Let Me Vent

Italian… So lost in translation

“My daughter speaks perfect English. After all, she spent a month in England with a native family”. That was the quote that caused me to simply give up, and it speaks volumes about Italian culture and the denial so many of them live in.

It happened this past October. I was in a local barber shop in Soriano nel Cimino. The barber was telling me of the frustrations he had been experiencing as he tried to communicate with the American tourists that t=started coming over the past few years. They would come into the shop, looking for a haircut, but he had difficulty communicating with them. After all, he doesn’t speak a word of English, and it certainly helps to know what kind of cut your customer desires.

I certainly understood, and promptly offered to help him. I explained that I would create a list of common (and not so common) terms that a barber would need to use, along with their Italian translations. He could simply give the sheet of paper to customers and solve most of his problems. I had done similar things for local restaurants, an ice cream stand, etc.

Imagine my surprise when he declined the offer. He explained that he had been asking his daughter to do such a list for him, but she lives far away, is busy, and has had no time. He explained that his daughter had studied English in school, and was therefore fluent in English. I explained to him that while she may have excellent English skills, it was highly unlikely that she would have many barber shop terms in her vocabulary. After all, what are the chances that she learned ‘buzz cut’ or ‘mullet’ in her studies?
I continued to explain that he had an American sitting in the chair, and while his daughter may be fluent in English, it could never be at my level, since it is my mother tongue. Additionally, I was there, ready to help, and he had said that she had no time to help him.

That is when he delivered the line. His daughter speaks perfect English because she spent a month in England. At that point, it becomes clear that there is no sense in continuing, but it illustrates a reality in Italian culture.

As visitors travel Italy, they invariably notice that signs, menus, notices, etc. are translated so poorly that they are all but incomprehensible. This isn’t limited to barber shops and little local businesses. The problem exists in government, major corporations; just about anywhere you see English translations. You see it in airports, major hotels, government websites… everywhere!

It’s the pride. Why have a non-Italian do a translation when we have a daughter, or a cousin, or a friend who claims to speak perfect English? It may spill over into the belief that the native-English speaking person can’t possibly do as good a job because they may not understand the nuances of Italian. I really don’t know.

Here is another great example: Soriano nel Cimino’s tourist board has a website, of course. Have a look at their home page . If that isn’t enough, keep digging on the site and try to read it. The kicker here is that for two years I have been offering to fix it for them… for free. I even went so far as to re-translate the site for them, and e-mail them a list of the mistakes with the changes they need to make. That was more than a year ago. I have explained to them in person why “The lucky hilly position” makes no sense in English. I explained how “the ideal place where to spend” is grammatically offensive. Did they change it? Why not? Nobody will tell, but I think it might hurt someone’s pride, so it is better to live in denial.

OK, I just felt like venting. I’m done for now.

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  • MattMatt

    Author Reply

    I read your article and I have to say you’re damn right. I’m Italian and fluent in English and I always noticed what you remark.
    This is due to several reasons: your language isn’t taught very good in Italian schools and we don’t learn everyday language but rather a sort of “King’s English” that no one will really find; then teaching is based on British English while American English is very different.
    We sometimes have very bad teachers: just guess I had an English teacher on high school pronouncing “eat” exacty the way it’s written, rather than “i:t”, as it should be. When we had dictation i had a hard time to make out what the heck she was talking about.
    But most Italian think as they studied it they can speak it and they tend to translate literally lines from Italian thinking they’re the same in English and so you can find hilarious monsters, kinda “lucky hill position”. To be true, it doesn’t make much sense in Italian neither. Maybe they meant “la posizione favorevole in collina” or kinda. Well, they should rather translate it as “Favourably located on a hill”, or a sort of.
    A great problem is most local and State administrations mostly can’t absolutely speak English and they think a literal translation is enough to make themselves understood and make no commitment to do more than this. What’s more, who should check for a correct translation often speaks English yet worse than who wrote the text.

    When i say literal translation i just mean that. I worked on a government web site and i had to personally rewrite most of English company profiles i had a chance to process.

    One of them translated “rapporto qualità/prezzo” not as “product mix” as it should but as “comparison between quality and price”. I think it’s enough.

    And don’t tell ’em they can’t speak English! They’ll never allow it. You’re a citizen, how can you doubt authorities can? In case of a company the owner (in 90% cases it’s a family-owned business) entrusted of it his 16 yo son who studied English then he’s alright and don’t tell him he can’t speak English at all nor he could in one century!
    And they want to export on foreign markets..this is another story!

    Ok, this is my contribution, excuse me for its length.

  • Michael, you obviously don’t understand how risky it is to rely on a native speaker.