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I do not think it means what you think it means

Don't ever assume “I can” means “I will” – sixthousandsteps

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 here, 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 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
anti-dopingdope testing
barcoffee shop, café
basketbasketball
beautybeauty case
bodybodysuit, leotard
bookportfolio (for models)
boxgarage
campingcampground
cotton fiocQ-tip, cotton swab
far westlawless
fashionfashionable
feelingchemistry, affinity, on the same wavelength
fictionTV series
film splatterhorror movie
flipperpinball
flirt (noun)flirtation, fling
footingjogging
gadgetgive-away, swag
golfsweater
jollywild card, joker, jack-of-all-trades, trump card
liftingface lift
mailemail
mistercoach
mobbingworkplace bullying
montgomeryduffle coat
nightnightclub
parkingparking lot
pilefleece
plaidthrow blanket
pullmanbus, coach
pusherdrug dealer [current usage]
relaxrelaxation
scotchtape
sexy shopsex shop
shootingphoto shoot
showgirlvariety show presenter
slippanties, underwear
shoppertote bag
smart workingremote working
smokingtuxedo
socialsocial media plaforms
spotad
stageinternship
testimonialspokesmodel, ambassador
ticketco-pay
tip taptap dancing
toni [only in Florence]tracksuit
toptop model
trashtacky

7 thoughts on “I do not think it means what you think it means”

  1. Is funny how some of those also exist in Chilean Spanish too. Most notable is camping. It has the same meaning for us. Also mail, lifting, spot (for some reason we also use “reclame”), anti-doping among others.

    1. Some other Spanish speaking friends mentioned that too. Maybe because of similarities between Romance languages? Though some German and Dutch speakers mentioned it too so maybe there’s a European English as a Second Language that has developed?

    2. We use “reclame” in Italy too..or at least we used to. My granny had no clue what a “spot” was, she would say : la reclame

  2. thank you for this article. We use a lot of those words !!! :-DDD
    I don’t really understand why someone invented the expression “smart working” !!!!

    1. Smart working does exist but it’s just something else. Maybe they just wanted to put a happy twist on it!

    1. I actually like all three theories about why! People in the Veneto have commented that there it means only a mechanic’s jumpsuit, so maybe related?

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