Short and Sweet

  • By Miriam Hurley
  • December 19, 2013
  • 4 Comment

I like to be helpful to my clients and welcome their requests with open arms. But it can happen that the demands of good English force me to turn down a client’s request, as I did recently when I was asked to make my English translation closer in length to the Italian original to avoid awkward page layouts. As I translate documents in which the readability and flow of the English are particularly important (as opposed to, say, legal documents, which are meant to be unreadable in every language), my English translation is generally between 10% and 20% shorter than the Italian original. Part of this is just that English words are shorter on average than Italian ones, but a great deal of it is because good English values concision and shuns redundancy. Other factors making good English shorter include a preference for active sentence construction and using verbs instead of nouns.

I discuss some of these “cultural differences” between English and Italian elsewhere. Both to help my clients understand why there’s this difference and as a reference for my colleagues, here is a list of examples of possible translations with a much shorter character count. Of course, the choice of translation depends on many factors, and in some contexts, I might choose a wordier option.

Other pithy examples? Add in comments.

In questo locale è severamente vietato fumareNo smoking
Il mese di febbraioFebruary
Il colore rossoRed
Il sopracitato architetto milaneseHe
Dedicato aFor
Infatti, infine, invece, anche, inoltre[omit]
È della massima importanzaIt’s essential
È possibileCan
Ha permessoLet
Era reso possibile daLet
Dispone diHas
L’immobile che si trova all’indirizzoThe property at
Basta pensare ae.g.,
Colgo l’occasione per porgere i miei più cordiali salutiSincerely,
ContemporaneamenteAt once
Ha acquisito uno spessore maggioreThickened
Procede a fareDoes
Ma allo stesso tempoYet
Modificati e alteratiAltered
Metà del secondo decennio del Cinquecento circaAround 1515
Vi preghiamo di reggervi agli appositi sostegniPlease hang on
Quando ci siamo incontrati per la prima voltaWhen we first met

4 thoughts on “Short and Sweet”

  1. Hello Miriam, “il secondo decennio” goes from 11 to 20, so “Metà del secondo decennio del Cinquecento circa” is around 1515.

    1. Thanks so much for the correction. The phrase was actually from a real text on Leonardo Da Vinci that I translated many years ago. Too late to correct the actual translation, but I’d just looked up the full original text and saw it was referring to something Da Vinci had written. He died in 1519 and though he was a talented man writing texts after death was probably beyond even him. I thought that the author got the date wrong but now I see it was my mistake!

  2. This is why I’ve always preferred translating from Italian into English (and not from English into Italian) in simultaneous interpreting! Because from IT to EN I had all the time to think, summarise the concept and translate quite effectively in English, while from the short (and often filled with acronyms) English sentences into an understandable, elegant Italian it took ages to translate each sentence and sometimes you only had the physical time to translate only one every other sentence!! 😀

  3. I did once come across a Language teacher from Sunderland who laid it out nicely for me: Italian is a Latin and Greek grandchildren, and both languages have plenty of lengthy words. English has a Germanic root, and as such it has inherited a substantial amount of short words.

    But that’s not enough to explain the differences. The most obvious one, which your list reminded me of, is that Italians emphasise baroque, overly rich language. When you grow up in that context, it comes natural to think, speak, and write using many unnecessary words. It just doesn’t occur to you that abusing language that way works against comprehension. I am in a constant fight, when I go back home, because all I read is overdressed with words to the point of nausea, and what makes me bitter is the fact that people don’t even realise it.

    So, I’ve stopped writing and reading in Italian. I even read works of Italian authors that are available in English—for example The Leopard. Conciseness is alluring to me, even if this long post may suggest otherwise.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

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