Italian vs. English

A Feather Green: Comparing the habits of Italian and English

Growing up in a small Oregon town in the United States, everyone I knew spoke only English all the time. It was pretty late in the game that I realized that there were other languages at all. Finding it already mind-bogglingly silly that other people had other words for the same things, I could hardly imagine that foreign languages were anything other than new words replacing the real English words.  Approaching puberty, the age of realization, I started to take French lessons. I remember exactly where I was standing as my teacher explained that adjectives came after nouns in French and that “a green feather” would be  “une plume verte.” Shocked, my whole vision of language changed forever.

Of course, this was just the beginning. Now, decades on, the fact that different languages are more than mere collections of differently assembled words is what makes my career.

Not just different words and different grammars. Different rhythms. And different habits.

As Italians and Americans might differ on what makes good pasta, an appropriate time to drink coffee, and whose cheeks ought to be kissed and how often, we also differ on what makes good writing or speaking for various purposes. Some of this etiquette is absorbed subconsciously, whereas other habits are drilled into young heads with the points of many red pens of adamant English teachers.  The voices of Mrs. Gauthier, Mr. Davis, Mrs. Glasgow still ring in my head: have a point, make the point, be succinct! I have never attended middle or high school in Italy, but after years of translating Italian to English, I am very sure that these specific admonitions were not impressed on young Italian brains.

“How do you say ‘blah blah blah blah’ in your language?” has two reliable answers: “It depends,” or “We don’t.”

For example, in Italian, when bidding someone farewell as they are going to work, one says, “Buon lavoro!” literally “Good work!” Its hope is that you enjoy your work and it go well. In English, there is no equivalent habit. The translator, who always labors under the complex reign of King Context, makes a choice, perhaps using different, fitting parting words [e.g. “Thank you!” at the end of a speech to businesspeople], cutting it out altogether, or explaining it in parentheses.

Contact with Italian culture quickly causes most non-Italians to kiss on the cheeks, say “Ciao!” and to gesture emphatically with hands in prayer position. As Italian-to-English translators, reading Italian day in and day out, we have to guard against absorbing Italian style into our English.

To help keep their differences in mind, with the contributions of my lovely colleagues, I’ve compiled descriptions of some different habits of Italian and English writing. This run-down should be taken without forgetting that what really matters in translation is context, first, last, and in between. The larger context includes the sector, the audience, and the purpose.

Italian v. English

Big Words

Italian, of course, is based on Latin. English is a hybrid with dual Latin and Germanic roots. Latin was the language of the clergy and the educated, reflected in the fact that to this day, its Latinate words are the fancy ones, and the Germanic ones, often signifying more or less the same thing, are the rough, common versions. [Examples: “veracity” v. “truth”; “lateral” v. “side”; “verdant” v. “green.”]

This difference presents a pitfall for Italian-to-English translators because very many Italian words have an English correspondent that sounds like it and has the same or similar meaning, but a different register (fancy word for level of fanciness in language).

Protagonista is “protagonist.” However, two people chatting on the train in Italian may well refer to the “protagonista” of the movie they just saw, whereas if an English speaker injected “the film’s protagonist” into casual conversation they would come off as snooty (or as a refined individual, depending on where your prejudices lie). Yet, translation, by definition, pertains to written language (“interpretation” is the term for spoken language), where these big Latin-based words may indeed be at home in the context (for example, in a critical essay on film theory, “protagonist” may be just the ticket).

Milan by Any Other Name

Italian, for reasons still mysterious to me, dislikes repeating people and place names throughout a text. English is happy to write “Milan” each and every time it wishes to reference Milan. Italian will present its readers mini-pop quizzes, referring to Milan variably as “the capital of Lombardy,” “Italy’s fashion capital,” “the business capital,” and so forth. Keeping us all on our toes and testing our general knowledge.

Fear of the Period

“Dear God, when will this sentence end!” think those raised on English when reading Italian. Where English writers are taught to fear the run-on sentence, to unload sentences of unnecessary words, the ethos of much Italian writing is the more words the merrier, and it has a very friendly relationship with the semi-colon. Cases have been reported of Italian sentences covering a couple pages. The labor of Italian-to-English translation involves much unpacking and reconfiguring of sentences. The meaning stuffed into an Italian sentence is often best spread over two or three in English.

Connecting the Dots

Italian believes in using linking words (e.g. infatti, inoltre) to explicate the relationship between adjoining sentences or paragraphs. English is more often comfortable with leaving it implicit.

More Is More

Admired English writing is generally clear, to-the-point, streamlined. Like Modern Architecture, less is more. Never use two words when one will do. Superfluous is bad.

Italian writing is more like Catholicism. Why have one saint when you can have five thousand? Why use cold stone when there’s gold mosaic? Why have one simple God when you can have a three-part one?

I would argue that this difference presents the greatest challenge in Italian-to-English translation, as Italian packs in the flourishes and words and information, while for most purposes, English too closely mirroring the Italian style sounds over-inflated and ponderous. Yet, in shearing off the fat to make the text fly in English, we have to take care not to lose essential meaning or flavor.

Here’s a post illustrating why Italian is often much longer than English.

Hegel and the Price of Rice in China

Translators are not usually invited (nor eager) to rework the structure of a text as a whole. The English versions of Italian texts, therefore, keep their deeper Italian nature in the organization of how ideas are presented. I was raised on (force-fed) the “expository essay,” which involved exactly five paragraphs and a structure as rigid as a teacher’s ruler. We were taught that even when writing longer essays the principles (thesis statement, main idea, supporting paragraphs, conclusion) were behind all good writing.

The typical structure in Italian is much more free-flowing (think: lava lamp). The number of ideas and references to German philosophers is prized over how these thoughts might relate to one another. This can present quite a challenge to the over-literal Anglo reader who begs to know what on earth Hegel has to do with hair care products.

2 thoughts on “Italian vs. English”

  1. Concerning what we were taught at school in Italy… I studied at the “liceo classico”, which was the most difficult high school back in the seventies of last century. Once, in a “tema” – a composition we often had to write to develop our thoughts on a pre-established subject – I started a conclusive sentence with the adverb “Quindi” (therefore) and my Italian, Latin and Greek teacher corrected it with many red pencil marks (a very negative feedback) and replaced it with: “Da quanto sopra esposto risulta evidente che” 😀 😀 😀
    My family and I laughed about this for decades! And my mother was herself a Latin and Italian teacher, but that was really too much for a 14-year-old student even to her ears! 😉

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