” Many are in common usage and so aren’t problematic for translation except that their shift in meaning in Italian starts to sound natural. For instance, in Italian, if you say that you have “feeling” — listed in the Italian dictionary Treccani — with a person, it means “understanding, rapport, sympathy, or chemistry.” But I think “feeling” (pronounce with an Italian accent) captures it better than any of those words and when I’m speaking pure English — to English speakers who don’t know Italian — I often have to correct myself, “There was just no feeling, or um, what do we say…chemistry.”
The real translation challenges come when the writer gets creative in playing with English. In the fashion industry especially, the essence of cosmopolitan chic, they like to take bits and bobs of English and French and refashion them into Italian. They also add creative spellings to create an extra layer of difficulty in researching these patchwork phrases to find how to translate them into real English. Sometimes inspired Googling — especially with Google images — can get you to their intent, but often you just have to ask the client what on earth they mean. Another challenge of repurposed English is when the text is centered on the English phrase. For example, somehow “remote working” became “smart working” in Italian. In 2020, for obvious reasons, “smart working” is the talk of the town, turned into various forms in Italian (“lavorare in smart”; lit. “working in smart”) and “smartabile” (“smartable,” i.e. work possible to make remote). One of my favorite clients did a short video during lockdown called “Is smart working really smart?” [spoiler: the answer is no], for which I translated the subtitles. He is one of the humble clients with excellent English so understood the problem and we worked around it.
Though sometimes this weird English and overuse of loan words makes us anglophones cringe, I generally admire the boundless creative invention of language in use.
The list could go on forever but here are a few of my favorites for a sampling.
|Italian False Anglicism||American English|
|bar||coffee shop, café|
|book||portfolio (for models)|
|cotton fioc||Q-tip, cotton swab|
|feeling||chemistry, affinity, on the same wavelength|
|film splatter||horror movie|
|flirt (noun)||flirtation, fling|
|jolly||wild card, joker, jack-of-all-trades, trump card|
|pusher||drug dealer [current usage]|
|sexy shop||sex shop|
|showgirl||variety show presenter|
|smart working||remote working|
|social||social media plaforms|
|tip tap||tap dancing|
|toni [only in Florence]||tracksuit|