20 Feb 2015

Languages cut out reality in different ways through words. Sometimes we are simply left speechless.

Senza parole…


This month, the ladies of the Italy Blogging Roundtable have decided to talk about “translation” or being lost in it. As an Italian and having taught English for tourism for a long time I haven’t seen it all, but I have seen a lot.

Italians are notoriously bad at writing English texts for tourists, mostly because they tend to translate literally without paying too much attention to the end result. I have had students volunteering at a popular festival in Montalcino, Sagra del Galletto, proudly showing off their official translation of the “Young Cock Festival” brochure. (No wonder they had such a great turnout that year! ;)). I have read “coperto” translated as “covered” on many menus. And what about that delicious “pasta to the wild boar sauce” (pasta al sugo di cinghiale) I saw advertised at Pisa airport? Once, a student came to class all proud of himself: he had been asked to translate the presentation for a regional sweet, the so-called “nocette del nonno” (literally grandad’s little walnuts) and had come up with a gorgeous “grandfather’s nuts”. Mmmh, yummy.

Of course, Italians are not the only ones to come up with funny translations. I came across this website a while back, The Professional Interpreter, and I had to use the example from this post in class, just so that my students could realize how important it is for a practitioner in the tourism industry to resort to professional translators rather than friends and acquaintances with a good level of English. Here is an extract from a hotel brochure translated from Mandarin into English:

Getting There:
Our representative will make you wait at the airport. The bus to the hotel runs along the lake shore. Soon you will feel pleasure in passing water. You will know that you are getting near the hotel, because you will go round the bend. The manager will await you in the entrance hall. He always tries to have intercourse with all new guests.

The hotel:
This is a family hotel, so children are very welcome. We of course are always pleased to accept adultery. Highly skilled nurses are available in the evenings to put down your children. Guests are invited to conjugate in the bar and expose themselves to others. But please note that ladies are not allowed to have babies in the bar. We organize social games, so no guest is ever left alone to play with them self.

Earlier this week, even the Expo’ blog made the news for its terribly bad English. Just check it out for yourself… even though I believe that the worst parts have been removed.

I do not want to focus on translation per se though, but on an interesting difference between the Italian and the English linguistic systems that, on occasions, may create “pragmatic” problems among native and non-native speakers of the two languages trying to coexist peacefully.

Contrary to what is usually believed (and is usually the case), Italian can be somewhat “politer” when it comes to discussing certain sensitive issues relative to what in Italian is called “convivenza civile“. This basic concept is itself difficult to translate and so are the many euphemisms which come with it. It basically refers to the ability to “live together in a harmonious way”, respecting each other’s sensitivities. English has “social harmony”, “civilness”, but none of these expressions convey exactly the same sense as convivenza civile.

The requirements for a “convivenza civile” cover a wide range of cultural domains, and basically dictate what is appropriate and what is not. Over the years, we have discovered that Italian has some terrific euphemisms that might come very handy when dealing with less than perfect personal hygiene habits. Unfortunately, English is not as kind in that sense… Such useful repertoire includes expressions such as “odore di chiuso” for common spaces and “odore di portato” for clothes.

If somebody says “qui c’è odore di chiuso” what he or she is really saying is “please air the room because it stinks in here!“. English has similar ways to describe similar unpleasant conditions such “stuffy air” or “musty air”, but nothing really encodes the “passive-aggressive” idea behind “odore di chiuso” (literally the smell of a room where the windows haven’t been opened in (way) too long”.

On the other hand, if somebody tells you the shirt you are wearing “odora di portato“, well, it’s high time you jump in the shower.

I find the way in which languages represent reality through words fascinating. It is the perfect reflection of the way in which different cultures conceptualize the world.  These expressions for instance are totally iconic of our culture: they put all the blame of the “unpleasantness” on the object that has a bad odour so that the person responsible for its poor state may save face. English is not so kind when it comes to assigning responsibilities.

And God only knows on how many an occasion this has left me speechless. Senza parole, appunto.

[This month the Italy Blogging Roundtable welcomes a new fabulous member, Michelle Fabio of Bleeding Espresso.]

Italy Blogging Roundtable

This is a post in a monthly series called The Italy Blogging Roundtable. Here you can find the posts of the other bloggers who participate in the roundtable. Our topic this month was “Translation“:
italy travel blog roundtable


  1. I’m unspeakably rude in Italian, because these subtle niceties are simply not in my vocabulary. Actually, I’m not that delicate in English either, now that I think about it… 🙂

    • LOL Well, me neither, but some delicate situations might call for a some face-saving euphemisms!

  2. I was thinking the same as Rebecca although I’m “lucky” to be surrounded by a lot of non-euphemism-using Italians it seems hahaha 😉

    • Unfortunately having to sit in classrooms with lots of students, I am often forced to use some of those euphemistic expressions… sigh! LOL

  3. One of the funniest mistranslations I’ve seen was ‘scaloppine al vino’ to ‘scallops to win’. I was so tempted to add an exclamation mark to the menu in question, just for added effect!

    And I agree with Rebecca and Michelle: I’m sure I probably go around offending people all over the place with my imperfect grasp of Italian social niceties. Mind you, I’ve been known to do exactly the same in English; only excuse there is malice aforethought 😉

  4. I sort of love that if someone smells bad, it’s the CLOTHING that gets blamed. Of course, had I not read your post & I had heard this, I would have just changed my shirt & not thought anything of it. 🙂

  5. Well….I will NEVER forget my really big faux pas when I was learning to speak Spanish many years ago. I said I was, (or thought I was saying, that is) embarrassed. I said “Estoy embarazada” thinking I was saying “I am embarrassed.’ Oh no, embarazada means pregnant! Hmmmmm….maybe someone who finds herself suddenly pregnant IS embarrassed???

    On a different topic from being pregnant I was reading an online Spanish newspaper when I clicked on the “Women and Health” section. It had been translated into English. The discussion was about the uterus, etc. The big boo boo was that cervical mucous had been translated as cervical BOOGERS! I laughed and laughed.


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